The bane of the online communications consultant

It’s fun, it’s effective, it’s multifaceted and it’s on a steep upward trajectory. All in all, in Brussels and elsewhere, helping clients navigate the online space is a pretty good thing to be doing right now. But it’s a double-edged sword in some ways:

  • The implementation part has so many variables that it’s easy to get bogged down in dull, irrelevant nitty-gritty and lose track of your true objectives. Sure, you need to get things right, but often, strategic communications veers too far into sheer project management. The key here is to keep the role of the strategist and the project manager separate, and for the strategist to have more visibility.
  • One of the keys to a successful communications programme is integration. What you do online and offline should be closely aligned, but it’s often hard to get right because of the way communications teams are structured. Web, regulatory and media people are all kept separate, and as hard as you may try to put everyone around the same table, it often doesn’t happen. On the consultant side, discipline is also important here. You may understand the web inside out and be tempted to overlook the other stuff. Don’t do it.
  • Closely aligned to this is appreciation of the web consultant as a communications professional (my pride takes quite a hit sometimes on this…!) With some clients, it’s an ongoing struggle to remind them that online communications is primarily a strategic exercise, not a technical one. You have more in common with the business, regulatory, marketing and communications people than IT. All credit to IT, but they do something entirely different.
  • Then there’s the web doubters on the client side; people who aren’t quite sure of the value of online communications. Advocacy and media work have worked for years and are still relevant today, so why fix it if it ain’t broke? The fact is that the model is, if not broken, in need of an upgrade: old-school tactics are still relevant, but they need to be backed up. People are a lot more cynical, opinionated and engaged than ever before, and a well-executed online programme will help you cater to this part of the equation and in turn make your media work and advocacy more effective. As a consultant, what do you do about the doubters? You treat the sell as ongoing: you constantly have to re-explain the concepts, what you’re doing and why it will work. And most importantly, you need to identify your eChampions on the client side who strongly support what you’re trying to do and will mobilise on your behalf and join the challenge to win over the naysayers.
  • There’s the web doubters, but there’s also two types of know-it-alls that often present a challenge. First, the old-school communicators who treat the web as just another channel and simply transfer their understanding of the offline world to it. They think a website should look like a brochure; that a blog entry should be structured like a press release; or they’ll struggle with two-way nature of the web and simply use it as they would a megaphone. Second, there’s the (usually, but not always) junior communicator who has been handed responsibility for online comms because they like technology and are comfortable with it. What often arises in these cases is that they act as if they’ve got a new toy and spend lots of time setting up Facebook fan pages and tweaking things in Photoshop, but they’ll do nothing to help you reach your communications objectives. In fact, they may even be detrimental in that respect. What to do? As in the point above, the ongoing sell – or ongoing education even – becomes essential.

And a final point. The web is big and complex; it’s all happening so FAST; you need to keep track of the other channels AND try to keep up to date with the issues; and you need to deal with the points cited above – in particular the ongoing sell. To get it all right requires a lot of patience; and you’ll need to read a lot every day to stay on track. But it’s worth it in the end.


3 thoughts on “The bane of the online communications consultant”

  1. I related to a lot of this. Even here in Sweden were a lot of people get the web, there’s still an enormous lot of companies trying to use the web as an online form of paper / brochure marketing.

    Or people confuse communications strategy with IT strategy.

    I think part of our job is to educate and take the discussion to the business community. They need to understand the value in communications strategy.

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