In this blog I am addressing the second of the ‘Ten Key Issues on (Development) Communication’ that states that there is a sharp and profound difference about a good everyday communicator and a professional communicator. I apologize to those of you who have this distinction clear in your minds and find this an obvious point. Unfortunately, many, too many, managers and decision makers in development institutions do not always seem to understand the difference between the two.
I have heard many times the sentence ‘He/she is a good communicator’, a seemingly positive statement. However it is a statement that can be rather frustrating when used interchangeably to denote a person skillful in presenting ideas and points of view and a person with a professional expertise in the field of communication. An individual’s skills and effectiveness in delivering a speech, defending an argument or persuading the public about the validity of what was presented should not be automatically assumed to mean that that person has skills and competencies in the field of communication. On more than one occasion I have seen brilliant speech writers being assigned to design complex communication strategies in the development context. On other occasions I have seen individuals with some background in journalism or individuals with an effective ‘ars oratoria’ being assigned to design and manage complex communication programs, and often with less than satisfactory results. After all, many dictators were excellent speakers and had outstanding communication skills, but would they be up to the task if asked to design and lead a communication for development intervention?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with experimenting, but there is something intrinsically wrong when communication strategies designed to improve people’s lives fail to achieve the intended results due to lack of skills and expertise by the communication specialist. To avoid this ambiguity, Luis Ramiro Beltran, one of the most renowned Latin American communication scholars, suggested that we rename the communication specialist as ‘communicologist’, highlighting the specific set of knowledge, competencies, skills and, I dare to say, attitude that s/he should possess.
First of all, s/he should have a deeper knowledge of the theoretical body of knowledge on communication and its various branches such as political communication, mass communications, communication research, participatory communication and all the rest. Secondly, to be able to apply communication effectively in all sorts of situations the communicologist should be familiar with the basic principles of a number of other disciplines, namely anthropology, ethnography, sociology, political economy, adult education and participatory approaches. Thirdly, the communicologist would need to be familiar with the development field and the project cycle, in order to conduct assessments and develop strategy that from their inceptions use communication to engage stakeholders and define objectives, thus making the planning and implementation more effective and sustainable.
Finally, the communicologist should have the right attitude, one of the rarest commodities to be found in many specialists. S/he should be ready and willing to listen, listen and then listen again, before even trying to understand, assess and propose solutions. S/he should have a high degree of empathy towards the stakeholders groups involved in the process of change. S/he should be willing to use two-way communication to build trust, achieve mutual understanding, mediate and seek consensus on issues that need to be improved.
When working in governance, it is even more important than the communicologist appreciates the socio-cultural context, understands the political structures and institutions of the country and that s/he has basic skills in negotiation and mediation in addition to the most traditional communication skills. There is no doubt that every human being, just by being raised in a complex social environment, is a capable communicator, but there can also be little doubt, that to be a professional communicator, or communicologist, implies more than just expressing one owns ideas effectively!
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