Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I always knew I wanted to do something involving writing, after I had my first story ‘published’ on the story tree at infant school. I loved the idea of people reading my words. After realising that it would be quite hard to make a living as an author or poet, I opted for journalism and spent 15 years working mostly on local papers and having the time of my life.
But as we all know, the industry has changed a lot, and after I had children it became harder to combine working in a newsroom with being the parent I wanted to be, so I decided to look elsewhere. After a spell working in politics, where I accidentally became an election agent, I moved to a comms role with a local council, and I’ve been a communications manager with East Kent Hospitals for almost two years. I mostly look after external communications, finding positive stories to share, as well as dealing with reactive press and helping with our internal staff newsletter and social media channels too.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
For me, communications is about storytelling, and about people, so a genuine interest in people is crucial. You need to be confident enough to ask questions, sometimes difficult ones, and also to speak out if you don’t understand something – because if you don’t, how will you communicate it to someone else? I’m a total grammar nerd and not ashamed to admit it – I love to debate the Oxford comma – and I do think an appreciation of the nuances of language is useful, so you can pick the right words for the message. More practically, organisational skills are always helpful (I love a list!) because you’ll be working on different projects with competing deadlines at the same time.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
In this particular role, we will sometimes find ourselves dealing with some really difficult stories involving personal tragedies. During the Covid-19 pandemic we sadly lost several colleagues, and I took on the role of liaising with their loved ones to create tributes for the media and elsewhere, and also to provide support going forward. It was a huge privilege to be able to make sure their memory was honoured in the right way, and that they were recognised as an individual whose loss left a gaping hole in our Trust family. But it was also really difficult not to become emotionally involved, and I did shed some tears after a day listening to their devastated relatives sobbing down the phone. Thankfully I work in a really supportive team and I could always offload if things were tough – and be reassured that actually, there’s nothing wrong with genuinely caring.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
We’re a big Trust, with around 9,000 staff, and I’m sure there are some who have no idea we have a comms team. But thankfully there are others who understand our value, whether in sharing their successes across the Trust, or raising awareness of their service externally, or helping them spread the word on social media. We work more closely with some services than others, but we’re always out and about across our hospitals to meet people and find out about their successes and patient care initiatives that we can share.
At React & Share, we’re obsessed with measuring our efforts to prove our worth to internal stakeholders – what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to their board?
I think it’s important that comms activity aligns to the priorities of the board and the organisation, so anything that demonstrates that would be important. Recruitment is a huge focus for us and we do a lot of work around paid social media posts that brings more people to our job advert pages. It’s also useful to be able to share successes, whether that’s record social media reach (one of our posts, about how staff marked the milestone of a patient reaching 100 days in ITU reached 140,000 people last week) or positive broadcast coverage. But we also report the things that are harder to measure, for example the behind-the-scenes work that meant the impact of a negative story was mitigated thanks to our fact-checking or briefing.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career?
Take every opportunity that’s offered to you, whether it’s working at an election count, attending a course on campaign planning and evaluation, or donning scrubs to watch an operation. Remember that while writing about someone’s charity cake sale for the staff newsletter may be a five-minute task for you at the end of a long day, for them, it’s an event that they’ve probably spent weeks planning and invested a huge amount of emotional energy in. Always be interested and listen to their stories. If you make them feel valued, they’ll remember and involve you next time they have a bigger project – or come to you when they have an issue, before it snowballs into something you have to manage.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Teamwork! In my experience, it’s really hard for one person to do it all – words, pictures, videos, graphics, web copy, social media, media relations etc. If you can, that’s fab, but I know I can’t. But I work in a hugely talented team and others have strengths that I don’t.
If you’re in a team of one, then learning to say no is really important. It’s okay to ask which task has priority if there’s no way of getting them all done in a day.