Carrie-Ann Wade on bringing levity to stressful situations

Carrie-Ann Wade on bringing levity to stressful situations
Carrie-Ann Wade, Director of Communications and Engagement at North East London NHS and Founder and Communications Mentor at Cat’s Pajamas, shares her take on the key attributes of a successful comms professional.

Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?

My first roles were in marketing in the private sector and I chose to leave because I wanted to do something more meaningful – so I joined the NHS. Initially I was in a patient engagement role in a communications team so I was exposed to a lot of the work communications and engagement professionals do within the NHS. From there my career progressed and I focused on communications as I felt it matched my skills and values. I have spent 16 years working in NHS communications and I love it, no two days are ever the same and I get to work with amazing people. I am so passionate about the value communications can add strategically to organisations and feel very lucky to be supported to deliver that in my current role.

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

Compassion for sure, not just as a communications professional. Demonstrating compassion builds trust and supports relationships to develop which is crucial to good communications, whatever your role.

Listening is also a crucial skill. Being able to actively listen and take action on what you hear in order to make positive impact and change for stakeholders is a must for me.

I also think the ability to stay calm under pressure is super important, many communications professionals really come into their own when managing a crisis because they are able to stay calm, act logically and think about the impact of decisions and actions on multiple different groups of people.

And I would say a good sense of humour, we get exposed to so many different issues within our organisations, not all of them nice ones, and we work to such tight deadlines, with often limited resources, that being able to have a laugh with your team is really important.

What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?

The most obvious current challenge is responding to the pandemic and ensuring colleagues, patients and the public have timely and accurate information about how to protect themselves and others. I don’t think any communications professionals have ever been trained to manage an ongoing crisis that has lasted months/ years and it definitely takes it toll.

Managing the communications and engagement needs of the pandemic on top of all of the other priorities that our team is asked to support is a constant challenge and requires regular negotiation and reprioritisation. Expectation setting is key as there is a definite challenge in relation to the amount of resource/ capacity available versus the amount of work we are asked to deliver. In my sector I think communications is generally under resourced so it can feel like a constant battle to ensure we set realistic expectations about what is achievable.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

People having project plans before approaching communications for support! I often find that people want us to write our communications plans first, without clear objectives and timelines for the actual project.

As communicators we spend a lot of time asking questions so we can all be really clear on purpose, objectives and impacts – I sometimes think colleagues can misconstrue this as us being difficult when we are actually just trying to get the best outcomes.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

I would definitely say this has changed over time. Our team is now considered an integral part of how we engage, inform and communicate as an organisation and is position at a much more strategic level. I think the pandemic has played a key role in this as colleagues across the Trust have been exposed and educated about what we do and how we do it.

We are very lucky to have a supportive Board who understand the importance of good communications and engagement. I am a non-voting Board member and am part of the Executive Management Team which helps and our senior leadership team genuinely ask for views and input in relation to all of our strategic priorities.

I still think there are some organisations and individuals who think communications is all about pretty newsletters and tweeting but it is our job to educate people and really push the profession forward in terms of strategic value.

What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?

Being solutions focused, open-minded and creative as there is such a wide variety of issues and projects that we support.

And continued professional development. Invest in your learning and development and also consider your role as a leader, not only a communications professional. This will really help you to demonstrate the value of communications in a much broader sense.

At React & Share, we’re obsessed with helping our clients measure and report their efforts - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to internal stakeholders?

For me, this is all about outcomes, not outputs. I think we can spend a lot of time talking about how many ‘things’ we have produced, rather than the impact we have had. We also need to ensure we are aligning our measurement of success to our organisations strategic objectives or the specific objectives of the projects we are supporting.

For my organisation, our measures of success are linked to staff engagement and wellbeing, patient experience and partnership working so everything we are presenting back in terms of our performance and deliverables needs to be support improvements in these areas.

I also think we need to report back return on investment, so what are we delivering for the organisation against the spend invested, and on that basis what more we could be delivering with additional funding.

Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?

In relation to communications teams we have to be thinking about wellbeing, recruitment and retention. How are we supporting the wellbeing of communications professionals? Recent surveys show high stress and mental health issues within in our profession. How are we recruiting to ensure diversity of experience, skills and talent within the profession? And how are we developing communicators and offering opportunities in order retain them?

More broadly, hybrid working models and the impacts of working differently due to the pandemic will something we need to consider and the impact of virtual communications, particularly related to relationships and engagement.