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Communications and Program, Working Together

At the recent Communications Network Conference, Kevin Corcoran from Lumina Foundation and I set off on a journey to try to bridge the divide between communications and program. Since we are both program officers, we began by asking our audience to rate their relationships with their program colleagues, identify how often they proactively offered input to program staff and share how many of them wished they were brought in earlier on projects. What we found was a group of communication professionals who were really interested in working together with program staff from the beginning of an idea.

Communications staff want to be part of the program team and not be seen as a hindrance or in the way. But how to do that? Become a “mole” on the program team? Take a program officer to lunch? Join the program team meetings/email groups? All of these ideas were raised in the group. One of the most popular ideas, however, was to have strategy sessions with program staff.

Note that says strategy sessions and not communications sessions. Communications staff have much more to offer beyond being “pizza delivery people” as one person described it – the feeling that program staff just place orders for press releases, tri-fold brochures (“what’s with the tri-fold?!”) and expect the communications staff to deliver.

That sounds great but what about when program staff don’t really know what communications staff do? How would you describe your work to a program officer? Maybe take her/ him to lunch, talk about your work and share your ideas about how you might work together. Otherwise we program officers will tend to wait until a crisis or just ask you for the press release or dreaded tri-fold brochure. We need to learn more about you and your work, and we need to build trust with each other.

That trust and ability to work effectively together can best come from many little, informal conversations that can add up to a big thing. Our relationship would not be built on crisis management, or “pizza delivery”, but rather built on authentic conversations over time. When you establish those relationships and trust it allows the communications staff to have greater empathy for the needs of the program staff. It also allows program staff to empathize with communications when they are told no or not now.

In fact, instead of saying no, trying saying “you are really passionate about this idea, let’s figure out the best way to channel it.” I love that language because then it does feel like we are in this together and that we have a shared goal. And in the end, isn’t that what we are all here for—our shared interest in the work of our grantees?

We’d love to hear more about what works for you in engaging program staff.

 Suzanne Walsh is a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


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