Behind the Headlines With Al Comeaux
Good, authentic storytelling never goes out of style. No matter how much technology changes the media and industry, if you can tell an authentic story, you can succeed.
Al Comeaux, chief communications officer at Elevate, says authentic communication is key to delivering on your
In this interview, Al discusses how to create communication for different countries, how communication has rapidly evolved with technological change and what the critical skills are that all communicators need.
How did you get your start in communications?
Three days after college graduation I flew to Washington, D.C. with no job and no leads but a strong desire to become a press secretary on Capitol Hill. After networking for a few weeks, I almost lucked into a job with a congressman from Oklahoma.
When that office called to tell me they had hired someone from another office – someone with actual experience as a congressman’s press secretary – I said: “What office did that person work for? Because now that office is in need of a press secretary.” That’s how I became press secretary to the congressman (delegate) from American Samoa.
It was an interesting job learning the Samoan culture while promoting my congressman’s work as a committee chairman – until he came under investigation for payroll fraud, and I, as his press secretary, got to take the heat.
What do you think are the biggest communication mistakes brands make?
Clearly, a lack of authenticity can kill you any time. Also, it’s important to recognize that advertising and promotion are just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to branding; the brand really comes to life every day with product design and delivery, quality, service delivery, customer outreach.
BP did a phenomenal job talking for years about responsible energy, but when we learned it couldn’t deliver on that promise with buttoned-up operational rigor, we lost faith. Turns out, it wasn’t authentic and it couldn’t deliver on the promise.
A brand is such a big investment with so much riding on it, so good communicators and brand advocates have a huge stake in other parts of their companies, ensuring the whole business is delivering on the brand promise for customers.
How do you create communication on a global scale?
I’ve worked on the ground in almost 30 countries and traveled to another 15 or so for fun, and it’s critical that you understand that no two countries are alike. You have to imagine each country as its own world, with its own idiosyncrasies; if you don’t respect the differences, you will likely step all over yourself and you may never even know you did it.
I always advise colleagues to start with good direction: define your global messaging, based on your communications strategy, which should be based on the business’s strategy. Then find and trust local guides to help you localize the messaging and teach you how to deliver it. Local guides can work for your company, but they might be neutral people you build relationships with.
I’ve asked for and received advice from other communicators, business people and even journalists. You’d be amazed the responses you get (especially as an American) when you’re humble enough to let others know that you realize you don’t understand their world, but you respect the differences enough to ask good questions and seek advice.
How have communications evolved in recent years? What are communicators doing differently today that they didn’t do before? What has stayed the same?
I recall going to work at American Airlines each morning and a group of colleagues would be cutting out news articles from the morning papers and from faxed articles we had received. They would “clip” the articles and paste them on sheets of paper, to be copied and hand delivered to executives throughout headquarters.
A couple of years ago I told this story to a millennial and she responded: “So, once upon a time they were actually clipped? Is that why we call them news clips?” It’s astonishing how quickly our industry has changed – in so many ways.
Digital technology has changed media more rapidly than previous technological changes like TV and radio did in their times. The new democratic nature of communications has turned industries on their heads, with the long tail now wagging the dog. Once-untouchable news, people now have to self-promote their work on social media to draw people in. These media are now much more accessible because they have to be. It’s no longer as hard for the “little guy” to make an impression on a member of the media.
I think what hasn’t changed is the value of good storytelling; people will always want to engage with compelling, well-told stories. That goes for journalists and everyday social media types.
How do you envision the future of the communication industry?
Heck if I know. I couldn’t have predicted the last 30 years, and I’d be silly to try to predict the next 30. But as I’ve said already, good, authentic storytelling will never fail to help you get your point across.
What advice do you have for those looking to begin a career in communications?
Work on your writing skills – they are table stakes. Work on your ability to find and craft and tell a compelling, authentic story. And work on your critical thinking skills; as you grow as a communicator, you’ll need strong critical thinking skills to be an advisor and a leader, not just a writer or storyteller.
Rapid Fire Round
1. I always thought I’d be…a lawyer.
2. If I could have lunch with anyone, it would be…my Dad, just once more.
3. My hobbies outside of work include…LSU football fandom.
4. My daily news source is…The New York Times.
5. The thing that gets me up in the morning is…my kids. I love hanging out with them after I’m awake and about, but it’s usually their noise that awakens me!
6. My biggest pet peeve is…office politics. I don’t seem to have much in my new job, thankfully.
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