Skip to main content

It’s Time to Rethink Your Communications Department

Last month, I was on stage at the world-renowned Communicating The Museum conference. Since the theme was ‘Are you ready to participate?’, a lot of the talks touched on the theme of audience engagement. During the conference I couldn’t help but think about the amount of effort cultural institutions put into overhauling external communications to engage current patrons and to gain new ones. But, what if these institutions put as much effort into looking inward to transform their own communications systems as they did outward? This is why I presented our collaboration with the opera house La Monnaie in Brussels as a template for a new way to work with cultural institutions.

For over 20 years I’ve been working with communications departments of museums and cultural institutions across Europe. Each claim to hold a unique corner on the market, and own a communication strategy all their own. However each of these institutions tend overlook the same things when it comes to the way their internal communications teams are utilized.

Leaders of cultural institutions = visually driven people

The decision makers I’ve encountered at cultural institutions tend to be emotionally and visually driven with strong egos. No matter what, they aim for highest visual quality output. They want to seduce and be seduced by art in all forms. They also use their competitors as a point of reference and want to outsmart them. These leaders may be brilliant, but seldom think strategically and systematically about their communication needs.

Three paradoxes

“We have to be accessible”. “We must address new audiences”, “How can we connect and interact with our public”,“We’re looking to make an impact”. The aforementioned are things I hear each time we take on a cultural institution as a client. Today’s institutions universally champion the importance of communications. But what they preach, isn’t always what they practice. Three paradoxes stand out:

Paradox 1: Although communication is seen as a priority, in most cases the communication department does not have any power nor do they have autonomy.

Paradox 2: Although communication is seen as priority, other people (directors, curators, artists, etc.) have full authority on final communication decisions rather than the in-house department.

Paradox 3: Although communication is seen as priority, the institution’s very capable and competent communication staff are often buying creative solutions from outside agencies instead of solving these issues internally.

Sound familiar?

If you work in a communications department, you are probably used to constant last minute changes from your general director about the image on a poster. Or a renowned curator asking you to change your perfect two word title into a 10–word complicated sentence, altering your personal vision and the overall aesthetic. If communication is a priority, then why are internal communication teams not considered or seen as experts, and therefore often overruled and treated as mere executors? What’s more, communications department members are often frustrated and unmotivated because they’re dependant on external decisions. Or, to put it simply, they’re not being heard.

How to bring change

When we began our collaboration with the communications department of La Monnaie Opera our objective was to give the department autonomy and a voice inside the institution. In collaboration with department heads Anne Rubinstein and Lore Van de Meutter, as well as general director Peter de Caluwé, we agreed to create a program designed to re-empower each designer, writer, or dramaturgist of the staff. Our goal was to re-unite them as a team, re-align them with a shared strategy, re-install their ownership on all creative output, and show the board that it would result in a positive change for everyone.

Communications departments are under tremendous pressure since their primary task is to deliver a constant flood of content. The output and a tight calendar determines everything. Processes and people are often neglected due to lack of time. But even more neglected is often the “why”, or in other words the purpose, and the strategy. Why are we doing this? What is our framework? What are our decision criterias?

Usually, output and a tight calendar determines everything

The key is to invert your priorities. Start with a clear framework, then assign responsibilities to people. Establish clear work processes and the outcome will naturally flow. Here are some steps we took for La Monnaie:

The key is to invert your priorities.

Step 1 : Critique

Gathering both Base and La Monnaie teams, we started by putting all communications material produced in the last 3 years on a table. Digital, print, campaign, content, etc. Those of us from Base were able to offer a fresh perspective in how we questioned and critiqued each and every item. Simple questions like asking what the purpose behind producing a certain magazine was or why they communicated every show the same way triggered insightful answers. One of them being “Because we’ve always done it this way!”. At that moment I noticed an interesting fact. Very often comms departments are putting themselves in a safe and repetitive communication cycle they reproduce every year. From that inclusive and refreshing session, we produced a first list of recommendations based on those findings.

Very often comms departments are putting themselves in a safe and repetitive communication cycle

Step 2 : Personalize

A second exercise was inspired by a process usually limited to digital. Define “personas”, or specific audience groups we want or need to address. In this case, it wasn’t limited to digital but covered all communications channels. Specific target groups such as subscribers, first time goers, or youth audiences were the focal point. What do they want? What do we want from them? What are problems we could face? What are keywords we can use to communicate with them? This exercise helped tremendously to create innovative ways to address each group.

Define “personas”, or specific audience groups we want or need to address

Step 3 : Clarify

Based on these two exercises, we were able to clarify the Opera’s communication strategy. One piece of advice here: make it short. Although communication issues are complex, the key with strategy recommendations is to make sure they’re intuitive and easy to use. Nobody, and I mean: nobody, will effectively use a 60–page strategy deck. Summarize with simple to-do steps and use a catch phrase people will remember. In this case, our main drive was: “Opera is not inaccessible. Opera is exceptional”.

Strategy? One piece of advice: make it short

Step 4 : Checklist

Following step 3, the strategy was then summarized on one page. This is the best way to efficiently activate a strategy in order to make it work with a tool actionable by everyone in the department. In this case, the three main drivers; objectivize, one-to-one dialog, and real time communication were condensed as a simple checklist each member could use as reminder pinned on the wall next to their computer screen. But most importantly it would be used as a filter for everything they would create from now on.

Step 5 : Internal buy-in

The next necessary step, get the internal buy-in of the board of directors. We presented a strategic and actionable plan with two objectives together with the comms department. The first being show and inspire the board with what and how we would do solve their issues. Second, and mainly, reaffirm the leadership and autonomy of the communications department and its ability to conduct a process with clear objectives.

Get the internal buy-in of the board of directors (image from Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove)

Step 6 : Action

Nobody, not even you, knows at this stage if the strategy is exactly spot on. But you can still use it to clearly define all actions. Make it simple. Organize all past, present and future actions in three columns: 1. Stop doing / 2. Continue doing / 3. Start doing. This tool seems so obvious yet, it’s one of the best to align all staff members in the same direction.

Organize all past, present and future actions under these 3 three criteria

Step 7 : Implement

We then had a clear plan, a check-list, and the go-ahead from the board of directors. The implementation had to start immediately. In order to re-dynamise the process, we decided to assign each part of the project to several task forces of two people. One member of the communications department and one Base creative. This decision allowed the comms department to work outside their usual environment and each task force to work autonomously before sharing what they created with the group.

We assigned each part of the project to several task forces of two people Base/La Monnaie

As mentioned by Lore Van de Meutter at the end of our talk at Communicating The Museum, the results after one year are extremely positive. Not only is the comms department team much more engaged and positive, but it has now taken on full control of future and ongoing projects. This is all on top of successfully covering new communications challenges of the institution, producing an impactful seasonal campaign, and new a groundbreaking proposal that will be released in September 2018.

Lore Van de Meutter of La Monnaie Opera on stage with me at Communicating The Museum 2018 , Brussels

Takeaways

If you want to improve the way your museum or institution communication department creates, works and interacts, you should keep these 5 principles in mind:

1/ Put people together and include them from day one in full transparency. Let your team talk and lead.

2/ Use external agency as partners. Not as doers, nor saviors.

3/ Invert your process.Transition from output first to process first. (Why–Who–How–What)

4/ Synthesize your strategy on a one-pager. Use it as checklist for everything you do.

5/ Start today, and correct along the way. The world isn’t going to wait for you …

One of the visuals of this season of La Monnaie Opera (artist: Thorsten Brinkmann)