5 Common mistakes to avoid as a communications professional

I was on a call last recently with four senior communications professionals in Nigeria, and the conversation we had over the course of the meeting made me reflect on some mistakes I have learnt to avoid in my continuing journey as a communications strategist and trusted adviser.

1.0. Going into conversations with a “template-mentality”

I see this all the time both with agency and full-time colleagues. This is when you go into conversations already having in mind a box-of-tricks to draw from in solving business/client problems. While this may be acceptable in the first few years of practice, as you become a business leader, communications discipline lead, or CEO, this is absolutely not the way to go.

After attending an excellent training on business partnering at my former place of work many years ago, one of my commitments was to: Go into every conversation with the business (or client/customer) with a blank-sheet-of-paper mentality. This means I would go in an active listening mode, immerse myself in the details and suspend judgement until I fully understand the context of the business and what they are trying to achieve.

During the process, I would intermittently ask questions for clarity and then run a communications/stakeholder/audience vs objective lens through the problem, and then come up with a proposed solution based on what I have heard and not necessarily based on what I have done on previous projects.

And many times, the solution was not necessarily to communicate or launch a campaign but merely to help the business or project team to structure and contextualise their thinking into a consistent framework and achieve internal alignment on how to address or position an issue externally and internally – in some cases. This is essentially the art of business communications. And understanding this has led to my “communications for business and life” mindset where I use the basic stakeholder management tools to profile, analyse and problem-solve challenges to reasonable and often times remarkable levels of success.

2.0. Being a rubber stamp or post-box professional

This is when the professional does exactly what is requested without constructive challenge, insights, guidance or advice. Although this may seem like a safe way to play, especially in a complex, perhaps hierarchical and challenging work environment; it is actually the most risky place to be because a rubber stamp professional is undifferentiated, not adding unique value and is therefore easy to replace. I always counsel that professionals work on developing their ability and confidence to constructively challenge and advice when necessary. If nothing else, it makes you stand out from the crowd.

3.0. Being afraid to give your professional advice

Being confident to always air your professional views is actually easier said than done, especially when you are not the most senior or experienced person in the room. But as my career grew to the point where I often was “the communications person” on the table, it became clear to me that my perspective, views and advice was far more valuable simply because it was different. Our role as communications professionals is to bring the external perspective and edge into the room. The ball often falls in your court to save the organisation from groupthink and you do not have the luxury of failing on that mandate.

In most cases, responsibility for decision-making lies with the business or client, so why hold back your advice simply for fear that it may not be well received? You will not always be right. But in those beautifully sweet moments when you are proven right, it adds a lot of credibility to your internal worth. You wouldn’t even have to say the words, “I told you so”. The next time you give advice, it will be harder to ignore.

4.0. Not knowing enough about the business you support

I should be using the “hand over forehead” emoji here. Now this is a cardinal “sin” and unfortunately more common than one would expect. For some reason, some practitioners prefer to “coast” through support to a business or sector without really understanding how the business works, the basics of its operations, its fundamentals, the value chain and how it makes and loses money.

I believe this is probably less common in consumer products, marketing or manufacturing/service industries but in whatever context, is completely unacceptable and does not do the business or the practitioner any favour. For one thing, you cannot support what you don’t understand. And the inability to mentally interact with relevant technical and operational details will cost you internal credibility.

I often hear colleagues asking for a seat at the table. In my experience, once you understand the business enough to start speaking its language fluently, the seat will find its way to you.

5.0. Over-specialisation: Restricting yourself to one aspect of the discipline

This seems quite common as well. Communications is a relatively broad spectrum discipline. From internal communications to issues and crisis management, media and public relations, brand management, campaigns, editorial, visual and creative storytelling, digital and social media, strategy and planning, events and project management, conferences and exhibitions etc. Yet, many practitioners would toe dip into only two or three of these areas throughout their decade-long careers.

On the face of it, it may appear that specialisation has its merits, but in the long run, it limits leadership opportunity and transfer-ability of skill. From what I have observed over the years, the more sought-out communications professional is one who is a specialist in one area with early years experience for grounding and then develops generalist operational and/or managerial skill in as many other areas as possible. It gives you more reach and depth; makes your instincts sharper, your advice more knowledgeable, incisive and crisp. In short – it differentiates you.

My professional anchor point is based on my early years working in communications strategy and planning teams from 1999 to 2005. It made me very comfortable with data, research and interrogation and always on the look-out to identify and understand relevant business and societal patterns and trends.

Till today, I bring that rigour of approach, strategic thinking and data-driven mindset to my analysis of business and organisational problems in any context I find myself; whether with respect to reputation, advocacy, policy, or societal challenges in the energy industry, small businesses, NGO or public sector or faith-based organisations. And that is my unique professional differentiation.

Written by Sola Abulu, a Communications & Crisis Management Strategist


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