Being a critical friend

I feel really lucky about working in communications/PR, in particular feeling a clear sense of being part of a profession, especially one where members are passionate about supporting one another. Recognising where we do creative and effective work and celebrating each others successes.

I also feel lucky that the profession I work in produces work that can have a profound impact on people’s lives. Giving people the information they need, supporting organisations to achieve their strategic objectives and helping shape behaviour that improves lives.

But that’s communications/PR that works as we would want. There is a flip side where comms isn’t effective and doesn’t achieve the impact we aimed for or in some cases achieves an impact that is detrimental to people’s lives. Some of the time the outcome of this might be less visits to a particular web page or people missing their bin collection date. But in some situations, including a pandemic, poor comms can lead to the most extreme of bad outcomes.

There’s a question then for us as a profession. When we see bad comms, where is the balance between supporting our colleagues and criticising it. And how should we do either.

Part of how we approach answering that question is thinking about the role of communications/PR within an organisation. Many of us aspire for our profession to be viewed as a strategic management function, driving decision making, setting the narrative and playing a leadership role. However in many organisations the reality could be far from that, with comms teams having very little influence over policy and message, instead being seen solely as a service to communicate a pre-determined message to an audience. If members of our profession have very little control over the work they need to deliver where is the value of criticism, no matter how valid?

Balanced against that, is a commitment as a profession, to improve what we do through understanding the impact of our work. Coupled with a wider responsibility as citizens to call out things that cause harm on a significant scale.

And overall we need to always consider the well being of our colleagues. Who are most likely working under significant pressure, and recognise what they are being asked to do may not be the best thing.

So when answering the question about whether, when and how to offer criticism maybe we need to start by considering the following:

  • What positive impact can our criticism achieve?
  • What harm might the criticism produce?
  • How empowered are the people delivering the work?

And maybe above and beyond offering criticism for individual pieces of work, we as a profession should double our efforts to make the case for communications/PR to be that strategic management function, to judge our work on positive outcomes, be integral to our organisations strategies and gain respect for our profession. That way we can make sure our work is always as good as we know it can be.

Hope you’re all doing well and keeping safe.


1 Comment

  1. Thanks Sam. Interesting article. This is complicated stuff, not easy to deliver such nuances in messaging at scale and at significant pace, to every person in the country during the worst crisis since WW2, persuading audiences to rapidly move from one set of behaviours to the next when health and lives are at stake. Professional comms colleagues who have been in the thick of it at the heart of the battle (pardon the war rhetoric) will I am sure have their own take and reasoning on things that they aren’t able to air or comment on like other colleagues. I see no issue in providing constructive feedback and commentary on the strategic comms approach, but equally I think we should also give colleagues a bit of slack given this is the biggest comms challenges our professional colleagues have ever faced. I’m sure they are smart and experienced enough to understand where things could have been better, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    Stay safe.


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