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How to deal with a comms hippo

4 January 2018

A hippo (highest paid person’s opinion) is a clumsy animal that comes in and wrecks your carefully laid plans.

They demand final sign-off for all comms projects, constantly override other (often more knowledgeable) voices and even change the whole brief at the last minute.

They might decide, a week before it’s due to go live, that the website you’ve been working on for six months should be an app instead. Not because users want it, but because the hippo read an article about apps the night before the meeting.

Dealing with a hippo is deeply frustrating because the unspoken assumption is because of their position, their time and opinions are worth more than yours. But the damage goes deeper than that.

Left unchecked, a hippo’s behaviour can mean talented staff feel stifled and leave. Meanwhile, ideas stagnate and planning becomes impossible because you have to second-guess their opinion rather than trusting your own.

But don’t despair. With a bit of strategic thinking you can change things for the better – here’s how…

1. Be honest

All too often, a hippo is the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s not a healthy situation, but they may feel their job is in danger if they mention it. Sadly, if this persists, nothing will ever change. This doesn’t mean you have to challenge the hippo directly. Just gently acknowledging the reality of the situation to others is the first step towards doing things differently.

Try sticking to the facts of the matter rather than how the hippo’s making you feel. Simply saying: “I’ve noticed that always has the final say on a project. Is there any way we can include more people’s opinions?” can get the ball rolling.

If you’re calmly commenting on what’s going on in front of you, it becomes harder for others to ignore (including the hippo).

2. Ask the real experts

Do your supporters want to see a two-hour video of this year’s AGM, complete with a twenty-minute address from the CEO? Your hippo may think so, and they believe their views are the only ones that count.

Yet, there’s one opinion that matters far more than yours or the hippo’s – your audience’s. Thankfully in today’s digital-first culture, it’s easier than ever to gather hard data on exactly what they want. So get as much evidence as you can, from the results of A/B testing to metrics from the most-visited parts of your website. Everyone has an opinion, but it’s far harder to argue with data.

3. Review your processes

Hippos often believe if they’re asked for feedback, then it has to be comprehensive. This can lead to extensive comments and amends for a project that only really needed a ‘This looks great – thanks’.

Sometimes this has a knock-on effect, as team members learn by example and decide that they have to unload their opinions on everything comms-related via Microsoft Word’s Review panel.

If you want to change the kind of comments you get, try changing how you ask for feedback. Rather than an open-ended ‘Would love your comments’ try something like ‘We’re all really happy with this, just wondered if you’d like any last minute tweaks before it goes live.’

4. Understand your hippo

A hippo (probably) isn’t behaving the way they do just to frustrate you. Hippos are often micro-managers who believe they have to control every element of a project. This can be because, deep down, they’re insecure about their role.

This is understandable. Too often managers are expected to be instant experts on the nitty-gritty of managing a team, without getting any advice on how that happens.

They might even be influenced by management trends coming out of Silicon Valley where characteristic leaders believe they have to stick to an all-encompassing vision and edit out what they see as dissenting voices. Steve Jobs has a lot to answer for.

Ultimately hippos need support to change their ways. And offering management mentoring, training and development can be a positive approach to ironing out hippo-like behaviour.

Life after hippos

Convincing hippos to give up a little control can pay dividends. After all, a comms team where everyone feels valued and listened to is free to be creative and try new ideas.

And if the hippos won’t change? Well, at least you can bond over their behaviour in the pub while you search for your next job…


Image: Ghost Presenter on Unsplash

Matt Chittock

copywriter, freelance

Matt Chittock is an experienced copywriter, journalist and proofreader working in the not-for-profit sector.