Communications Versus IT, Who’s in Charge?

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Communications Versus ITCommunications departments frequently perceive anything website related, with the exception of publishing content, as being the purview of the Information Technology (IT) department. But should they?

Fair warning, this article has nothing to do with elections, but may be of value to a great many ElectionsOnline clients as it pertains to a discussion I’ve been having not necessarily with clients, but with members of the wider association industry. That is, whose job is it to handle matters such as:

  • search engine optimization (SEO)
  • website analytics
  • web-based marketing efforts?

If you’re like most, you responded quickly to the third bullet point, “marketing efforts.” The answer’s obvious, the marketing department! Or communications since marketing departments are frequently within communications in many organizations. But perhaps you were less quick to pin the first two bullet points on communications.

For the record, in addition to being a vendor serving several markets, but in particular, non-profit associations, I’ve also worked in both communications and IT departments within a professional association. Having these multiple perspectives I hope results in me being able to respond to this question from the viewpoint of what is pragmatic, not the viewpoint of someone who’s never been up close to the issue, or worse, only ever been close to one side of the issue and who might even have an ax to grind.

That said, the answer to the question about who’s in charge is, it depends. Apologies for the wishy-washy response, but some examples in a moment should help bring clarity. Unfortunately, all too often, those who work in communications, at least within the non-profit sector, perceive anything website related, other than publishing content, as being a task for IT. This certainly is not true all the time and some lucky organization undoubtedly has on its payroll an individual who does not work in IT, but still understands all aspects of website analytics and uses that understanding to craft effective marketing campaigns and website content. For-profit companies? It’s different for them. Unlike a non-profit association, for-profit companies can’t afford the luxury of being confused over this matter. In the competitive commercial sector, SEO, site analytics and marketing aren’t add-on job responsibilities for someone with a dozen other things to do. For-profits spend the money to get it right, or they get eliminated by someone who does, so that means hiring talented people dedicated specifically to those types of things.

For everyone else though, the core message I want to communicate is that communications staffers charged with publishing a website should not run for the hills at the very mention of something that might appear on its surface to be marginally technical. The communications landscape has changed enormously in the last decade and there are many aspects of communications that require some basic understanding of the technology that delivers the message in order to maximize the effectiveness of that message.

As for the examples I promised were forthcoming, take for example, canonicalization. In the context of this article, it has to do with the search engine optimization technique of ensuring a single page is seen by search engines as a single page even when it’s possible to view it using addresses (URLs) that have slight variations, as would be the case if a URL had variables appended to it. If search engines aren’t instructed to give credit for all the little variations in the URL to a single URL, that page’s credibility with the search engines gets split among all the variations. This also can make traffic reporting on the page a mess and appear to be duplicate content, which is another no-no. Canonicalization sounds techy, and it is. If you think it’s a task for IT, you’re right.

But what about other SEO techniques like researching the keywords people enter into search engines which then refers them to your site? Once such keywords have been identified, how are they placed within a web page to maximize their effectiveness with the search engines? This is not IT’s job. It’s market research and some of the tools used to perform such tasks might include a site analytics package like WebTrends, SmarterStats, Google Analytics, or any of the other fine tools available for measuring website usage. It might involve managing a Google AdWords account and would definitely involve logging into a Google Webmaster Tools account. And that is a perfect example of this article’s core message. While having the word “webmaster” built into it might turn a communications staffer away from Google Webmaster Tools, there is valuable information there for the person doing market research—particularly if that Google Webmaster account is connected to a Google Analytics account. Think of all these tools as extensions of your telephone or computer. You already rely on technology each time you make a phone call. The tools just listed are things anyone involved with communicating via a website should be equally as reliant on.

These are just a couple examples of things that fall under the umbrella of SEO, but that require two entirely different skills in order to execute. One, the skills of an IT professional, the other involving the market research, data analysis, English and/or journalism skills of a communicator or marketer.

So there is much the website content contributors in communications can and should do in order to maximize the effectiveness of a website. But how does someone with multiple other job duties, or simply a background that never involved web publishing, acquire the skills to be able to do that most effectively?

First, don’t bury your head in the sand each time something sounds like it might be a little bit technical. Remember that communications relies on technology to deliver the message and you need to be willing to adapt to a changing landscape which means getting up to speed with the basics of that technology. 

Next, accept that if you have numerous other job duties, you’re not going to become an expert in all of them. That’s okay because you don’t have to be an expert in order to still have some effectiveness. If you decide to take things to the next level at some point, that’s what specialists are for. The point is, learn enough to learn how much more there is to learn. That’s the point at which you’re likely to realize you could benefit from the services of a specialist and because you’ve gotten yourself up to speed, you’ll be able to communicate with them in a well-informed manner.

As for where to go to learn more, since this article has used examples that pertain to SEO and web marketing specifically, here are some resources to get you started on that.

  • Take an intro to HTML course. You don’t have to become a bona fide application developer, just be able to “get it” when you read about a recommendation that involves a little snippet of HTML.
  • As with Google Webmaster Tools, don’t be put off by the presence of the word “webmaster” in the address. This resource is for anyone communicating via a website.
  • has tons of valuable information for any site owner.
  • is also a go-to resource.

In addition to those things that have served as examples in this article there are other aspects to managing a professional website. Usability testing is one and it’s not generally the IT department that oversees that. Graphic work is another and as you might imagine, that also isn’t generally IT.

There is a lot to keep up with and for someone who maybe didn’t bargain for all of it when entering the profession, it can feel at times overwhelming. But the always changing landscape also means there’s always something new to learn and keeping up with it all keeps the work fresh and exciting.

Please feel free to use the comments tools below to share experiences and challenges you’ve had with the various aspects of website management.