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October 25, 2023

How do you hire for a strong communications team?

How do you hire for a strong communications team? Co-directors, Farra Trompeter and Elizabeth Ricca zoom out and talk about communications in general, why nonprofits are investing more now in how they structure their communications teams, and talk through four questions to guide your next communications hire. 

Transcript

Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to ask the question, “How do you hire for a strong communications team?” and I am delighted to be joined by Elizabeth Ricca, who is Big Duck’s other co-director. Liz, who uses she/her pronouns, in addition to directing Big Duck’s business operations also leads our strategy team and works with clients to build strong brands, campaigns, and communications teams. Liz joined Big Duck in 2007 and has since worked with dozens of nonprofits to establish clear frameworks for their brands, craft communication strategies that speak to varied audiences, and navigate the murky waters of change. Liz is particularly passionate about reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and criminal justice reform. Liz, welcome to the podcast.

Elizabeth Ricca: Thanks so much, Farra. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Farra Trompeter: Or I should say welcome back. Liz has been on before, and will inevitably be on again. So Liz recently wrote a post that some of you may have read called “Four questions to guide your next communications hire“. We will be sure to link to that in the show notes, if you haven’t read it or even if you’ve had, this will be a great refresher for you, and we’ll touch on a lot of content from that today. And with that in mind, let’s start by zooming all the way out and talk about communications teams in general. Over the past five years, we’ve been doing a lot more work to guide executive directors, development directors, communications directors, and more in how to manage and structure their communications department through an area of work we call Teams. Liz, you’ve worked on a number of these projects and I’m curious why you think nonprofits are investing more now in how they structure their communications teams?

Elizabeth Ricca: It’s been really interesting. This is an area of growing investment that we have been observing at Big Duck. I think it goes to just how important communications is for accomplishing a nonprofit’s mission. Nonprofit leaders and boards and teams are realizing that they need to connect their communications function with their development team, with their core programs team, making sure that communications really supports the work that they’re doing at all levels. And it also, I think, speaks to the complexity of communications and of even what that word “communications” means. A lot of the times the core question that starts a conversation is, who do I need, right? What kind of communications expertise or skill or talent do I need to have in-house? Because there’s such a wide array of skills. I think it’s both the increasing understanding of the vital role communications plays in an organization accomplishing its mission and the growing complexity of the communications function overall.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and speaking about that complexity, I know one thing that often comes up when people are hiring for a communications director is whether or not they should hire someone who has more skills and experience in big picture strategic thinking, or someone who can roll up their sleeves and get into the work, and someone who is really, in essence, more tactical. What type of advice or questions do you ask when people ask you this question and present you with this dilemma? “Do I go big picture strategy?” “Do I go hands-on tactical?” “Do I go both?” “What do I do?” How do you answer this question Liz?

Elizabeth Ricca: I’ll always start in answering this question with, “Tell me more about your needs.” Right? That includes who’s on your team currently, who is making decisions or not, where are decisions not being made about these kinds of questions? Is your leadership team actually covering a lot of the big-picture communication strategy and what you need as someone to implement? Or is there really no one on your team as it’s currently configured who can think and talk about communications at that strategic level? And then maybe you’re looking for someone who can plug that in. I think it’s also most frequently a question of scale. Smaller organizations, smaller companies probably are going to be starting with someone who has more tactical skills because you need somebody who, if you’re kinda making your first communications hire, it’s going to be someone who is on the ground making the posts, writing the emails, doing the kind of day-to-day of communications, as well as thinking about how it fits into strategic context. Once you have a team of communicators, then you really do need someone who can bring that kind of big-picture perspective. Make sure all the efforts of the communications team tie up to your communications plan, your goals as an organization, what’s really needed by your organization from the communications function. So as with everything strategic, starts with what your needs and your goals are for the hire, and then that helps you point down a path.

Farra Trompeter: I’m going to go off script for a moment because Liz wrote one of my favorite eBooks that Big Duck has ever published or co-wrote about strategic thinking and really helping think about what are those questions to set any kind of strategy. So if you are having a question about what does strategy even mean to us as an organization, what is strategic thinking, we will link to this ebook called Achieve More, which is all about defining strategy. And I think often we get asked this question too, in part of our communications planning project. Sometimes we’re coming in and creating a communications plan for an organization to execute because they need help with strategy and they have folks who are doing tactical stuff or vice versa, they have strategic folks and they’re wondering how to expand the team, and whether or not they need to hire a writer, an in-house designer, someone who’s a videographer, whatever it may be. So these questions are coming up all sorts of ways. And I want to note, you mentioned the idea of like, “depends what you mean by communications” earlier. And about two years ago, Sarah Durham, our founder, had a really interesting conversation with Samantha Campbell, who at the time was the senior director of marketing at the Apollo Theater, about marketing versus communications. And that was episode 78, which we’ll link to in the show notes if you want to go back and listen to that. I’m curious, Liz, do you see communications and marketing as the same thing? Is that in one person’s job are those two different roles or departments? What are the advantages or disadvantages of combining or separating these roles or functions and who do they report to?

Elizabeth Ricca: Well, again, the first question here is going to be one of strategy. What kinds of communications needs, what kinds of marketing needs does your organization have? Does your organization have both communications and marketing needs? I think that’s one of the interesting questions. For many organizations, their marketing may be limited or not at all. They may not have a program or a service or a thing that they need to market to a community. They may have ways of reaching their programmatic participants that don’t require kind of outbound marketing strategy, and they may be more focused on, you know, what you might think of as traditional communications, audience engagement, list growth, that sort of thing. As opposed to trying to bring people in the door for a, to kind of access a specific service or offering.

Elizabeth Ricca: I also would say the question of scale is really significant here. If you are an organization with a multi-person communications and or marketing team, I’ve seen teams that have a communications director and a marketing director. I’ve seen organizations that have a department head is more marketing than communications and has somebody who reports to them who kind of leads communications or leads marketing. And where that usually comes from is the organization’s focus. If you’re an organization doing performances and you want to bring an audience in every night for your performances, an arts and culture organization, for example, marketing is going to be a big piece of the work that you need to do. Marketing might be kind of backdrop that shapes your whole communications team. You might be sort of marketing first. If you are an organization that has somewhat of a less pronounced need for marketing, maybe you have most of your programs, your audience is kind of built into the communities that you’re in, but you know, once in a while you have a session to promote or a special workshop to offer in the community or something like that, and you have the need to market that, that might just be something that’s folded into your communications team because you don’t have a dedicated marketing function or need for marketing function.

Elizabeth Ricca: So what it is that your organization needs to accomplish through comms and marketing will really inform whether your team is kind of one first or the other first. And I do think that where you have people in separate roles really does come, do you have separate things you need to accomplish through your marketing and through your communications, right? Do you have different objectives for your communications and marketing? Do you have different skills needed for communications and marketing? If the answer to most of those questions is yes, then maybe you’re looking for two different people because it might be hard to find one person who combines all the skills that you’re looking for in one. In terms of who they report to, again, that really depends on what your organization’s internal structure looks like. Usually the person who heads up communications is reporting into senior leadership at the organization, may be a part of your leadership team depending on how your organization thinks about that, so reporting directly to the CEO. And it is I think less common, I haven’t seen as much in certainly mid-size organizations that have a director of communications and a director of marketing at that same level on the leadership team. Usually, one is seen as the kind of umbrella function for the other, but that’s all going to come back to your organization’s mission and your marketing needs,

Farra Trompeter: Right and sometimes, and we’ve talked before in the podcast about development and communications. Sometimes you see organizations have a department of external affairs where development and communications is combined, and they might have someone who’s in charge of development, someone in charge of comms, they’re both reporting to the head of external affairs or institutional advancement, and that person’s on the leadership team. So it’s, it’s all different flavors and it really comes down to, as you’ve said, what is the structure of the organization, what makes sense given your culture, your size, your budget. And there’s so much more we can talk about on this topic, but I’m going to bring us back. I will also mention though that Sarah, our founder, again, wrote a book called The Nonprofit Communications Engine that was expressly written for executive directors who wanted to sort of take a pause, look at the function of communications in their organization, and evaluate if it needed to change across six different levers.

Farra Trompeter: So encourage folks to check out The Nonprofit Communications Engine. We’ve done lots of webinars in the past that are in our video archives. So again, we’ll link to that a plenty in the show notes at bigduck.com/insights. But back to our other questions here. Liz, one of the things that you do at Big Duck when we have our own hiring, Liz leads our operations team. You also have worked with some of our clients who’ve hired a new communications director. And in that process, you always make sure we begin with a hiring brief. And I wonder if you can explain what a hiring brief is and how it gets used throughout a hiring process.

Elizabeth Ricca: Yes. I love this document. It’s so helpful for me when I’m in the role of a hiring manager and also when we’re working with clients on helping them strategize for a new hire. So at its most basic, a hiring brief is a document you can keep coming back to that outlines your goals and your needs, and what you are looking for in this hire. So the kind of key components of ours will start with a section of our hiring, specifically breaking down our hiring goals. Yes, we’re hiring for a person in this role, in the director of communications role. What does a great person for that role look like? How much experience do they have? Where does this fall in their career trajectory? What specific types of experience within communications are we most excited for them to bring? Obviously, there are a lot of differences, you could be looking for someone with a ton of experience structuring a department. You could look for someone with a ton of experience in digital communications, right? There are a lot of different things you could look to see and emphasize or highlighted in someone’s experience. What are the things that are most needed by you in this moment for this hire? So you kind of sketch that out at the top. That’s sort of what the ideal candidate looks like for the role. And then what we like to do is take all the job responsibilities. These can come straight from your job description and be kind of clarified as you organize them into your brief, but kind of take each area of job responsibility from your job description and assign it a priority level. Is this a high priority or a must for this hire? Is this a medium priority level or a “nice to have”? Is this a low priority level or not really needed for this hire? Again, at this moment, these are all things in the job description, but what are the things that you are most looking for in this hire? And then once you’ve set those priority levels, write some notes to yourself about what it is you’re looking for. So you’re looking for communications expertise and you’ve given that a high priority level. What does communications expertise need? What are we looking for when we’re looking for communications expertise? We are looking for a person’s understanding of communication strategy. We are looking for a person’s ability to integrate communications with development and with other organizational functions and strategy. We are looking for someone with experience kind of down in the weeds doing communicating and up at the top level doing the strategy, right? There could be a lot of ways you might answer this question about communications expertise, but answer it for yourself and then go down the whole sort of job description that way and make sure you’ve got a clear sense of what you’re looking for and what the priorities are.

Elizabeth Ricca: And then, and I think this can be a magical piece. Ask yourself for each job responsibility or job area, how will we learn if the person has this expertise? And give yourself a little checklist of all the components of your hiring process. Will we learn about it in their job application, in their round one interview in the portfolio they provide for us in deeper interviews? How will we find out if this person has communications expertise? And that both helps you check your process, make sure that you have all the components you need to in a hiring process to fully evaluate the candidate, and helps you think about what kinds of questions do you need to ask in your screener interviews in your deeper interviews. What kinds of information do you need to gather in the application? If you’re hoping the application is going to answer a particular question for you, then you got to make sure the application asks that question. So that is a piece that I always really like to include in the higher-end brief that helps us make sure our whole process is kind of well-defined and strategically on point at the beginning.

Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and what I love about starting the process with a brief is that then other folks who then join the hiring team, even if they’re just, you know, one of five people in an interview or they’re the ones checking the exercise or whatever it may be, they can always go back to the brief and everything is laid out at the beginning before the applications start coming in. ‘Cause it can be very easy to get very enamored by a particular candidate who wrote this beautiful cover letter or was a great interviewee, but if we forget what we’re going after, we might then find we’re kind of getting attracted and drawn to the wrong thing. So the brief is a good reminder of, “Okay, we said this is what we’re looking for” and also allows you to be a lot more fair and equitable as you’re going through the process.

Elizabeth Ricca: Absolutely.

Farra Trompeter: Now I’m hoping everyone’s out there, they’re so excited about this conversation. They’re going to go over to bigduck.com/insights and read your blog and others we’ve written on this topic, but just in case they’re not doing that or they want to hear about it themselves, I would love it, Liz, in this post, which was called, again, “Four questions to guide your next communications hire“. I’d love it if you can share what those four questions are and just offer any insights as you reflect on those four questions.

Elizabeth Ricca: Yes. The first question is, “What kinds of communication skills and expertise do you need on your team?” That is sort of similar to the question we were asking before about do you need a tactical person or do you need a strategic person, right? You start with this question about what it is that you need. And in the post I suggest, and I think it’s a good exercise to try to think ahead. Imagine five years from now you have a communications function department team that is doing all you need it to do. It’s well integrated, your messages are going out, they’re doing everything you need them to do, people are coming in the door, donations are coming in the door. What does that communications function look like? That could help you answer what it is you need, who it is you need right now to build towards that kind of future goal state.

Elizabeth Ricca: The second question is thinking about your current challenges. “What are the biggest sticking points in your current communications workflows?” That’s identifying the places where you’re experiencing pain, where you really are looking for someone to come in and help you smooth something out or fix something or find a new approach to something. And that can help you identify the type of problem-solving that you need or the type of experience that you need. Often actually, we find when we’re working with an organization that wants to restructure their communications teams or structure it proactively, they’re thinking about the link between communications and development. That can be something that can be challenging to get it right. Do you have an integrated team? Do you have the two teams completely separate? How do you make the connections between them? Maybe those structural disconnects or one of the things that’s kinda holding back your communications. Maybe communication itself is what is holding back your communications, right? Maybe your ability to connect as a team, to organize the information you’ve got to gather those you know, stories and insights from your programs and translate them into your organization’s communication so that they’re authentic and expressive of the work that you’re doing. Maybe that workflow is just completely broken or doesn’t exist, right? Maybe that’s what you’re looking for that can help you think about what your new hire most needs to bring to the table.

Elizabeth Ricca: The third question is, “What role are we really hiring for?” This is an important question because sometimes a new hire is an opportunity to take a whole step back and think about the structure of the department as a whole. You can just hire to replace the person who just left or you can hire to fulfill. Maybe you’ve realized you really need to double down on your digital presence. You could just hire someone who’s a great digital communicator. Maybe that’s not actually the challenge you’re dealing with right now, or maybe that’s not the communications team that you need in the next iteration. So taking a beat before you just post up that job description. Thinking about the team as a whole, maybe you need a bigger team or a smaller team, or a team that has different configuration of expertise. A hire is a great opportunity to get to rethink some of those things. So take that opportunity when it comes before you jump into a hire.

Elizabeth Ricca: And then the last question is, “What do we need to prioritize in this hire?” And we’ve talked about that a little bit in the hiring brief, but it is so tempting and you will find as you go to write your hiring brief that everything is a high priority because it always is. But when everything’s a high priority, nothing is a high priority. So trying to give, really push yourself to think if there are three things that this person in this role has to have really deep skills in what are those three things? And kind of challenge yourself, and that can help you get very specific with your hiring brief and very clear like you were saying, Farra, about not getting drawn to the candidate who did the best interview or the candidate who has the shiniest qualifications. And really stay focused on the candidate who brings the type of experience, the type of skill that you need for your team.

Farra Trompeter: Well, Liz, that was great. And before we wrap up, I’m just curious, any other tips you want to share, whether it is about hiring a director of communications or just really kind of building out a communications team?

Elizabeth Ricca: I’ll add that one of the things that is really important to think about in any hiring process is how you are thinking about how you’re centering diversity, equity, inclusion in your hiring process. It’s an area that gets a lot of attention. If you’re thinking about your DEI plans or priorities. Doing a hiring brief is actually a great tool for something like that, and making sure all the things we’re talking about here that help you make a strategic hire, like having a clear job description, having an objectively written hiring brief that is based on your strategy and your needs, these are all things that can help strengthen your hiring process from an equity point of view, which will also strengthen the team that you bring in in the end,

Farra Trompeter: Yes, plus a million to all of that. Well, sadly it’s time to go. And if you are out there and you’re trying to figure out how you can strengthen your communications team, again, this may be a broken record, but head on over to bigduck.com/insights to check out other blogs we’ve written, podcasts, eBooks, and more. If you’re listening and you’re wondering how Big Duck can help you structure your team or make your next hire for communications, please feel free to reach out to us. You can go to bigduck.com and check out the contact form and that will head on over to myself and our marketing team. If you want to connect with Liz, she is Elizabeth Ricca, Elizabeth spelled traditionally, and then Ricca, R I C C A on LinkedIn. Liz, thank you so much for being here.

Elizabeth Ricca: Thank you, Farra.