Graduation EMScom16 commencement speech of Vincent Lusser

17.11.2015

Congratulations! As of today, as of this hour in fact, you are - each of you - Masters of Science in Communication Management, which means accomplished specialists and experts: Masters of Science, meaning, people with the knowledge and skills to teach others your art.

Specialists you are, indeed, not only in communication and public relations, but in a long list of sub-areas such as reputation management, digital communication, internal communication, crisis management, story-telling, brand and relationship management … not to mention the art of selecting the best Merlot del Ticino at your favourite grotto!

Specialists, experts! To me these two terms encapsulate one of the fundamental changes that have swept through our world in the last quarter of a century!

Indeed, I’m old enough to remember a world where apart from lawyers, doctors and engineers, most people working around me were “generalists”. These generalists would feel no need to cement their professional evolution through a Masters’ degree when they started specialising in one particular field!

Working for the Red Cross in Afghanistan in 1990, we “generalist delegates” would travel far on dusty roads to visit the prison and hospital, meet the local authorities, distribute messages to families separated by the conflict, register amputees who needed a prosthesis and evacuate injured Mujahedeen on a stretcher in the back of our white Land Cruisers – all in one trip.

At this time, the communicators were mostly journalists who had crossed the door to institutional communications and who were held in tight control by management with a strategy of “low profile” and “no comment”.

This humanitarian approach soon changed profoundly. New colleagues arrived by the day: water and sanitation engineers, nutritionists, micro-economic project advisers, experts in agronomy, purchasers… and communicators.

Indeed in recent days, the ICRC’s web site posted job vacancies for a regional support supply chain team leader, a forensic advisor, a medical logistician, a vehicle fleet manager, and a weapon contamination delegate!

This shift to specialists inside organisations reflects the enormous efforts around us to do a better job and to provide more professional services in each field of activity. It reflects a world that is going through unprecedented and almost real-time technological, scientific and economic change.

Moreover, our societies’ ambitions have grown and become more complex and interlinked. This is clearly reflected in the growth of the legal and normative framework at the global, regional, national and cantonal levels.

The trend toward specialisation is not limited to businesses and NGO’s. Highly specialised academics have joined the ranks of our public administrations, parliaments and civil society.

Looking at my current job environment at the Department of Town and Country Planning, Housing and Energy of the Canton of Geneva, I clearly see the same trends at work.

Our cantonal government has set objectives for 17 policy areas, and my department’s work directly or indirectly touches on half a dozen of them.

This means that in my current job I work with professionals in the areas of town planning, housing, energy, heritage conservation, transports, architecture, environmental issues, agriculture, public spaces, the safety of building sites, geographical data management, or industrial planning.

If you apply for a building permit for your company’s headquarters, it’s likely that many of these experts will be involved in reviewing your project and issuing their specific recommendations for or against it.

The risk is that highly specialised experts who have to apply highly specialised legal and professional standards may each stick to their own ideal solutions, pushing the inevitable pragmatic choices up the hierarchy and up to the minister’s level.

Fostering team work and cross-disciplinary collaboration to be able to make pragmatic choices is therefore a key objective of our management, and my own for internal communication.

Last but not least, when looking at our target publics, when taking a wider look at society, we may also find the same trend toward fragmentation.

Myriads of civil society actors and lobbies each promote very specific issues, such as cars, birds, single family homes or rare species of plants …Such trends are reinforced by social media and the many experts who prolong their life-long professional passion as social activists once they are comfortably retired but uncomfortably – for us - connected.

So, in short, three wheels of specialisation are turning at the same time:

  1. A complex and globalised environment marked by change, scientific progress and higher ambitions in all fields;
  2. More specialised expertise inside businesses, non-profit organisations and public entities who each push the wheel toward further specialisation;
  3. A more fragmented society, with widely differing priorities and outlooks, organised in a constellation of specialised lobbies and civil society organisations.

So what does this mean for our role in communications?

Looking at my own experience, I can see three main takeaways:

  • Firstly, we should cherish more than ever Grunig & Moss’s definition of public relations as creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relations between an organisation and its publics. Whatever our own fields of expertise, we must remain broad-viewed, broad-minded and generous ambassadors; focused on endlessly connecting in a world that tends to disconnect and subdivide everything. And I think this role is even more important as marketing departments acquire frightening tools to analyse, isolate and target millions of individuals.
  • Secondly, our ambassador role must increasingly be played inside our organisations as much as between our organisation and external stakeholders. Internal communication must strive toward creating broad and transversal understanding and collaboration. It must act as an essential counterweight to the proliferation of silos; it’s not a question of acquiring new technical collaboration tools: above all, we must be our CEO’s best ally to favour the bigger picture as a core value of organisational culture.
  • Thirdly, we must not ourselves yield to the temptation to hyper-specialise to the point where we become a communication silo inside our organisations. I’m quite aware of the fact that what we expect our colleagues to do – from Intranets to collaborative tools, social media and public appearances, often already exceeds their capacity to follow our tracks.

So please, don’t laugh if to conclude this speech, at the very hour you have been confirmed as specialists and experts, I ask you to rapidly become… generalists again!

Indeed, I believe that in our capacity to combine both highly specific skills and generalist common sense, in this dual capacity lies our core added value to our organisations.

This, to me, is the true meaning of being a Master, not an expert only, but a Master of Science in Communication Management.

Thank you!

Vincent Lusser

14.11.2015