Communications: Is it Gray Hairs vs. Millennials?

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Who should run your strategic communications?

Even in a slumbering economy, I choose to have hope that there is not a hardening line or increasing competition between those of us who grew up doing “traditional” strategic communications (and may have a little gray hair) and the younger generation, among them the Millennials, adults aged 18 to 34 and the now largest proportion of the American workforce.  I have heard from friends my age and older that this may, in fact, be happening:  that some younger communicators who have risen to some managerial positions do not want to hire the “gray hairs.”

Some of this tension is rooted in who is better suited to run social media (a component of a communications mix):  the “digital natives” (see “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25“) and my own rebuttal making an argument on behalf more senior communications folks.  This debate is not new – this argument took place in 2012.  And it exploded.

Strategic communications: older vs. younger generation?

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Social media is just one of the tools that organizations can employ to communicate with key audiences.  For those of us born in the 1970s or earlier, there was not social media and we started in different fields like marketing, journalism or TV and grew our communications portfolios to include social media. Younger professional communicators, including Millennials, began their forays into communications starting with social media (said “digital natives”) and grew their professional experiences from there.  And this brings the debate to the forefront of when an organization is choosing someone to run the communications shop, including social media.  Who is best qualified?  The answer will always be “it depends,” but here’s how I see it:

Experience breeds good judgment and instincts

My two cents on what makes a good communicator:

  • Broad experience: Doing sound strategic communications, especially for mid-to-large-sized companies can and should include practicing and overseeing marketing, public relations, public affairs, government relations, media relations, crisis communications, litigation communications, internal communications, executive positioning, corporate web sites and yes, social media. It’s hard to imagine accumulating the experience to do all or most of this for someone who has just a few years working in the field.
  • Sound judgment: The magic of communications is not in the tools, but in knowing how and when to employ them. Knowing how to do media relations well (not the “spray and pray”) or launch a dark web site in the midst of a crisis requires decision-making that is often the result of experience, the “been there, done that” that enables one to choose the right strategies and tactics at the right time.  Many younger communicators have truly good, innate abilities to make these decisions, but there is no substitute for the experience of having held multiple positions that include critical components of strategic communications.
  • The right instincts: None of this is to say that younger people cannot be excellent strategic communicators. Many Millennials are known for putting in longer, later hours and the possessing the ability to rapidly absorb information – and these may well speed up the learning curve.  It is also true that experienced executives make horrible mistakes.  Just ask Oscar Muñoz of United Airlines, who recently made a self-proclaimed “mistake of epic proportions” that cost United Airlines billions in market cap.

“Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well.”

The quote above is from Benjamin Franklin who died 227 ago, but its meaning is still true today.

Organizational reputation is built by a company’s founders and employees, but public opinion of them is often shaped by experienced professional communicators (hopefully with a seat at the decision-making table).  Organizational success or profit is dependent upon public perception. How consumers feel about a company and where and how they spend money can be the difference between patronizing or boycotting a local store.  Consumer attitudes can result in the loss of market capital such as the estimated billions of dollars recently lost by United Airlines from forcibly removing one passenger from an airplane  – and the horrendous communications that took place in the event’s aftermath.

Bad strategic communications: United Airlines forcibly removes a passenger from a flight

Image source: Hennes Communications

Other factors can determine comms success or failure

Does this mean that older strategic communicators are better than their younger counterparts?  Not at all.  Both can be good or bad, or there may be other factors influencing their ability to communicate effectively.  For example, a good communicator might not have the C-suite access that he or she needs.  For example,  James T. Olson, SVP of Communications for that same United Airlines – and who ran comms at Starbucks, US Airways and Nissan, reports to the head of human resources, Michael Bonds, NOT to the CEO, Oscar Muñoz.  That is an odd marriage and organizational layers and lack of access to senior executives who speak on the record can create serious problems.

There are myriad factors to consider what makes one an excellent communicator, but if I am running a small business whose reputation matters in my neighborhood or a multi-billion-dollar company that matters to the world, my own choice would be to choose experience first.  And the only component that makes up experience is time spent doing something well.

Again, this list is by no means exclusive, and by that, I mean that people of all ages can have what it takes to be an excellent strategic communicator.   But in that same social media age into which Millennials were born, more than ever, a reputation can take a lifetime to build, and ten minutes to destroy.

I want some gray hair at the helm.

What do you think?  Please let me know in the comments.




  1. […] to go to the Ground Zero of communications and ageism, doing social media in the workplace.   As I noted in my blog post last week, many highly experienced communicators in their 40s and 50s started out doing something else […]

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