Nathan Russell

Nathan Russell

When the ICT-KM Program caught up with Nathan Russell, Senior Communications Officer, CIMMYT, immediately after the CGIAR communications group had concluded its second dialog session with the Transition Management Team (TMT) in Penang, Malaysia, he was in a celebratory mood.

“The outcome was really fantastic,” said Nathan, referring to the meetings with the TMT during the CGIAR Strategic Communications Workshop. “A number of important things happened during the first dialog: a group of people who felt largely cynical of the CGIAR change process met the people behind that process face-to-face, had a chance to have a conversation with them, and came away thinking, ‘Well, maybe this process is more important than we thought it was. Maybe it has a better chance of succeeding than we realized. These are pretty smart, well-meaning, committed people, and we think we can trust them to do the best possible job to make this change happen.'”

However, it is patently clear to Nathan and his peers that the TMT needs help with its communications.

As he explained: “A set of messages came out of a meeting in February this year that were, frankly, a source of great concern. This workshop has enabled us to meet the real people behind those messages. And we came away with, as Susan MacMillan (ILRI) put it, a sense that the TMT members are ready for primetime in terms of their personalities, but not in terms of their messaging. I think they now know that they’ve got a valuable resource, a group of professional communications people in the Centers who understand their predicament and who are willing to help them, at their disposal. I feel they respect the professional advice we’ve given them. So I think that was a great outcome.”

Walking a tightrope

As one of the workshop organizers, Nathan knew from the outset that the dialog sessions would need careful planning.

“From the time we began organizing this meeting, Laura Ivers, Simone Staiger-Rivas, I and others realized that it was going to be a balancing act,” he said. “On the one hand, we had some strategic communications issues versus some very specific communications business that needs to be done. And on the other hand, we had the urgent and immediate communications needs of the TMT versus the just as urgent communications needs of the entire CGIAR and the Centers that these communication specialists work for. I think we have struck a balance so far. We’ve addressed all those things in equal measure. As for the TMT, they were royally pleased with what they got out of this. And they were glad that we were able to deal with their business, our business and also the broader business of communications in the CGIAR. We’re not done yet, but we’re on the right track. It’s a good start.”

The feel-good factor

After the communication specialists had said goodbye to the TMT at the end of the second dialog session, the collective excitement in the room was palpable. Nathan puts the group’s success down to team work.

“It was certainly a group effort,” he said. “There was no star player who did a slam dunk of some sort. It was the collective body of advice from the communication people that did it. Personally, I feel pretty good. I really didn’t know what we were walking into before this workshop. I knew that we wanted to discuss a lot of issues that are somewhat sensitive, about which people feel strongly. Some people felt angry about the way those issues had been handled in the past. And I’m pleased that, despite the risks involved, the whole mood and flow of the meeting has been positive.

A group with no name

Despite the fact that the one mechanism that had enabled the communication specialist to act collectively (the Marketing Group) has been debilitated in recent years, the group is optimistic about their collective future.

“One of the reasons some of us are here, myself included, is to revive the Marketing Group,” explained Nathan. “Some people think that it’s a corpse. Others think it’s in a coma. And yet others think it’s just stepped out for a while; it’s in exile but it’s coming back. I would like to see it come back, under some new name, under some new arrangement, but with the essence of it intact. We still have a chance to do that.”

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