Bernard Ginns: The art of good communication is music to the ears

Have your say

Communication is everything in the modern world.

Get the message right and your business will be booming. Get it wrong and you might as well go home.

This is an endlessly fascinating topic so I seized on the opportunity last week to meet a genuine expert in the field of what is known as strategic communications.

Robert T Hastings Jr is a former US Army officer and helicopter pilot who moved into public affairs, rising to become chief spokesman at the US Department of Defense in 2008.

Our conversation over coffee one afternoon last week revealed some valuable insights into communicating with the public and the character traits of one of the world’s most powerful men.

All worth sharing with business leaders here in Yorkshire.

As an organisation, the Department of Defense is probably the largest in the world, with 3.5m people and a budget of $650bn.

Mr Hastings, in town to deliver a lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University, reported to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a man he described as “one of the most brilliant people I have ever met” and one blessed with an enormous intellectual capacity.

“We used to meet to work on his speeches,” he told me. “He was thinking one day about a quote he wanted to use. He told me the name of the book, the name of the chapter and the number of the page. He was exactly right.”

Mr Gates is “a measured, calm and thoughtful man”, said Mr Hastings, who never saw his boss lose his temper, adding that “he was always in control. He thought his words out very carefully. He always said exactly what he meant”.

Mr Hastings was hired to help Mr Gates communicate with the public. Fortunately for his spokesman, Mr Gates, who served from 2006-11, was committed to communication and understood its importance, meeting regularly with the Press.

He was also committed to understanding events, said Mr Hastings, adding that “there was always something deep. He didn’t react to the surface situation. He would try to figure out what was really going on. What is under the problem?”

With America’s far-reaching military, geopolitical and economic interests, the job brought Mr Hastings into close and regular involvement “with some of the most serious things going on in the world”.

It also allowed him to develop a standardised approach to strategic communications.

Mr Hastings said: “It has to be leadership driven. It has to come from the very top; the vision, the goals and the end state have to be articulated by the leadership.

“It has to have credibility. [There has to be] the perception of truthfulness and respect between all parties. It has to have unity of effort in that all bodies are working towards the same goal.”

He learned that “media is not the only thing, it’s everything”. In other words, an organisation can be communicating effectively through every other channel, but if it is not successful with news media, all this work can be wasted.

Imagery is a high priority, he added, as “we are in an image-focused society. A picture does speak a thousand words, more than any other time in history”.

Speed is important, too: “You must be able to communicate rapidly in today’s information society. News travels around the world at the speed of light and bad news travels even faster.”

Being the first to act gives you control, said Mr Hastings, who said there are “no secrets anymore” as most, if not all, stories will find the light of day. Mr Hastings, who was a political appointment, left the Pentagon two months after the change in administration.

He is now a senior vice president at Bell Helicopter, a $3.5bn turnover civil and defence contractor.

Coffee finished, Mr Hastings said: “For business today, communication is not an option anymore. There was a time when businesses could choose to be in the public eye. That’s no longer the case.

“The modern expectation of transparency from stakeholders and investors requires companies to communicate. Employees want to understand what is going on and they have a right to know. In that backdrop, you have to be a good communicator.”

He added: “Human resources talk to employees. Investor relations talk to analysts. Media relations talk to the news media. Chief executives talk to whoever they talk to.

“The strategic communications process is the conductor of the orchestra getting everyone talking on the same sheet of music and playing the right song.”

Helpful advice, then, from someone who’s scaled the heights of his profession.

Important, too, in a world where the consumer has more information at his or her disposal than ever before.