Opinion: Communications - All you need is a leaflet and four other myths that stop you getting your message across

Nilam Ashra

Lack of time and expertise can make it nigh on impossible for voluntary bodies to develop and disseminate their key messages. Equally crippling, however, is the fact that many still harbour misapprehensions about communications.

Picture the scene - you want to know more about an organisation, so you pick up a leaflet about it. It's been photocopied several times and maybe even has a line scratched through an out-of-date address. You then venture onto the organisation's website, only to find that the content is out of date or that it uses a host of colours and tiny fonts that make it difficult to read. After all this, you're still not sure what the organisation actually does.

Unfortunately, this is all too common with organisations that have little time and expertise at their disposal to produce consistently branded material or develop their key messages.

The idea of spending time on communication activities is usually met with caution by managers, who prefer their staff to spend as much time as possible on project-related activities. Such caution is founded on a number of common assumptions, all interlinked, that create unnecessary barriers for organisations. Here we look at the truth behind those myths.

Nilam Ashra is a communications adviser and has worked for charities in the UK, the Philippines, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. She is currently researching a PhD on aspects of corporate communications with Leeds University Business School and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations via an ESRC CASE studentship.

n_ashra@hotmail.com.

MYTH - Sharing information means giving away your power

This is probably the most damaging myth of all. For voluntary organisations, sharing information with the individuals and groups they seek to represent is a key role. Unfortunately, information is often not shared internally because individuals or departments do not want to relinquish power.

A colleague recently remarked that organisations find it hard to share information with partners if employees can't even bring themselves to talk openly to each other about their work. Essentially, this is an issue of trust. People withhold information if they are wary about what others would do with it.

Ultimately, this could create suspicion among staff and lead to duplication of roles and effort. Keeping information within a small clique serves no purpose, ensuring only a minority are in a position to consider what is best for the organisation.

When it comes to sharing information, it is often assumed that everyone should be told everything. This is not the case. When information is passed on, the message should come from one reputable source and should not be filtered by senior managers, who might have their own agendas. It's also important that everyone gets the same message at the same time.

Open communication systems that encourage staff to share information are simple to set up and will create trust and loyalty and increase morale.

Send regular email updates to all staff, including news about meetings that people have attended, the status of any funding bids, training opportunities, social events, internal vacancies and organisational changes.

MYTH - Communication is easy - anyone can do it

Communication is a technical skill; producing and adapting documents for internal, external, print and online activities is not easy. Overseeing these activities, so that they convey a consistent message about your organisation, requires additional skills.

The myth that 'anyone can do it' is given undeserved credence by employers that do not acknowledge communication activities within job descriptions or allocate core funding to specific communication roles. Funders are just as guilty of pushing it down the list of priorities by rarely offering long-term funding for such positions.

This is particularly detrimental to organisations that raise awareness as part of their mission.

It is easy to believe communication is simple because we speak and write emails, letters and reports every day. But you only have to look at some of the examples publicised by the Plain English Campaign to realise that we are not writing or presenting information to the best of our ability.

Good training is important, and no one is exempt. The worst culprits are often managers who have got to their positions with little training and who foster a similar culture by offering no training to staff. Training for new recruits and refresher courses for all staff are good ways to keep skills relevant.

The Media Trust offers robust training to the voluntary sector, as well as advice on all aspects of internal and external communication - it can even pair you up with an adviser free of charge. It's also worth looking at what the Chartered Institute of Public Relations can offer, particularly given that communications is increasingly being seen as a management function - something that the sector and funding bodies have yet to fully understand.

MYTH - It's all about external publicity

We tend to think that publicity is the core of all communication activity.

We believe this because it's easy to focus our energy on producing something tangible, such as a leaflet, because this is a clear output that funders can tick off their list. But publicity is only one element of communication, which can be split into internal and external activities. And each of these areas can be divided into print and online communication, which broadens the scope considerably.

Internally, the focus should be on setting up and maintaining two-way communication streams. Give staff the chance to contribute ideas to senior management on a regular basis, and make sure they take part in helping to shape the future.

Start by creating a skills map of your organisation, because a wealth of skill and information lies untapped. We are defined by our job titles, but scratch the surface and you'll find that staff have entrepreneurial, language and technical skills to contribute and are waiting to be asked.

Think how much more you'd achieve if you pooled your skills, knowledge and experience.

Externally, think outside the box. Use your influence with local authorities, civil servants and local celebrities to get your agenda into the mainstream.

If you don't have a relationship with anyone of influence, don't be shy about courting them. When you're building your relationships, stay true to your cause - this will build credibility. Conduct relevant research and publicise the findings through sector magazines, websites, the Community Channel, local radio and newspapers.

Concentrate on getting the right message to the right audience at the right time, using the appropriate channels - it's not all about external publicity.

MYTH - If you're talking, you're communicating Scott Adams' Dogbert... inspired the myth that whenever we open our mouths we impart a definite, easily understood message and actively listen to others. Sadly, this is not always the case. People are losing the skill to listen like this and to respond accordingly, particularly in meetings and negotiations that stretch our energy and patience.

Listening is a disciplined task - we often zone out when we hear something we don't agree with. In listening only to the first half of an argument, we assume we know what's coming and make up our minds before the argument is even complete. We often miss the broader agenda in favour of our own and spend any non-active listening time thinking up arguments to support our positions. Popular philosophy would tell us to listen to the voice.

Although seen by some as cliched, techniques such as brainstorming are effective in ensuring that complete arguments are considered - only, however, when done correctly. I recently sat through a planning meeting with a team of eight people, at which only the three senior managers had control over the brainstorming process. Consequently, it was their vision that was pushed forward, because they were privy to information they did not want to share with their team.

Paraphrasing, often used by counsellors, is a good technique for checking that what you have heard is what the other person means. This is a good way to sharpen the skills of everyone involved, because it can sort out everyone's perception of an argument. I'm constantly surprised by the number of projects that go unchecked on the basis of unspoken assumptions.

Paraphrasing can help unpack a lot of these before it's too late.

MYTH - All you need is a leaflet

More often than not, we turn to the good, old-fashioned leaflet to deliver our message. It's cheap, you can copy it and it won't take long to knock one up using whatever software you have in your office. Take a good look next time you attend a course or visit a community centre, and make a note of the number of leaflets and posters that stand out and why they have attracted your attention.

Leaflets, posters and other external publicity materials often contain out-of-date information, are poorly designed and do not convey what organisations actually offer and need in return. Continual accurate exposure to what you are offering is critical if you want volunteers and donors to support your cause.

Written and online campaigns are more likely to be successful if they offer an opportunity for carefully selected audiences to act on your message when prompted. The fundraising campaigns of Oxfam or Christian Aid are good examples of this.

Organisations should explore as many communication techniques as possible through a communications strategy. Lots of strategy templates are available online - local authority and education-related websites have completed communication strategies that will give you ideas for potential partnerships and using resources in kind.

Use the templates to help you work out what resources you need. Give your staff space to focus, do these tasks and experiment with media. Look at every possible space for writing your key message, a success story or some statistics to support your cause. Above all, don't rely on a generic leaflet to get people to respond. Research your audience, target them and tell them what you want them to do.

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