Are you winning the proxy war on who is a comms expert?

As comms professionals, we are more sensitive than most to the fickle ways in which people make sense of the world.

Often, because of the complexity of everyday life, we rely upon proxies or stand-ins to help us make sense of things.

Should I trust this organisation? We might ask whether the staff are friendly, whether it has a good website, whether we like their twitter feed and whether the chief executive appears affable. That none of these will tell us all we may want to know about the organisation, to most people, probably won’t matter.

In a session with about 25 middle managers some years ago we looked at how we might make judgements about the quality of a restaurant. We identified a wide range of proxies: smiling staff; whether the toilets were bright, airy and clean; the cutlery; the décor; and many others. Nobody mentioned the food.

But this is the proxy world and but for them we would struggle to get through the week.

Of course, we, as comms people, recognise this. We use it. We advise those who are about to be inspected to build personal relationships with the inspectors, to ensure that the typefaces in all documents match and even, in some cases, to select the right hotels when they are staying overnight. We will advise leaders to use particular forms of language when engaging different staff and manager groups. We will help hone anecdotes dropped into the ear of those our leaders are trying to influence.

These proxies can indicate quality, sensitivity, attention to detail but may hide a multitude of other shortcomings – or at least obscure or over-ride them.

But how sensitive are we, as comms professionals, to the ways that proxies are used to make judgements about us, and our competence?

In a world where anyone who has a Facebook profile is a social media expert and anyone who has ever talked to a group is an engagement genius, what proxies establish us as experts?

Part of understanding whether you’re seen as an expert is in looking at the proxies that leaders use to judge expertise. Look at other “expert” professions and start with what reasonable expectations might be. When you give advice, is it in writing? Is it set out in a way that commands attention? Do you use particular forms of language? Do you draw upon recognised sources, evidence others’ expertise? Would any two comms professionals adopt the same methodology or approach (even where you might reach different conclusions)?

Other professions can rely upon three key pillars: an examined barrier to entry (a qualification that must be attained prior to joining the profession); an established body of knowledge that is widely shared, understood, that informs practice, that is challenged and added to; and the requirement for continuous professional development in order to continue to work.

Again, these are proxies since they tell us little about the quality of an individual expert’s work – but they count as credibility in so many professional fields.

If being listened to at the top table is something that has ever worried you, maybe it is time you look at the proxy lens through which you and your work are being judged.

Mark Fletcher-Brown is the author of Perceptionomics – 60 ways to change how people see things (and how to spot if it’s being done to you)

Posted on 5th November 2018