James Sutton on dialogue with your audience

James Sutton on dialogue with your audience
James Sutton, director of Strategic Partnerships, Campaigns & Communications at Raleigh International, joins us to chat about the modern audience's ability to give feedback.

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 liked the power of communication – whether that be to present an idea, persuade someone to change their behaviour, or provide a narrative around an important moment. I’ve worked across the spectrum – advertising, marketing, communications. To begin with I think it was about the excitement and opportunity that communications represents; now it’s about the responsibility of what good communications for a good cause can disproportionately achieve.

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

The ability to listen properly. It’s no good just being the loudest voice in the room and ignoring all others – you don’t gain different perspectives. The ability to take a stance. Good communications that try to be everything are usually vanilla and not effective – it may be hard, but your communications need to have a viewpoint. The ability to empathise. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to understand the power words can have on your different audiences, both positive and negative. Always be mindful of the impact the words you choose can have.

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 believe the key challenge in today’s communications is that your audience can speak back to you – dialogue that can be instant, directly expressive, and demanding of an immediate answer. This can be a minefield to navigate, but when you get it right it can really pay dividends, enabling your brand or organisation to be responsive, transparent, make your audience feel heard, and better able to make the right decisions.  From a brand perspective, I believe this also now means your brand isn’t just owned by you – it is shaped and influenced by your audiences and stakeholders, just as much as it is by you and your team.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

A time-turner. (If you know, you know).

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

It’s changing. Right now, the communications team has become one of the most pivotal teams in the organisation. We’ve refreshed our brand, and as a global youth action charity we are trying to reflect the views of the young people we represent, as well as hand over our platforms for them to use. It’s made us sound more vital, and given an urgency to the work we’re supporting young people to achieve. Across the organisation, our staff have witnessed a real gearshift, and feel our communications now sound more like a youth action organisation should do. Our language has got more attitude. The campaign we launched a year ago – named Action Not Excuses – that’s a great emblem for our communications and something we’re all very proud of.

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

Never forget – 99% of the time, you’re not the target audience. So, go find your target consumers, spend time with them, listen to their perspectives and insights, and only then make your decisions around how best to connect and communicate with them.

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?

There’s only ever really one true response to this: did your communication prompt the desired action? That’s it.

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

Brand communications will become more fluid and evolve just like how any human evolves and changes over time. People want brands to be authentic and transparent; people want brands to be purpose-driven; people want brands to be representative and inclusive; people want brands to be sustainable. How many of these things were we saying ten years ago? This demonstrates that as society changes, brands need to grow with society, and that growth should be fluid and agile; it shouldn’t need to wait for a brand director to develop a five-year brand plan. It should evolve naturally all the time, being responsive and reflective to what is going on in the world, especially with its target audiences. The only thing about a brand that should never really change is its core values. Other than that – well, people change, so why can’t brands? It’s what can make brands more human, more relatable.