James Sharp on convincing digital-hesitant people to invest

James Sharp on convincing digital-hesitant people to invest
James Sharp, digital media and marketing lead at Mid and South Essex Health and Care Partnership, joins us to chat about how 80% of PR work is listening and how that posture goes toward building relationships.

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

Working in communications was not something I had really considered as a career. I always wanted to be on the other side of the press desk and so did a degree in journalism. My big career ambition back then was to be an entertainment reporter for one of the big glossy magazines - unfortunately, that was not meant to be.

I graduated at the height of the Great Recession in 2008, when it was near on impossible to get a job in journalism, so I ended up getting a job in a call centre for an energy efficiency agency close to where I lived. During this time, I was thinking about other potential career routes, where I could use the transferable skills gained from my degree – and that is when I stumbled across marketing and communications. Luckily, there was a vacancy for a marketing assistant, that had just opened at the company I was working for. So, I fired off a long email to the marketing director telling her how I awesome I would be for the role and could I meet her for a chat. Thankfully, she agreed and to cut a long story short, offered me the role. And as they say, the rest is history.

I moved into NHS communications around six years ago and it is honestly the best move I have made.  

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

First and foremost, you need the ability to be able to get on and connect with people to build relationships. A huge part of this is the need to be a good listener. Being able to actively listen and act on what you’ve heard is crucial to the success of what we do. I once read that 80% of PR is about listening, with 20% talking – and it is so true.  

We also need to be comfortable with influencing and presenting information in a clear and concise manner. This is particularly important if you are trying to gain buy-in to do something new.

Lastly, communications is a creative profession and so you need to have a creative mind to constantly think of new and engaging ways to reach audiences.

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

I think the biggest challenge I have faced has been getting the Board of Directors to invest in digital communications. When I joined the organisation six and a half years ago, there was very little being done around digital, apart from the odd tweet here and there. I bided my time, slowly building following and engagement on social, waiting for an opportunity to showcase the true power of digital communications.  

My opportunity came about 18-months later, when a mental health commissioner asked for my support to improve uptake to our local talking therapies service which was under target. My advice was simple, to stop waiting for people to come to you and go to where they are – and that was social media.  

My CEO was initially very sceptical about giving me money to do this, however I asked for a small budget of £200 for a trial. In just four weeks, traffic to the talking therapies website increased by 74% and overall referrals into the service increased by 36%.  

This social advertising allowed us to place adverts in front of people we wanted to target with good, demonstrable results. Through the success of this small trial, I was able to obtain the trust and buy-in from my directors and was subsequently given a digital communication budget. This allowed me to transform the way we approach our communications as an organisation and provided new ways to engage local people in health and wellbeing campaigns.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

Time! There are never enough hours in the day to get all the amazing digital transformation projects done, which I have up my sleeve.

I think this has become more difficult since the pandemic, where we have needed to be a lot more reactive in our approach - trying to balance the need to push out emergency communications at speed while trying to do all the essential BAU tasks needed to keep a busy NHS communications office running. Unfortunately, in this situation it is often the transformation projects which end up getting paused or shelved – which can be hugely frustrating.    

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?  

I am extremely lucky to work in an organisation that not only understands the importance of strategic communications but also values us as a team of professional communicators and invests in our development.

My directors do recognise the need for continued improvement and innovation in the communications we offer and do listen to us when we have ideas and suggestions. I think this is evident in the example I gave above around social advertising as well as the recent investment to expand our team and the service we offer across the organisation.  

For me, the next thing I would like to see happen, is for communications to get the seat it rightly deserves at the Board table. Something which I hope is not too far away.    

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

Don’t be afraid to challenge. As someone who hates confrontation this hasn’t always come easy to me. However, as communication professionals, we need to remember that we are experts in our field and bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table.

I think for me, tenacity has also played a huge part in how successful my career has been to date. It has built up my resilience and taught me to never give up on something I am extremely passionate about.  

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?

Evaluation and measurement are probably the most important part of what we do as communicators, as it allows us to influence future plans and gain audience insights.

I think it is important to think about measurement from the outset and link back to clear SMART communication objectives and strategic priorities. Using an evaluation framework such as AMEC can really help with this.  

Also, whilst vanity metrics are often an easy win, these often don’t mean very much to internal stakeholders. I think the most value comes from real life outcomes; however, these are a lot harder to achieve, especially in health communications.    

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

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being talked about more, especially in health communications and something that I think will be part of the expected skill set of a communicator in the not-too-distant future. I know it’s certainly on my CPD list for the year ahead.  

I think we will also see an increase in the way psychology is being applied to identify barriers to behaviour change and how this insight is then used to create communications to overcome these barriers. This has really been evident in the success of the COVID vaccination programme.