Three Essentials for an Effective Communications Team

Effective Communications July 29, 2019 By: Pete Janhunen

To be successful, association communications teams need good leaders, consistency, and a seat at the table when decisions are made.

Building and leading communications teams that deliver are high priorities for all associations. But how do you know if you’re on the right track?

I’ve seen a lot over my two decades working as a communicator and leader in and with a series of nonprofits, from labor unions to philanthropies to advocacy organizations.

Recently, I completed a three-month engagement with an association that delivers solid communications for its members. This association’s small, but highly effective communications team provided a healthy reminder of three factors all association professionals should pay attention to at the intersection of leadership and communications. No matter the business goal – from membership retention to legislative success to promoting members’ professional reputations – communications is an essential ingredient.

Positive leadership makes a powerful difference. At West Point, they taught us that “leadership is a combat multiplier,” and that has been true everywhere I have worked. Of course, the inverse is true as well: “Lack of leadership is a combat divider.”

We have all seen, time and again, how true leaders step up—and stay calm—when the stress ramps up. You can almost see their blood pressure lower as they offer encouragement, invite creativity, and make time for productive back and forth—even as deadlines loom, members and colleagues badger them with additional requests, and “crisis” threatens in all directions.

Leaders who lack this trait turn negative and reactive when the heat is on, leading to poor decisions and a demoralized staff. Positive, effective leaders get great results, and their teams meet deadlines, tackle challenges, and deliver more than is expected. Association leaders should put this trait at the top of their lists when assembling their communications team.

Consistency and discipline are the mortar of a solid communications program. It is fine to have great ideas and brilliant creativity, but it isn’t professional communications until the HTML email is properly formatted, the media list is airtight, and the style guide is effectively implemented.

Small gaps lead to giant holes, which let in problems free of charge. These problems can range from minor stumbles like a spelling error in a printed product to more serious failings like sending an executive on TV who is unprepared to answer the tough questions.

Positive, effective leaders get great results, and their teams meet deadlines, tackle challenges, and deliver more than is expected.

I am never an advocate for letting process bog down output, but effective organizations have a way of producing messages that resonate with their core audiences, while maintaining high standards in all they do. They strike the professional balance associations of all sizes seek. Do all you can to find that balance in your communications efforts.

Communications teams flourish when they are viewed as co-equal with other departments and specialties. Job one for communications leaders is to earn a seat at the table where decisions are made. If communicators aren’t valued members of the decision-making team, the organization is risking its reputation on a daily basis. It is always refreshing to walk into an office where the comms team is invited, expected, and appreciated.

I know this doesn’t come easy; generations of communications leaders had to work to build and maintain a reputation for their departments. I kept this reality top of mind during my recent engagement, with an eye on the ultimate measure of business success: Delivering for our customers and having them want to work with us again. Doing one or the other is just not enough.

I encourage leaders at all associations to take a look at their communications teams to make sure they are embodying these three traits. If there is a gap, sit down with the team and figure out how to close it. You, your members, and your staff will all be better off for the effort.

Pete Janhunen

Pete Janhunen is founder of 155 Strategies, a communications company in Washington, DC, and a consultant to The Fratelli Group.