Skip to Content
10 Min Read

A Communicator in the Room: In Conversation PJ Crowley


  • Although the imperative to communicate exists for many organizations, a culture of communication can be lacking. To improve, find the balance between the need and the desire to communicate.
  • Communicators always deserve a seat at the table when big decisions are made. To prevent problems from becoming crises, a communicator should be present in day-to-day decisions, so that they have the background information necessary to mitigate a crisis.
  • Trust that your organization has a receptive audience, and use communication tools to further your mission.

PJ Crowley served in the Obama Administration as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and in the Clinton White House as Senior Director of Public Affairs for the National Security Council and Special Assistant to the President. He is now a Fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communications. He spoke with The Communications Network about lessons learned over the course of his lengthy career in high stakes global communications. Follow him on Twitter @PJCrowley.


Transcript Part 1 of 2

Click here to read Part 2

Sean Gibbons: How do you define the word ‘communication’?

PJ Crowley: ‘Communication’ is the sender of a message communicating to a desired receiver through a particular channel. You can climb on Google and up will come a variety of communication models that tell you how the process works. When you break that down, the question is, what is the sender trying to accomplish with the communication? How does the message get translated through a particular channel? Does the receiver on the other end hear the same thing, or do you achieve the shared meaning, which is ultimately the purpose of a communication in the first place? Obviously, part of the unknown is what is the communication environment in which this transaction is taking place? That can shape perceptions of the message in very dramatic ways, depending on the context.

Sean Gibbons: You had a long career in government, what are some of the big lessons from your career that you think might be valuable to share with others?

PJ Crowley: Government, as a large entity, recognizes an obligation to communicate, but the question is, does it do so willingly? Where you get the intersection of policy, which is you have the imperative to communicate, but then politics, where you have the instinct to communicate, it is at that juncture, ironically, that you get the best of both worlds, that there’s an obligation and then there’s the desire to communicate for a variety of reasons, including: if you’re an elected official you want to get reelected; if you’re an advocate for a particular program, you want to get that program funded.

I think the challenge for any organization is first developing a culture of communication and, even where it’s obligatory, it’s not necessarily something that an organization is good at. What you really want to do is not only recognize the need to communicate, recognize the value of communication and then develop an understanding of how to communicate, what to communicate in order to achieve objectives that you want.

Sean Gibbons: One question that seems to confound lots of folks in this space is a pretty simple one: how do you know if you’re making a difference? In other words, how do you measure impact?

PJ Crowley:  Measurement of communication can be difficult, but I think it’s having realistic objectives at the outset, recognizing that your communication is important, having something you think you can achieve through the communication. For the most part, you have to have realistic understanding of what communication can achieve. 

In the advertising space, for example, if you have a good ad, it sends people off to buy your product. That’s the ideal, but the first step is that you’re trying to increase the exposure of your product so that, as people are in need to buy a car, first and foremost at least they think of your car. Now, if that also impels them to at least get to the showroom, your communication is successful. Ultimately, if they buy the car, it’s less about the communication; it’s really more about the car (laughs). So, can the communication create an understanding and appreciation of your product so that, as people are sorting through this particular issue, this particular product, they think of your communication; they think of your product? In that particular case, that’s a successful communication. Whether they ultimately buy the car or not is a separate transaction.

Sean Gibbons: My understanding and my experience tells me that communications often had a seat at the table when big decisions were being made in government. Is that true? And is that a model for every organization? 

PJ Crowley: It is the greatest challenge, I think, for communicators. It’s not so much that you’re at the table. The question is, at what juncture? I teach a course in crisis communication, and I make a point to my students that “Your success or failure in communicating during crisis is predicated to a significant extent on how communication is viewed on a day-to-day basis outside of the crisis and what preparation your organization has gone through to put you in the best position to manage crisis and communicate effectively in the middle of that.”

In a crisis, for example, the first question is, at what point will they tell you there’s a problem? Edward R. Murrow, the famous CBS journalist who later became the head of the United States Information Agency under President Kennedy, once remarked, “If you want me there for the crash landing, I have to be there for the takeoff.” Ideally, if an organization is making a big decision, there’s a communicator in the room, and then as soon as there is a problem that is significant within the organization, the communicator is brought in and is looking at the communication implications of how the organization can respond. In many cases, ideally, the communication can take a problem and mitigate it before it becomes a crisis … not always. 

All of this preparation starts with the day-to-day. If there’s something important that’s going on in the organization, is there a communicator that’s involved in that process? If that’s true, then chances are you’re going to be a successful organization. Unfortunately, in most cases in the day-to-day policy world, communicators aren’t in the room. Then there are assumptions made; they may be debatable assumptions. Only when the process develops and the problem blossoms into a crisis, then the communicator is brought in to say, “Fix it”; but the problem, perhaps, would have been less significant and the fix would be less arduous had the communicator been part of the process all along. 

Sean Gibbons: You’ve gotten to witness and play a significant role in a lot of change in the way that communication happens at the highest levels in Washington. What do you think about the developments of the last 10, 15, 20 years in terms of how information is shared, in terms of how it moves?  If you had a chance to step back and reflect, what are the things that interest you about what’s occurred? 

PJ Crowley: On the one hand, the information environment has expanded. It is, to some extent, about a needle in a haystack. On the other hand, the opportunities have expanded as well. So, for an organization that’s looking for media coverage of something that they feel is important, in the old environment you were a little bit of a hostage to the agendas of a trade publication or a major publication. There was an orderly process there. You’d have to convince a trade magazine to publish something about your thing. If that was a good story, maybe it would attract the attention of the daily newspaper, and if that went well, perhaps it would attract the attention of a television network.

That model is still there; but, in many respects, an organization is not entirely dependent on the trade publications to start that process. An entity can now on social media start a conversation and build a constituency around an important issue. If that conversation is interesting, the media will be drawn into that conversation. So, getting the big score may be more challenging today; but, being able to use communication tools to advance an important issue or an important agenda in many respects is easier today to do, because you’re now more empowered, just as an individual is empowered. There’s no barrier to entry into the global communication network. What you need is a good organization, a good story, a good communicator, and you’ll find an audience.

Sean Gibbons: What do you say to those organizations that say, “We get that communication is important, but we don’t understand where we need to start if we want to shift the way that we approach this work,” or “We want to invest in it further.” How do you move forward?

PJ Crowley: Trust your organization. Trust that what you’re doing and the very reasons that you think something is important there is a constituency out there that will agree with you. Now, there could also be a constituency out there that will disagree with you. That’s okay. That’s okay. I think what we’re trying to do is start a conversation, and that conversation can now start a little easier.

You don’t have to try to assemble a group physically, organize a meeting, organize a conference, get people there and then hope that the media covers it. Now you can start a conversation online. You can expand that conversation with a physical meeting if it makes sense. You can expand that meeting on Skype. Now you have a video recording of something, and then you slice and dice and find ways to just put out information, find a parking space for that information, and then the audience in many cases will be drawn to that. We live in a networked world, and it is about building a network one web at a time and then expanding it.

It is making the commitment to begin to communicate on a daily basis, on an hourly basis: “There’s something that we’re doing that’s going to be important for a reason.” Then find ways to communicate that. Pictures do, as they say, mean a thousand words. We live in a world that’s driven by imagery and attracted to imagery. So, if you have something important to say, you can convey that. Particularly, if you can convey that through an image or a video, you have great opportunities ahead of you, but you’ve just got to make a commitment to have a conversation around something that you think is important and trust that, if your judgement is correct, you’ll build a constituency for that conversation.


* indicates required

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member