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Don’t Let Them Put You in Charge: Advice to the New Generation of Communications Professionals


Guest Post: Alison Byrne Fields, president and founder of Aggregate.

In August 2010, Bruce Trachtenberg wrote about the newly created Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, named for the former vice president of communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and that was soon filled by Ann Christiano, a former senior communications officer at the Foundation. The chair was created to better enable the university to provide students with the background they needed to “create and deploy strategies to advance organizations’ missions and goals in the nonprofit and public sectors.”

Earlier this month, Ann was kind enough to invite me down to Gainesville as a Visiting Hearst Professional, part of her mandate to “bridge the world of academia and day-to-day practice.” In my two days on the campus, Ann crammed in seven class visits and a keynote for students and faculty titled, “Awareness is Not an Objective: Social Strategy for Social Change,” allowing me to attempt to dissuade students from believing that social media could, without an evidence-based strategy, start the revolution.

The majority of the students with whom I spoke over those two days were juniors and seniors, typically anxious about the careers that lay ahead of them, their anxiety turned up a few notches by the currently dismal job market. I assured them they would find their way, if only they promised to remember a few things. Some of my recommendations are timeless and some are a reflection of the changing communications landscape in which we all find ourselves.

Please, dear child, learn how to write. On more than one occasion, I have sat in my office, wondering how someone who cannot spell, punctuate, express a coherent thought or make a persuasive argument — I can dream — is planning to pursue a career in communications. If I polled a group of employers, I am confident that writing skills would be near or at the top of the list of desired skills most often lacking among candidates.

Be curious. Behind every great strategy is a deep and thorough understanding of the people and institutions you wish to reach and engage. You cannot know how to take them where you need them to go unless you know where they are today — and why they are there. Lucky for those at the entry level, research — because it can be time consuming and seemingly tedious — is often delegated to those on the lower rungs of the ladder. Take advantage of this windfall; be the smartest person in the room when it comes to understanding their needs, motivations and goals. Let your curiosity, a search engine and the wisdom of your social networks propel you forward; go further than what was asked of you if what you are uncovering will ultimately be valuable to the project — and the cause.

Know how to define an objective. Awareness is not an objective. It is a step along the path that those you are trying to compel to take action must follow. If you are working on an issue with which they have no familiarity, you need to make them aware. But “awareness” is in service to a higher purpose: the objective. Change policy, change behavior. These, my friends, are objectives. Want a tip? It generally has nothing to do with communications, but is what those on the programmatic side aim to achieve.

Understand metrics: what they are and what they can do for you. The magic of understanding objectives is that understanding what to measure is sure to follow. Want to change a policy? Then success is defined by a policy change. But there are metrics along the way. For those of us who utilize social media in our communications strategies, there are metrics to assess reach, engagement, word of mouth and conversions. And these metrics should not instill fear in you about success or failure. They are there to help, to shine a light on what is working and what is not, so you can optimize your efforts and increase your likelihood of reaching your objective. Understand them and know how to measure them and you will stand out in the crowd.

Don’t let them put you in charge of social media. You, along with 800 million other people, use Facebook. You are under the age of 25. These two things do not make you a social media expert. They make a Facebook user under the age of 25. There are potentially some older folks you will encounter in in your organization or agency who are scared of things with buttons and who are even more frightened of things that are changing how they do their jobs. As a result, some of them are treating social media like a trend and a channel that the “kids are all using,” versus a phenomenon that is changing how people get and share information and relate to each other and institutions. And they’re putting junior staff in charge before they are reading, often leading to tactical executions with no clear strategy — or objective. Avoid the temptation.

What more would you add to the list?


Alison Byrne Fields founded Aggregate in 2011.  The creative strategy group works with nonprofit organizations and philanthropic foundations to bring people and resources together to create social and policy change.

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