Dave Smith on listening and complexity

Dave Smith on listening and complexity
Dave Smith, head of communications and marketing at the British Parking Association, shares his journey into comms and discusses managing the complexity inherent in the industry.

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

A great passion of mine is music and it was while working for a creative services company, providing background music solutions to the retail and hospitality sector, that I first became interested in marketing, branding, and how consumers respond to and interact with communications and messaging. Everyone, whether an organisation or an individual, has something they want to say to someone on a daily basis. I found the whole area fascinating and wanted to find out more. I took on a marketing role and then studied to gain practical skills and understanding and I’m still on that journey, 15 years later.

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

One of the most underrated skills is listening. There is a wealth of information available to us but not all of it is necessarily valuable or relevant. Active listening is a conscious activity based on three basic skills: attitude, attention, and adjustment and it’s a process that keeps you engaged with whoever you are having a conversation with in a positive way. As a communicator, it’s vital that we do so clearly and in a way that is comprehensible and without ambiguity. In response, we must ensure that we hear and understand what is being said and can interpret it as intended. With so many messages received each day via an ever increasing range of devices, apps, and services, it’s important to cut through to what is important and to be decisive and clear when responding or creating actions for yourself and others.   

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

Communications contains many distinct disciplines, each requiring separate skill sets and expertise to deliver effectively. Ten years ago, as part of a Communications Team, our remit included marketing, public affairs, pr, managing and delivering events, design - everything that might reasonably come under the communications umbrella. The challenge was to do everything justice, do it well, and achieve demonstrable results. The solution? Creating a clearly defined strategy with SMART objectives and informed by the overall business plan and available budget. It’s virtually impossible to meet expectations without this framework in place but once you know what you’re working towards, you’ll stand a much better chance of getting there.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

More time please! When you do more and then demonstrate the results - what marketers set out to do in the first place – you are often asked to go deeper or further. All very positive but as the task gets bigger and more complex to manage, you need more time, or people, and sometimes both. Marketers always ask for more too, so effective communications plays a key role in making sure that everyone knows what success looks like and how best to achieve it

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

It’s vital and at the core of everything we do so it is taken seriously and supported fully. As a membership association, it’s our biggest challenge to ensure we are communicating effectively, and not just externally to different audiences; internal communications should also be a high priority, keeping the whole team updated so that they know what is happening and what their specific role is within that process. People need to see the full picture, especially in these times of rapid change and flux; they need clarity and certainty – or as much as is possible - so that they take the journey, meet challenges, and share successes together.

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

Having the right team in place and having a desire to grow. You can never expect to do everything on your own or with limited resources or skills. Make sure you have the foundations in place (business plan, strategy, SMART objectives) and build your team based on what your plan needs. If you need to outsource, that’s fine but don’t try and do too much, too soon. Keep it practical, measure your progress and continue to evaluate what you need to keep moving forwards. Communications is a huge discipline, and you never stop learning, so make sure you and your team embed this into your culture.

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?

Trends over time reflect how your efforts have fared but they don’t tell the whole story. I always ask ‘why does this matter’ before presenting a report or dashboard of stats, because if it doesn’t resonate or make it clear why it’s important, it’s very often not.  Simply reporting data trends won’t tell the whole story so tell one, from objective to outcome and tell a number of different stories and always make them real. There is always a reason behind spikes or curves on graphs and rises or falls in engagement numbers but it’s important to add the context and not leave your audience having to work it out for themselves.  

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

Content is king and there’s no sign of it being dethroned anytime soon. But it will need to be far more engaging and work even harder to attract and retain interest in the future. Campaigns will need to be smarter and more decisive; engagement will need to be more consistent and more personal; ever more demanding audiences will want to know all the usual things like why, how, and how much and will expect great responses - not just once but for the life of the conversation. Once a great idea has been turned into great creative and set free into the world, don’t expect to just sit back, and enjoy success: you’ll need to work harder to build engagement and you’ll need to do it in a much shorter time frame, as attention spans move onto the next thing. Our time is precious, and as consumers, we will want to make sure we are having the best experience we possibly can. As communicators, we’ll need to make sure we make people feel it.