Joe Nellist on five skills for comms success

Joe Nellist on five skills for comms success
Joe Nellist, digital communications officer at Mid and South Essex Health and Care Partnership, joins us to chat about what he sees as the five most important skills for 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 always believed that I would follow in my mum’s footsteps and become a teacher. I went to university to study Drama and English Literature with the sole intention of becoming a secondary school teacher. It wasn’t until I reached my third year of university that I realised I didn’t really like children and couldn’t see myself being around them for seven hours a day. So, I pursued a career in retail management instead. Retail gave me a lot of the skills that I value the most today – the ability work well with people, juggle competing priorities and respond quickly to changing situations.

In 2019, I was volunteering for LGBT Foundation, a national charity working to support LGBTQ+ people. They were recruiting a Communications Manager, and I was surprised to see that a lot my skills were reflected in the person specification. I didn’t have any direct experience working in communications, but I took a risk and put myself forward for the role. Moving into a career in communications is one of the best decisions that I have ever taken.

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

Communications is such a broad area of work, but there are several personal skills and attributes that I think are important for all.

1. Emotional intelligence – At its very core, communications is about people. Learning how to understand and manage your own and others’ emotions is crucial to working in communications.

2. Creativity – Whether it be in visual design or crafting engaging copy, creativity is key to being successful in communications. We are constantly needing to think of new and engaging ways to reach our audiences.

3. Time management – Handling competing priorities and deadlines comes second nature to many communications professionals. Learning to manage your own and others’ time effectively is one of the greatest skills you can develop.

4. Influencing and negotiation – We work with a broad range of internal and external clients every single day, so being able influence and negotiate well with different stakeholders is essential.

5. Resilience – It can sometimes be difficult to separate ourselves from our work, and everyone has an opinion about communications. Being able to handle criticism well and approach challenges with a positive mindset is vital for both professional and personal harmony.

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

Working in a digital communications role, one of the biggest challenges can be staying abreast of the changing digital landscape. New digital communications channels are being launched at a rapid pace, and there are constant advancements in technology which can either help or hinder your work.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced during my career to date was when the website of the charity that I worked for was the target of multiple DDoS (Direct Denial of Service) cyber-attacks. Having not experienced this before, I had to quickly educate myself in this area of cyber security. Working with our web provider, I was able to find a solution to bring the site back online and protect it from future attacks. Although this was an incredibly difficult situation, it was also good opportunity for professional development.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

This is a tough one, because in many ways I don’t want an easier working life. I thoroughly enjoy the demanding nature of my career and relish the challenges that it brings. One thing that would make it easier for me to do my job well would be for much more simplified financial processes. I’ve still yet to wrap my head around NHS finances, and I’ll likely still be saying the same thing next year.  

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

I’m lucky to work in an organisation which values communications and engagement as a strategic function. This has allowed our teams the opportunity and resources to really make a positive difference to the health outcomes and experiences of our patients and residents.

I think that the perception of communications and engagement has shifted significantly during the pandemic. It has shone a light on the essential role that communications and engagement play and ha helped colleagues throughout the health and care system to understand and appreciate our professional expertise.

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

Build strong relationships – I cannot underestimate the importance of this. If you can get the people around you on board, half the battle is already won.

Invest time in planning and evaluation – There is a constant demand on our time and it’s easy for our focus to be pulled onto the next piece of work. Both planning and evaluation are vitally important for both project success and professional growth.

Don’t be afraid to challenge – You bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. Sometimes the best thing you can say is ‘why?’.

Conquer the fears which hold you back – many communications professionals struggle with things like imposter syndrome, I know I do. If you can find a way to overcome or push through this, nothing can hold you back.

Embrace change – the world is constantly evolving, so why would you want to stay still? Don’t be afraid to rip up the rulebook and try something new. You never know, it might just work.

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?

My experience is that less is always more. You first need to work out what your internal stakeholders care about (and what they should care about), and then present this in a way which is meaningful for that audience. We’ve all been in the situation where someone has presented a report on their work which is far too long and contains too much detail. We struggle to find the parts which are most relevant, this information which is most important, and it can be easy for people to disengage from it.

Approach your reporting in the same way that you do your other communications – ask yourself, ‘how can I tell this story is the most meaningful well?’. Sometimes a quote from a patient or a 60-second video from a colleague says more about the quality and impact of your work than ‘X amount of pageviews’ ever could.

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

As we continue to embrace the era of digital transformation, new and emerging technologies create even more opportunities for us to reach people in innovative and exciting ways. Take Artificial Intelligence (AI) for example, there is a lot of talk at the moment about the application of AI in healthcare and health communications.

Whilst this technology has the potential to significantly improve health outcomes and experiences, it also brings with it new ethical challenges to navigate. If we do not design with equity in mind, we risk embedding bias into AI systems and will further disadvantage certain communities and exacerbate health inequalities. As we approach any technological advancement in communications, we must ensure that we ask ourselves “how can we ensure that this is used build a fairer and more equal society?”