Dale Cyphert. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
Since ancient times, certain individuals have earned their living as professional communicators. Before the invention of writing, poets and storytellers functioned as entertainers, teachers, and historians, supported by the audience to whom they communicated the community’s greatest truths. The earliest forms of written language were developed and used by professional scribes, who continued to play an important role well into the Renaissance. Both society and communication technologies have grown more complex over the centuries, giving rise to specialization among professional communicators.
The jobs of the ancient poet are spread among today’s artists, teachers, media celebrities, and motivational speakers. The scribe’s legal and administrative functions are now performed by lawyers, accountants, journalists, and legislators. With the invention of the printing press, and to an even greater extent, with the rise of electronic media in the 20th century, entire industries of publishing, journalism, and broadcasting have taken on the job of spreading news throughout the community. Meanwhile, the increasing complexities of contemporary business, politics, and religion have produced specialists to perform, create, and teach communication in virtually every arena of modern society. This chapter will review how communication is used professionally, along with the various skills and practices required of professional communicators.
Professional Communication Careers
It is possible to think of professional communicators in several ways. First, rather obviously, there are some positions for which people are hired specifically to communicate. Writers, platform speakers, Web site developers, customer service representatives, or preachers, for example, perform various kinds of communication tasks as their primary job duties. Second, there are fields of communication—public relations, journalism, filmmaking—in which individuals might specialize in just one aspect of an entire communication process. An advertising agency’s bookkeeper, for instance, will have expertise in the accounting details of media buys and print production but is unlikely to get involved in the creative aspects of advertising design. These individuals might be less likely to call themselves “professional communicators,” but they would certainly think of themselves as working “in communications” as a professional career choice.
A third way to think of professional communication is the way in which communication is carried out in a professional field. For example, a medical doctor can learn how to communicate with patients from a specialist in medical communication or health communication. Both the doctor and the specialist could be described as experts in the professional communication involved in the medical field, one as a practitioner and the other as a scholar.
Of course, nearly anyone who works for a living will need to communicate as part of the job, and a fourth way to think of professional communication involves the standards and expectations of the workplace. Communication skill is consistently ranked by both employers and workers as one of the top factors in gaining and keeping employment, in doing the job, and for getting ahead in a career. As a result, professional skills can also be thought of as those communication skills that are required to be successful in a professional setting.
Because there are several ways to think of professional communication, there are a large number of communication specialties that could usefully prepare a person for a professional communication career. The focus of preparation will differ somewhat with the sense in which professional communication is defined, as will the kind of communication responsibilities that will be part of the day-to-day job.
Developing Expertise: Communication for Special Purposes
In those situations in which people are hired specifically to communicate, the professional job will virtually always require the individual to communicate about something specific. That is, a professional writer will more typically be a medical writer or a petroleum industry writer. A professional speaker might be a motivational speaker or a safety trainer. A specialist in electronic media or interpersonal communication will similarly be an expert in an industry, becoming a sports marketing Web site developer or a cancer patient counselor.
Professional communicators sometimes specialize in one mode of communication, spending all their time writing newsletter articles, for example, designing presentation visuals, or interviewing clients. However, the communication environment of most organizations is becoming more integrated, and the typical professional communicator will generally be an expert in several modes of communication. A public relations professional, for example, would be expected to handle telephone and videoconferencing equipment, create both electronic and printed newsletters, conduct and give interviews, and speak competently at both live and virtual press conferences.
Furthermore, the expectations of contemporary audiences for multimedia messages, the easy availability of software to manipulate both photographic and video images, and the ubiquitous use of the Internet to deliver all manner of messages now require professional communicators to integrate text, visual images, and interactive elements in virtually all their messages. Even when only one communication technology is being used, contemporary equipment generally accommodates a variety of symbolic and artifactual communication elements. The typical writer, for example, is now expected to manipulate graphic images in a document as well as code the text for use on a company Web site. The corporate trainer now combines a lecture with video feeds and computer-based learning modules into a fully interactive course. The graphic artist becomes responsible for selecting, manipulating, and editing both text and images to meet various communication goals. Interviews might be held by way of Web site or video meeting software, requiring the use of both interpersonal and electronic media skills.
Joining an Industry: Communication and Communications
A few industries engage in communication as their primary product, and it is common to speak of the professional communications fields of journalism, public relations, radio or television broadcasting, or film production. These fields are all covered in more detail in this handbook, but the size and complexity of these industries is such that many individuals make their living by specializing in just one narrow area of expertise.
Rather obviously, someone with a career in broadcast communication might be a photographer, filmmaker, recording artists, or announcer. These jobs are only a part of a much larger universe of professional positions. The production crew will also include carpenters, administrative assistants, cost accountants, and food service managers. The broadcast company will fill management positions in finance, human resources, and law. The newspaper’s staff will include purchasing agents, salespeople, and printing press technicians. Each of these positions requires some kind of expertise in the communications industry, but it is essential to combine that preparation with relevant technical expertise to fulfill a specific function for the company.
Many individuals in these communication fields do not identify themselves as professional communicators but rather in terms of their specific roles within the industry. A media lawyer will probably attend law school before specializing in communication law, just as a carpenter, secretary, or accountant would probably gain those skills before putting them to work in a communications industry. Even journalists, who obviously spend much of their time writing, will generally call themselves reporters or editors rather than focus on the more generic communication elements of the position.
Communicating as a Professional: Communities of Discourse
Attention to the communication that people do within a professional field is a relatively new and multidisciplinary field of communication study. Building on research in linguistics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, as well as communication, a growing body of research demonstrates how communication practices and patterns define and maintain the unique communities that call themselves professions. Lawyers and doctors, for instance, must communicate daily to accomplish their professional tasks. The ways in which they communicate, however, are not the same. A paralegal, familiar with the communication practices of the legal profession, could be described as communicating like a lawyer—assertive, analytical, and confident—in spite of the lack of a law degree. On the other hand, a bonafide doctor might find himself or herself unable to effectively treat patients because he or she has never learned the medical communication techniques required to clearly explain diagnoses and procedures to them.
Even within a profession, there will be areas of specialization. Health care communication, for example, would be found in a pharmaceutical sales brochure, in a retirement community’s patient advocacy program, and in a developing country’s public health education agency, and each context requires a different type of communication. The person training health professionals to be better communicators must understand both the medical profession and the community in which those practitioners will operate. For instance, a public relations specialist for a pharmaceutical company would need to understand both the legal and business environment of medical research and development and the communication norms of the medical profession. The increasing availability of medical information on the Internet adds yet another wrinkle; these days a health communication expert might also be expected to understand the cognitive effects of various media technologies.
While a specialized understanding of context and technique is important, an understanding of the communication necessary in a particular profession goes far beyond learning the technical formats or the jargon of the field. Karl Weick, James Taylor, Elizabeth Van Every, and many others have shown how communication defines and maintains any organization as a coherent whole, and professional organizations are no exception. In fact, critical theorists such as Stan Deetz and Dennis Mumby have shown how the economic and social power of professional organizations is sustained by communication. In a global economy, where large multinational corporations have taken on some of the traditional functions of government, professional associations play a big role in setting the social and governmental policies, and social advances depend on improved communication processes, a communication career in a professional discipline might easily have more impact than a career in politics.
While it is possible to discuss communication in these professional communities in general terms, a key point is that the communication practices in each profession are very different from one another. The effective business communicator, for instance, is typically trying to get a group to act collaboratively, while an engineer might be trying to guide a team through a highly technical discussion of test results or design specifications. Someone with excellent skills as a patient advocate in a hospital might be of very little value as a public relations specialist. Even the communication expertise of a patient advocate in a large teaching hospital might be quite different from that of a patient advocate in a rural program serving an immigrant population.
Professional Expectations: Communication in the Workplace
An increasingly important perspective on professional communication recognizes that in the media information society of the 21st century, communication has become a critical component of virtually any profession. The ability to communicate well has long been a requirement for success at the highest professional and managerial levels. Increasingly, however, job success at all levels relies on successful communication with clients, suppliers, and colleagues around the globe. The rise of the Internet has intensified the importance of information flow as an element of success for any enterprise, whether it is for profit, nonprofit, or personal. The vast majority of corporate information now flows electronically. Even more profoundly, the emerging paradigm of the “learning organization” places communication front and center as the means by which human beings maintain themselves as productive communities.
With the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. Department of Labor had acknowledged a class of “knowledge workers” as a critical element in a global, information-based economy. Knowledge workers are defined as those who add value to data by analyzing, manipulating, and communicating it to others as information. Not surprisingly, many would argue that any decently paying job in the United States now fits that description. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that office workers now spend up to 70% of their time dealing with written material, while manufacturing jobs are now most often organized within teams that depend on sophisticated communication skills to accomplish everything from planning their own work to maintaining production quality standards.
At the beginning of the industrial age, professional communication meant the preparation of business documents. Effective communication now includes the full range of written, presentational, interpersonal, team, and electronic forms that are required for success in a contemporary business, as well as the healthy social relationships, effective critical thinking, and attention to stakeholder audiences that support the enterprise. Almost none of this workplace communication is simple. One researcher notes that workplace writing
is but the end result of a complex set of negotiations between the writer and the writer’s real and imagined audiences; between the writer and the text’s stated and unstated purposes; between the writer and the beliefs, practices, and constraints of the community. (Matalene, 1989, p. vi)
Similar conclusions have been drawn about the complex interpersonal communication found in a work setting; the sophisticated skills that are required to facilitate problem-solving discussions in large organizations; and the complex cognitive issues that must be solved in designing visually complex Web sites, presentation slides, or document graphics.
With such a wide variety of ways to think about professional communication and an equally wide range of potential career paths, it is impossible to specifically define how one might prepare for a professional communication career. The distinctions among these various ways of looking at professional communication can be ambiguous. It isn’t hard to find examples of jobs that seem to cross all these boundaries: Think of a nurse who has gone back to school for a degree in professional writing and now develops Web site content and writes a daily blog as the director of education for a public health agency.
Furthermore, there is very little consistency in the way organizations name or structure their various communication functions. Some companies hire communication specialists; others hire content specialists with excellent communication skills. Some companies see communication as the responsibility of all organizational members, while others look to specialists to facilitate their communication functions. We could conclude that any expertise in communication can be put to use in some professional context, but it is just as true to say that communication skill is never enough, by itself, to reach a professional status. Still, there are a few patterns of preparation that are fairly common.
For many, professional communication preparation involves a combination of expertise in two distinct areas. A love of baseball is combined with training in public speaking to land a job as a sports announcer. Work experience in the beverage industry is combined with a degree in marketing communications to qualify for a position designing point-of-sale advertising messages. Excellent interpersonal communication skills are combined with a degree in social work to land a job as a patient advocate in a hospital. Course-work in organizational communication coupled with experience with the payroll practices of an industry might lead to a position as a compensation and benefits counselor. A health communication major might take a position at a hospital, in a public health program, or in an assisted living facility to develop expertise in the issues of that medical context. A degree in interpersonal communication coupled with corporate management experience could lead to a career in executive coaching.
In a few communication professions, degrees or certificate programs are available. The first specialized professional communication courses focused on writing for specific careers, and it is now possible to study communication as it is used in professional contexts such as journalism, business, training, health care, risk management, science and technology, and agriculture. There now are journalism or broadcast communication programs at virtually any university, and many universities offer programs in filmmaking, photography, graphic arts, public relations, and so on. Professional preparation could take another route, of course, for the media lawyer or the production company’s financial manager, who might get the law or business degree before taking an entry-level position in the industry. In most industries and professional fields, however, professional communicators build their content expertise through extracurricular activities or on-the-job experience.
Communication in the Disciplines
Within any community of discourse, a person could prepare to be a professional communicator in a discipline in two rather different ways. The doctor, lawyer, banker, or engineer who wishes to be successful will need to become comfortable with the methods, formats, and style of communication that mark a professional in that field. Many law, medical, and engineering schools offer communication courses as a formal or informal part of the curriculum. Professional organizations also offer resources so that an individual can enhance his or her communication skills throughout his or her professional career. Alternatively, one might choose to help doctors, lawyers, or business-people become better communicators. These specialists in communication are becoming quite common on the faculty of professional schools, and there are many independent consultants and trainers as well. Virtually any communication specialty could serve as the basic preparation for this kind of a career, although education or experience in the specific community of practice would also be required.
The Information Economy
Communication courses of some kind are required for virtually any college degree, although most employers complain that the typical college graduate is not sufficiently prepared to communicate in a “professional” manner. Many companies offer additional training or coaching to their employees, especially for managerial and professional positions. Others expect their workers to develop excellent communication skills on the job. Unfortunately, poor communication skills remain the most frequent reason given for lack of promotion or termination in the contemporary workplace. Any college graduate who plans a career in the 21st century should take care to develop key communication skills, whether they are learned as part of college coursework or developed through extracurricular activities.
How Communication is Used Professionally
Given the breadth of professional communication, the set of specific skills, practices, and competencies might seem impossibly broad. What could a professional labor contract negotiator have in common with an advertising agency’s media buyer? What similarities could either have to that of the safety trainer for an agricultural co-op, a counselor who specializes in dysfunctional-family communication, or a freelance writer? Do these communication professionals have any skills in common with the professional manager, health care worker, or materials coordinator who spends up to 90% of his or her day in communication activities? Surprisingly, there are several important similarities. Despite systematic differences due to managerial level, functional goals, communication methods, and industry history, professional communication is characterized by (a) the explicit, strategic application of communication principles to meet professional goals; (b) a highly collaborative production process; and (c) a high degree of competence in the use of communication techniques.
Beginning with the more obvious differences in various professional communication situations helps us to see the more complex, underlying similarities across various professional communication contexts. Differences in the purpose and content of messages will exist due to the level of managerial responsibility in a given position, with managers typically focusing on abstract, strategic concepts, while lower-level workers communicate technical details. Content across professional functions will vary, with some specializing in technical or mathematical information, while others deal with emotions or personal values. Differences also occur when communicators choose face-to-face versus mediated modes of transmission or choose to speak to a large group versus one-on-one. Finally, the historical development of industries has created variations in the expectations of various stakeholder groups, such that some professional communicators are more focused on customers, others on stockholders, and still others on government audiences.
Characteristics of Professionalism
Despite the many differences across professions, organizations, and industries, the practice of professional communication is characterized by strategic application of principles to meet goals, collaborative work environments and production processes, and careful attention to competent performance of the communication method. Each of these elements has a foundation in the practical nature of professional communication. Professional communication does not concern itself with abstract principles or with communication for its own sake. With very few exceptions, professional communication is concerned with accomplishing something within an organizational context, and consistent success in accomplishing a purpose requires that strategic communication be accomplished collaboratively at a high level ofcompetence.
While virtually everyone holding a professional position would be expected to do a great deal of high-quality communication, reaching a sufficient level of competence to be regarded as a professional generally requires an individual to also supervise, coach, or train others in communication practices and procedures. These duties require that the professional communicator be able to strategically plan communication, explaining to others what to do, why to do it, and often how to do it—all of which require a conscious awareness of the details of the communication process.
Furthermore, there’s a good chance that a professional communicator will be asked to justify the choices he or she has made in targeting an audience, constructing a message, or choosing a communication method. Especially when working in a managerial capacity, the professional will be asked to demonstrate the need to spend money on staff, supplies, or other resources to accomplish specific communication purposes. When things do not work out as planned, the professional will also be expected to explain what went wrong. In short, the professional communicator does not merely communicate; he or she must also be prepared to explain to others how and why communication ought to happen in just that way.
Conscious, strategic choices require the ability to predict the outcome of certain kinds of communicative behaviors, therefore strategic communication necessarily involves the application of general principles within a specific context. Strategic communication thus involves four key steps:
1. Turning Purposes into Goals: The classical communication professional has been a persuader—the salesperson, preacher, or political operative—and the communication goal is to persuade some audience to act in a certain way, often to buy a product but also to believe, vote, join, or behave in a desired way. Career counselors will often guide skilled communicators toward jobs where persuasion is the communicative purpose: for example, sales, public relations, fund-raising, marketing, advertising, politics, law, and education. Other kinds of communication purposes can require the services of a professional as well. Especially in the media industries, the communicative purpose might be to inform the public about current events or to entertain various kinds of audiences. A health communication professional might be aiming to create better doctor-patient relationships. A science writer might be hired with the purpose of educating and informing. An employee relations director could be focused on creating a generally positive attitude toward the company.
Given a general sense of purpose, the strategic communicator will define specific goals, often within the framework of upper management’s overall strategic planning process. The hospital’s communication specialist, for example, could define “better doctor-patient relationships” in terms of goals for “warm, nurturing relationships” or for “effective diagnostic conversations.” Obviously, these different goals would require the effective application of very different communication principles.
It can take considerable skill to translate general communicative purposes into specific, concrete, and actionable goals. The professional will need to fully understand the general purposes of communication as well as the specific needs of the organization and the potentially competing interests of its stakeholders. The health communication specialist who must decide between developing warm, nurturing relationships and providing an effective diagnosis will be making the choice within the framework of the hospital’s overall mission. Is it a small local hospital that stays in business because its patients feel “at home” in the setting? Or is it a teaching hospital that has an overriding purpose to train doctors to be excellent diagnosticians? Even more difficult, do the patients, doctors, board of trustees, and nurses all agree on the priorities?
A further complication arises from the dynamic and complex nature of contemporary organizations. Not only is the professional communicator crafting messages to multiple audiences with conflicting interests, backgrounds, and needs, but the nature of the audience is constantly changing, as are the availability of resources and the constraints of the environment. The more we learn about the dynamics of complex adaptive systems, the more we recognize the oversimplification in the instrumental model of a communicator who sends a message to accomplish a purpose. The reality is often an aggregate of micromessages that lead to adaptive responses—a tacit, invisible organizational learning process that has only a weak link to intentional communication efforts.
In short, setting goals can be considerably more difficult in a professional setting than it might appear from the perspective of a communication classroom. The first step in any assignment is likely to be to define the goal, but it is unlikely that one’s teacher and classmates will object to the goal, refuse to authorize the project, or propose an alternative objective, as one’s professional colleagues are likely to do. Similarly, a communication student is seldom concerned with the budget, staffing, or timing issues that often drive organizational decision making. Nor is anyone likely to question the underlying assumption that any intentional communication will have any appreciable effect at all.
2. Situation Analysis: Once a goal is determined, the professional communicator’s primary work begins. The next task is to decide how to proceed, which requires both a solid understanding of communication principles and a careful analysis of the situation in which the communication will take place. Whether the field is health communication, public relations, politics, ortraining, the communicator will need to decide the best way to meet the stated goal. The actual work process will vary with the industry and position, but the basic steps are the same.
First, the facts of the situation must be determined. A public health analyst might do surveys to determine the number of cigarettes a group is currently smoking or whether fresh fruits are available to the population or how much sexual activity is normal. Information must also be gathered about the target audience’s needs, motivations, resources, and ability to meet the desired goal. Generally, complete information is unavailable, and for a professional communicator, the ability to extrapolate data and make good guesses is as important a skill as having an excellent research methodology.
Second, knowledge of communication principles will be applied to predict the most effective messages and methods to achieve the desired effect. A knowledgeable advertiser, for example, might predict that a media buy of 20% newspaper, 10% local television, and 70% cable will yield the best response from the targeted consumers. Obviously, a conclusion such as this is always subject to change: Media outlets vary their mix of programs, and audience tastes evolve. Virtually any communication professional will face this kind of dynamic decision environment. The professional is always seeking updated information and an updated understanding of communication options and their likely outcomes.
Finally, any communication that is implemented requires planning of the allocation of resources. Neither the public health professional nor the advertiser can plan a communication campaign that exceeds the available time, budget, or operational staff. The professional communicator must know what a communication effort would cost, in terms of money and other organizational resources, and what the benefit would be in terms of its probable effectiveness. A political operative, for example, might be able to predict the effectiveness of assigning campaign staff to making door-todoor calls and engaging in one-to-one conversations with potential voters. Even so, an analysis of the organizational resources might lead to the conclusion that the same amount of money could be better spent on travel costs to take the candidate back to Washington, where he or she could gain important political points by voting on key legislation.
Developing a resource budget is generally not done alone. The organization probably has other needs to meet, many of equal importance with the communication project, and only a limited set of resources. The professional communicator might be competing for staff, training time, or funds to make outside purchases. A budget might be created quickly in a single meeting, or it might be developed over the course of an annual or a multiyear strategic planning cycle. The process might be collaborative or antagonistic. Generally, creating a plan of action will require the technical skills that allow an accurate prediction of costs and outcomes, along with the people skills involved in successfully negotiating for resources against the competing needs in an organization.
The professional communicator applies some basic principles: rhetorical situation, audience analysis, and resource availability. Each industry or organization represents a different context, and the professional will have to spend some time gaining expertise in the specifics of communication in that context. Still, any strategic communicator is answering a series of questions that are fundamental to virtually any communicative situation: Given the tools at my disposal, what is the most effective way to accomplish my purpose?
3. Taking Action: Peter Drucker, a major influence on contemporary management practices, has said that a primary characteristic of professional practice is the implementation of an idea. Politicians and academicians tend to spend most of their time deciding on the right course of action, but Drucker (2004) points out, “For the solution to become a decision, action is needed” in a managerial context. The work of a professional communicator does not end with deciding on the most effective marketing campaign or the most promising way to communicate change to an organization’s employees. The professional communicator must next locate and organize all the resources it will take to implement that decision.
Resources can include everything from employee time to the purchase of printing services to the creative and intellectual resources needed to design a training program or a Web site. In some cases, the resources may have already been secured during the project-planning phase. The communication director may have already hired a staff that includes a graphic designer, a writer, and a publicist. The employee relations manager might be working in a company that already owns server capacity for a large intranet as well as Web site development software. Other resources will need to be located and purchased for a specific project. Either way, a professional communicator will now begin to deal with the issues of actually using those resources to get the communication task done.
Implementation of a plan always requires communicating goals, standards, and plans for those who will be performing the various parts of the overall project. The work involves communicating information and instructions to those who are responsible for the actual performance of the tasks. The complex tasks that characterize a professional environment can involve careful coordination of information, schedules, and resource use among the members of a single work team—or across functional, organizational, and national boundaries. The manager is the lynchpin in a vast network of communications that are required to implement a project. Finally, the manager’s ultimate responsibility is to control the process by setting up feedback mechanisms so that he or she can determine whether the resources are being used as budgeted and the work is being performed to the required standards.
4. Evaluation: The final step in strategic communication involves an evaluation of the effort in terms of the original objectives. The evaluation process might be a formal one, requiring sophisticated research skills to determine the reach of an advertising campaign or the impact of a public health program. In many cases, evaluation is more informal or complicated because of the inability to separate communication from multiple other influences. An executive speech-writer who is aiming for a more positive corporate image, for instance, might not be able to determine the relative influence of the CEO’s speech at an industry conference, the company’s excellent quarterly earnings, or an influential blogger’s recent praise. Whether the evaluation is formal or informal, difficult or easy, an important element of the professional communicator’s job is explaining to others whether or not something was effective and why.
With only a few exceptions, a second characteristic of most professional communication is its collaborative nature. The economic reality of the job market is that only relatively large organizations can afford to hire individuals to focus exclusively on communication functions. That means, in turn, that a professional communicator is nearly always working in a relatively large organization, with all its financial and political realities. The result is that professionals will primarily communicate as members of teams, departments, or organizations. The individual voice of a novelist, the individual graphic eye of an artist, or the individual eloquence of an orator has very little place in a large organization that is trying to reach a collective goal.
Instead, the professional communicator is part of a communicating group, and each act of communication is performing important functions within the group at the same time it is serving to reach the group’s goals. Carolyn Matalene (1989) describes the work of professional writers, for example, where creating a document “may have more to do with reaching consensus, setting goals, inventing solutions, revising priorities, or establishing control than the finished pages reveal” (p. vi). The typical professional document is reviewed or revised by three to five people at various levels of management. The typical sales presentation is created by a team that includes marketing and sales staff along with communication specialists. The typical Web site is the result of collaboration among writers, graphic designers, and user interface developers.
As a result of this highly collaborative environment, the professional communicator’s job involves as much attention to principles of interpersonal and organizational communication as it does to the strategic use of communication to accomplish the explicit goals of the position. Effective publicists are not only interested in the effect of a message on external audiences, but they are also equally aware of the effect that the process of creating that message has on the organization itself. A new mission statement, for instance, might be targeted for a spot on the company’s Web site, but in the process of creating that mission statement, the organization will engage in a series of complex communications designed to compare individual perceptions about the organization and discover a sense of shared identity. The publicist who tries to bypass that process, crafting a mission statement as though it were an individual writing task, is likely to be ineffective on multiple levels. Not only is the statement liable to miss the mark, but the organization will have lost an important opportunity for internal development. The massive amount of collaboration that can occur in a professional setting has given rise to a set of special technical skills that many professional communicators will often need to master. Even the simplest document, presentation slide, or Web site will be created with software that includes tools for reviewing and tracking revisions, maintaining a consistent template of graphics and format, and sharing files among multiple users. At a bare minimum, the contemporary professional must be able to move and share electronic files and production drafts. In some situations, document control requires compliance with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) regulations. Even in less technically rigorous contexts, collaborative communication activities often involve protocols for formatting, review and revision controls, as well as guidelines for distribution and retention of the messages.
Perhaps it goes without saying that professional communication is performed at a highly competent level. Anyone who enters a communication profession will probably have received an education in some aspect of communication or technical training with one or more communication technologies. It’s probably a reasonable assumption that the professional is thus capable of doing a better job than the nonprofessional. In many fields, competence is very often described as being “highly professional”! Such definitional circles don’t really answer the question, however, of what constitutes more “professionally” competent communication or a “better” job of communicating.
It is possible to list the practical consequences of doing communication work on a regular basis in a paid capacity, and three key components provide a fairly good description of what people seem to mean by professionally competent communication.
1. Attention to Detail: Professionals are obsessively careful about production details. In part, this is the result of the high cost of creating thousands of copies of a marketing brochure, a television show, or a commercially viable Web site. Production costs alone can be astronomical, making the cost of reprinting an annual report or reshooting a training video simply unacceptable. Sending even a single letter can cost a company a hundred dollars. Making a presentation to just a few key executives will cost the company several thousand dollars to hold the meeting and another few thousand for the presentation team to produce its message with slides, video clips, and glossy handouts. Careful reviewing, editing, proofreading—and then checking the message again—are thus normal in a professional environment.
In addition, professionally produced communication is the only means an organization has for communication with its various audiences. When an individual makes a small spelling mistake in an e-mail, there are few real repercussions. The reader might also know the person on an interpersonal basis and probably has read many, many perfectly spelled words in previous e-mails. An error is seen as just a minor blemish within a much larger amount of positive information about the person. Just the opposite is generally true for an organization. The company often has just one chance to get its message in front of a customer, potential employee, or prospective shareholder. Errors simply cannot occur. Professional communication, in practical terms, means endless attention to the details of print production, language use, color reproduction, server capacity, and so on to create a perfect output.
2. Multiple Drafts: The high cost of error combines with the collaborative nature of the professional context to create a second common characteristic of communication: The message that is sent is never the first draft. Obviously, the need for multiple reviews and approvals means that the communication is typically edited, modified, and fine-tuned before it can be considered complete. The strategic and collaborative nature of the term professional also contributes to the need for editing and revision.
The strategic nature of professional communication means that there might be several options to consider and the choices are not always clear-cut. Judging the potential effectiveness of communication might involve drafting several possible storyboards or paragraphs. Extensive video footage might be shot so that an editor can choose the scenes that work best together. The navigation on a Web site might be tested with focus groups or a sample of early customers. The collaborative context often requires that team members share perceptions, adjust perspectives, and paraphrase ideas to achieve concordance—a process that involves multiple shared drafts before the communication authentically reflects the views of the entire group.
The result is that multiple drafts are a normal part of professional communication. Some editing is done to catch mistakes, but much more attention is given to testing and refining a message to maximize its effectiveness. Individuals who have worked in such an environment for any length of time will find that audience analysis becomes an automatic part of any writing, speaking, or design task. E-mails are reread to ensure that the tone is appropriate. Letters are rewritten for clarity and style. Slides are reworked to ensure their persuasive and aesthetic impact. Even sticky notes are rewritten so that the handwriting conveys exactly the right mood to the reader.
3. State-of-the-Art: A final practical result of the professional context is the degree to which communication methods and mode reflect state-of-the-art technological capabilities. This can include the technology of production—using the latest embedded graphics or animation options in presentation software—as well as the technology of message delivery—video conference rooms or webinar technology to hold a meeting. Sometimes, the focus on the latest “bells and whistles” can seem like a superficial attention to the form of a message at the expense of content. In most cases, however, there are obvious reasons for professional communication to reflect the state-of-the-art.