Why are we seeing comms conflict between staff and officers?

Steve Coole is a consultant working in SUs

It is generally accepted that communication is key to resolving conflict.

It is also well known that during any team development days the notion that “we need to communicate better” will have featured at regular intervals during the discussions.

But what does this actually look like in practice? What does better communication mean? We interchange our phraseology around communication all the time, and often without making any distinction or considering the mass of ingredients that are required to create “effective communication”.

How much is about timing? Will you sprinkle in some emotive language? Perhaps add a dash of informality? Is your recipe appealing to those you wish to sell your event or product to? Or is the recipe being concocted to influence, address a problem or to build a public narrative?

Cross purposes

I am not a comms expert, despite the fact I practice every day. However, I have been around students’ unions for a long time and have interacted and worked with thousands of student officers over the course of two decades, during which both universities and students’ unions have changed significantly.

Students’ needs and wants have also changed during this time, and it makes me feel incredibly old to think that when I was a student, sending a text message was the height of my “social media” experience. So following many conversations with student officers on my student officer support programme, a growing and regular theme across the SU’s I work with is important to highlight.

As officers settled into their roles last term, it became apparent that some were struggling to work with their SU communications and marketing departments. “I don’t have anybody to help me deliver my manifesto, I don’t know how to engage students with my campaigns and no one has the time or capacity to help” was one example where an officer felt they were struggling to get to grips with their role in what is a student led organisation.

Being “student led” is sometimes cited as the reason staff are struggling to work with their officers – one SU CEO reflected to me that it’s a “50-50 relationship”, whereas another said “the officers need to say what they want the team to do”. I asked them to imagine an SU culture that worked by taking an officer manifesto at the point of election and for the remainder of the year having the support staff striving to always be one step ahead of the officer in terms of potential consequences, scenarios and impact of different approaches – all of which informed how they coach the officer around their decisions.

Working with student officers is a skill. It is a unique skill because if you approach the working relationship in the same way as any other workplace setting it won’t work. Officers set the tone and focus of the organisation, or at least they should, and it’s our job to coach, empower and enable them to maximise their time as a leader in an extraordinary working environment. It’s a skill. If officers are not being made to feel that they are leaders then we have a problem, and simply telling them they are leaders doesn’t cut it.

Digging in

Often these struggles manifest in missed deadlines, confused focus or relationship issues – but they arguably come from a deeper place. As SU’s have been on a journey of professionalisation have we sacrificed or compromised an essential aspect of what it takes to be an effective SU staff member – the ability to work with student officers?

Has the professionalisation of SU’s led us down a recruitment path where we now focus much more on the skills and experience to do “the job” and less time worrying about the balance of whether the individual is able to thrive in a space where their lead will often come from people with both less work and life experience?

As SU’s are we actually negotiating the non-negotiable if it means we get a highly talented individual through the door who perhaps has the “wrong” set of values? Is this causing problems and conflict and therefore impacting on our organisational culture and performance?

What’s clear is that often these struggles are not born out of personality clashes or competence, but more around the focus, time and attention that officers and staff were placing on their respective priorities – and they begs big questions:

  • Why are these priorities different when the department is operating in a student-led organisation?
  • Why do these differences exist and why are they necessary?
  • What day to day mentoring, coaching and/or support are officers getting during a global pandemic in relation to student engagement, leading the public debate on behalf of their members with regards to political and controversial subjects in both a volatile and continuously changing environment?
  • How are we ensuring that the SU brand is visible and central in trying to influence and shape the debate in the interests of their members?

People will have different opinions and perspectives on these questions, and I hope that sharing mine will provoke some useful discussions amongst SU’s.

Fixing the problem

SUs with commercial services will need communication and marketing functions for these purposes, and will recruit individuals with the appropriate skillset, knowledge, and expertise to effectively serve this purpose.

But political influencing and campaigning support is different – so is it right to also expect these individuals to provide political influencing and campaigning support for student officers? Is that what they signed up for when taking the job?

Do we leave public influencing and comms solely down to student officers because they are the voice of students and elected representatives? Regardless of whether this might be their first employed role, let alone one with high levels of responsibility and pressure?

Often the SU CEO will provide this aspect of officer support in terms of advice and coaching on their approach, but how much time can they commit to this? Perhaps there is a mixture of people providing this across the SU, all with different values, approaches and personalities?

As a result, maybe officers start seeking support in the wrong places or from staff who are not necessarily qualified and certainly not well paid enough to provide that support in addition to their day job as a coordinator or project officer.

If staff capacity is totally consumed with “business as usual” operational activity (I have heard examples this year of comms staff directly asking officers for operational support), at what point do officer manifesto points and student priorities get built into people’s workplans?

If SU’s do not have a public affairs style role in the structure to support a consistent message around organisational narrative and officer campaigns, we shouldn’t be surprised that officers can feel exposed on social media, feel unimportant because they have to fight internally to get the support they want for their priorities, all of which can lead to a lack of motivation and in the worst cases poor mental health.

These observations are not a criticism of SU’s or any group of SU staff members – they are more reflections as we approach our next normal. The pandemic has been all consuming for everyone, but if some of the issues highlighted here were present before and exacerbated by the pandemic, it will be important not to simply revert to the old normal as we all prepare to be vaccinated.

One response to “Why are we seeing comms conflict between staff and officers?

  1. Hi Steve.

    A really interesting piece. Since the beginning of ‘all this’ we (UCLan Students’ Union) have been holding regularly Student Voice Meetings which include Officers, Advice Team staff and Comms leads to listen and share information about students. It’s this golden thread of information from Advice and Officers to Comms that has helped articulate the student voice.

    The involvement of the Comms Team in Student Voice is fundamental. Only last week our Communication Assistant, stopped Social Media planning to help Officers draft a letter to the University over student rent. Our Creative and Brand Manager, who is busy planning our brand activity paused this to design some study guide slides our VP Education had put together. Our Communications and Marketing Manager who is in the middle of our new website launch, temporary set this aside to quickly plan the communications for No Detriment Policy that the Officers had recently got the University to agree to. Social Media content, Brand development and Website functionality are vital to us as an organisation, but as an Officer-led organisation, ensuring elected students have an effective voice is just as important.

    A couple of years ago our Students’ Union decided to join Communications activity with Representation and Advice as a new Department. This has set the expectation that Communications and Student Voice are closely aligned within the organisation. And this has been installed in all new communications staff joining in those years. This has been helpful as students worry less about the price (and quality) of beer at the Union bar (because it’s not open) and more about the number (and quality) of teaching hours they receive.

    Alex
    Director of Communication and Membership
    UCLan Students’ Union

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