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An Odd Thing about HR Communication Consulting

An Odd Thing about HR Communication Consulting

by Frank Roche on September 21, 2007

in Careers, Communication

Those who can’t do, teach.
Those who can’t teach, consult.
Those who can’t consult work in communications.

That’s an old consulting joke. But as with most jokes, there’s a thread of truth embedded in it. When other HR consultants are brought in, they don’t get asked to show samples. No one asks an executive compensation consultant, “Can I see your last three comp designs that you did for other clients?” No one asks to look at an actuary’s spreadsheets from previous projects. But if you work in communication consulting it happens all the time.

I make my living as a communication consultant in HR. That means I spend a good chunk of time working closely with clients on the media and the message. I work with them on getting impact. Helping employees break through the clutter. I spend the rest of my time writing.

After all, at the end of the day, communication typically starts as words on paper that are then converted into web sites, scripts, videos, brochures, and memos. I’ve worked at a newspaper. I’ve been a communicator for more years than I care to count. I’ve consulted for hundreds of clients, wrote dozens of published articles, trained tens of thousands of people, and wrote thousands of blog posts on HR and communication. Still, clients want to see samples. Here’s a little hint for those of you who hire communication help: Don’t ask for samples. The side story below* is why.

It still surprises me when I get asked for samples. But it gets better. I had an interesting one a week or so ago. I got asked, in effect, to take a writing test — to deliver a few examples of something as proof that our firm could do that. And we did. Imagine if a compensation consultant was asked to do that: Here’s our current design, now show me something better. If we like it we’ll think about hiring you. We face that all the time in our business because everyone with a pen thinks he’s a communicator.

I’m not complaining, really. We do quite well, thank you very much. But I do think that corporate HR types do themselves a disservice when then get communication consulting help but have a view that anyone could do it if they just had the time. I think that’s generally true if you want the “Brochure People,” the communication consultants who don’t have a technical skill and their best feature is that they can write fully formed sentences with a noun, verb, and predicate in the right places. But real communication is more than that. If you don’t know what I mean I can show you a few samples. Well…maybe not.

* I was at a pitch several years ago to a potential client in NYC. They had just merged two very big and high profile companies. And they needed a lot of communication help. Twenty-five people came filing slowly into the room to hear two of us from our firm talk about our experience and what we might do for them. Everyone had new Blackberries and were clicking on those horrible things.

Because they had asked in advance, against our better judgment we went ahead and showed them some samples in the first few minutes of the meeting. After a long pause, one of the wizened HR people asked, “Got any more samples?” I turned and whispered to my co-presenter, “I have some more in the car. I’ll be right back.” I wanted to bolt out of there right then. We wasted 45 more minutes and got nowhere with those people. It’s why I never show samples anymore. People get hung up on the shade of purple you used, and can’t focus on what’s important.

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