We sat down with Claudia Esseen-Jayes, Communications and Digital Manager at the National Housing Federation, to explore the role of empathy and respect in communications. Read on to learn more about the challenges of bringing stories to life and the importance of absorbing everything to enhance your skillset.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
For me, working in communications has always been about education. I started off my career in the private sector, but I always knew that I wanted to work for a caused-based organisation. Working in communications allows me to take really complex and technical things and convey them in a way that makes sense to people. I work for a trade body, so a huge part of the role the communications team plays in my organisation is making politics and complicated policy accessible to our members. I truly believe that there is a way to communicate anything to anyone, no matter how complex the subject is, you just need a bit of patience.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
Aside from the obvious skills you need, I think the most important thing you can do as a communications professional is listen. So often an article or a thought piece can start as something impersonal and mundane, but once you really listen to what someone is trying to say you can uncover something completely different to how it started. Empathy and respect are hugely important for me too. We so often write on behalf of other people in this profession, so it's so important to put yourself in that person's shoes, whether it's a Board member or a service user. That comes back round to the point of listening as well.
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 all honesty, the biggest challenge for me is not putting my personal opinions into corporate communications. Most people who work in communications are passionate about what they do, and for me that transcends the actual communications functions, and I often feel strongly about what I am working on. I like the discipline of writing factual and apolitical narratives in my day-to-day work, but there is a lot to be said in having the freedom to write from the heart. I think that's why so many of us have side projects as well as our jobs. Once you get the bug for writing it never really goes away.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
The communications role is really well perceived and respected in my organisation, that's not to say I've never experienced differently though. I think most communications professionals have fallen prey to the boring and offensive tropes of what a communications team does, "you make it look pretty" being the most frustrating. But as I said earlier, I work for a trade body, so our core purpose is to serve our members. This means there isn't really much point in doing the work if we don't tell our members about it, so after many years of shouting about how important communications is, I find myself in an organisation where I never have to argue the value. It's a great place to be.
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?
It's easy to fall into the traps of only looking at email open rates or website traffic numbers. But for me, the thing I care about most is how truly engaged our different audiences are. If you tell your board you got a 57% click-through on an email (I wish!), it won't really mean much to them. But if you tell your board that actually all our finance directors in our database are engaging with this type of content or this topic, and because of that we are going to produce more of it, that's when our communications stories come to life. Because at the end of the day, communications is about people.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their comms career?
Try out everything, don't pigeonhole yourself into a specific discipline at the beginning of your career. The beauty of communications is there are so many different aspects you can really specialise in; it could be that you are interested in digital content and the data science behind it. Or maybe writing is your passion and you want to go into copywriting, or maybe you have a really strategic brain and you want to go into strategic communications. Picking up new skills will only make you better at communicating, so just absorb everything until you decide where you want to go.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Work hard, listen carefully and don't be afraid of feedback - it only makes your work better.