Daisy Oakes on experience over credentials and language challenges

Daisy Oakes on experience over credentials and language challenges
Daisy Oakes, communications coordinator at Devon Partnership NHS Trust, joins us to share her unconventional journey into comms and her secrets of comms success.

Daisy Oakes, communications coordinator at Devon Partnership NHS Trust, joins us to share her unconventional journey into comms and her secrets of comms success.

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

I’ve always loved writing — from scribbling away in summer holiday journals as a child to blogging my travels across Asia and Australia — and have always been a huge people person. I love to listen to people’s stories and find the idea of sharing them with others really exciting. 

Growing up, I think I imagined I’d go on be a politician or a lawyer, but at 18 I found myself feeling quite stuck in a job that I wasn’t enjoying. One day, I came across a Communications Apprentice position being advertised by my local NHS mental health and learning disability Trust. The role combined my love of writing, storytelling, meeting, and communicating with people from all walks of life with a cause I held close to my heart and felt passionately about. It couldn’t have been better! 

Not only this, but it gave me the chance to learn on the job. Previously I faced a lot of negativity and self-doubt about not going to University or having a degree. I feel so lucky to have been able to find a career I love and to have been valued for my passion, skills, and dedication instead of qualifications alone. Let’s see more of this please!

So, whilst being complete happenstance, had I known that there was a world of communications out there when I was dreaming of a perfect job for me, I think it would have always been top of my list. Though I do still quite fancy being PM… 

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

When you’re meeting comms people, you’re generally surrounded by a great bunch. Communicators naturally love to work together, to collaborate and share ideas.

I think it’s so hugely important to be empathetic when you’re working in communications; that ability to get inside the mind of the people you’re targeting and understand what they need from you is essential, especially when you’re working in a field such as NHS communications. There is so much to be gained through simply listening — even if we’re natural talkers! — and coming together to share experiences.

I think working in comms also requires a great deal of self-assurance, trusting your gut and the ability to take risks. So many brilliant and exciting opportunities and successes come from trying something new, and I think it’s important to keep yourself on your toes and challenged. And, above everything, kindness is key! 

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

A challenge I’ve faced over the years with my organisation has been stigma and language. Working in my current role, I have become so much more aware of the negative portrayal of mental health issues in the media and public forum, which causes a real fear of speaking openly or seeking support when you need it. I feel really passionately about breaking down these stigmas, and supporting people to share their experiences and get the help they need.

Working particularly with TALKWORKS, Devon’s IAPT service to which you can refer yourself for talking therapy, we faced challenges of medicalised language. We met with people who were supported by the service and found that our use of the terms ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘PTSD’ and more were completely putting them off asking for help, for fear of being labelled or diagnosed before they stepped through the door. We faced this challenge head on and completely changed the way we wrote, talking instead of ‘feeling low, or overwhelmed’ or ‘not quite feeling like yourself’. What is brilliant about a challenge like this is that we were able to speak directly with the people we were trying to help, and were encouraged to adapt our way of working to suit them. It’s rewarding to hear that it’s worked!

What one thing would make your working life easier?

If, once a week, everything stopped and I didn’t get any new emails or urgent requests. Time to catch up on the things I started a month ago and had to put on pause! And when I say once a week, I mean Tuesday – Friday, every week… 

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation? 

I feel incredibly lucky in my organisation, as the role of communications and my wonderful team is generally backed and appreciated. I feel the Trust has really bought into the importance of communications, particularly throughout the past 18 months of COVID. With the whole world feeling lost and out of control at times, it’s been so vital that our incredible NHS workforce has felt up-to-date, valued and heard through our comms. Whilst it’s been a busy time, with daily bulletins, ever-changing updates and constant Teams meetings, it’s the ‘thank yous’ that have really stayed with me. Our team even won a Board Award in this year’s Staff Celebrating Achievement Awards for our work on keeping people connected and updated throughout COVID, so we’ve certainly felt appreciated. 

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

Team work makes the dream work. So often, we think that one person should or could do everything – content writing, filmmaking, media, PR, internal communications, events – but this simply isn’t the case. We work so much better when we work together and realise and unlock the skills that we each have as individuals. When we realise each of our strong points, and focus on these individually, the team as a whole is able to do everything – and do it well, and sustainably. Without this, it’s so easy to pile the pressure on yourself, to spin too many plates and to head rapidly towards burnout.

Again, with the pressures of the last year, I’ve felt so incredibly blessed to have a tight-knit team who I can turn to for anything. Whether I need a quick set of eyes over a piece of copy, or someone to help carry the weight of a whole project, I know someone is always there and willing to support me. 

Mostly, I think it’s important to have fun every day. Stressful meetings should always have interludes for the latest film and TV recommendations or scathing reviews; team chats should include daily snack updates or pet photographs. We spend so much of our lives at work, we need to make time for joy and connection.

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, it’s all about making sure that the hard work we’re doing is actually reaching the people we want it to. How many people know who we are? How many people are referring themselves to our services? How engaged are people with our content, and are they satisfied with it? I love seeing which pieces of content perform the best — and seeing that often, it’s the ones that are person-centred and share an individual’s story.

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

I wish I knew!

I think that, particularly on social media, we’re seeing such a trend of people stripping things back and being more honest. Less filters, less scheduling, more personal experiences and individual voices. I think we’re already seeing this within organisational comms, with more corporate accounts taking a stance and having a voice in local and global issues and conversations, as well as highlighting more marginalised voices. Personally, I’m hoping we continue down this path — I think it’s brilliant to see so many people putting the person back in the organisation.