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Working together: resolving tension between comms and policy teams

10 November 2011

Ask a comms director what causes friction between comms and policy at many charities and you’ll hear: “Policy wonks who fancy themselves as comms people and spend their time complaining about comms instead of researching and writing some [expletive deleted] policy”.

Ask a policy wonk, however and you’ll be told: “The simplistic approach of so-called comms professionals who are prepared to sacrifice any number of facts on the altar of a sensational story”.

Whoever’s to blame, tension between the precise, fact-based approach of policy and the desire for comms professionals to tell a compelling and engaging story can undermine the effectiveness of both.

How can tension be resolved?

This issue formed the topic of discussion at a recent lunch for our organisational members. Flashpoints included everything from agreeing tone of voice to thrashing out a messaging hierarchy; from defining an overarching brand to convincing colleagues of the skills required for mass communication. Throw in a few examples from international NGOs of rogue countries deciding to go it alone on policy decisions and you have a heady mix of potential conflict.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like that, according to several guests at the lunch, all senior players at some of the UK’s leading charities.

Integration or segregation?

For Scope, it’s all about integration. director of communications Alexandra O’Dwyer described the charity’s recent restructure as fuelling an organisational drive to become more credible by building a solid base of research and expertise.

“At Scope, we have a director of comms and marketing and a director of policy and campaigning. Both report to the chief executive, and we see the two functions as two sides of the same coin,” O’Dwyer explained.

In a triumvirate with fundraising, the so-called “three crowned heads of external affairs” are increasingly becoming a foursome by including the director of services. It’s an approach that sees comms not just as a service function for policy or services, but part of a reflective relationship that’s just as likely to see comms commissioning policy for research to underpin key messaging as vice versa.

Integration – including physically putting teams together – is one approach. Other charities, such as Macmillan Cancer Support, are taking a different view. According to Hilary Cross, director of external affairs, an internal restructure sees policy move out of external affairs this month into a new directorate of its own, along with research. "We have recently developed a new corporate strategy to address the massive – and growing – challenge of cancer, and influencing has become an increasingly important part of this strategy, so we believe it should have a more dedicated home," she said.

Share conversation and goals – and see the bigger picture

But integrated or devolved, several key factors loom large at charities which think they’re starting to get it right between comms and policy. The first is leadership: senior management’s attitude – including trustee buy-in – is central to harmonious working. A sense of shared goals is vital too, as is mutual respect for each other’s expertise. It’s also essential to be clear about roles and responsibilities from the outset.

Starting the process of working together with a specific campaign can get the ball rolling. Going further and making close ties with policy a matter of business as usual should pay dividends, however, not least in terms of increased national media coverage for the charity.

Integration is key 

Daniel Mazliah, head of media relations at Scope, says their "business as usual" approach includes a weekly meeting between media relations and the policy and campaign teams. Combining this with a mutual six-monthly brainstorming session to try and forecast the big media stories coming up has proved very effective. “Comms is now at the first meeting when the concept of a report is discussed, so we can say from the start what we will need,” says Mazliah. 

This could be one area where big charities should learn from small ones, suggested Penelope Gibbs from the Prison Reform Trust. Small charities necessarily have individuals doing a bit of everything. Perhaps big charities could think radically about creating workstreams that have just one person following through on all aspects, to ensure a holistic approach. 

And maybe we’re not quite as different as we like to think we are, said John Loughton, interim head of public policy at Relate. After all, comms and policy have a shared mission and as many similarities as differences:

“Sometimes we keep ourselves in fiefdoms. You need to look beyond the roles and see the people within them,” he said. “After all, if policy is to be successful, it has to be packaged well. The closer we can get policy to understand that brand is fundamentally a strong statement of a charity’s belief, the greater harmony there’ll be.”

Read about how real charities are better integrating comms and policy:

Vicky Browning


Vicky became CEO of ACEVO, the charity and social leaders’ network, in January 2017, helping to empower our inspiring sector leaders to make the biggest difference they can to their beneficiaries, their organisation and to society. Vicky was previously CharityComms’ director for nearly seven years.