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Katie Pennycook on understanding your community and why being thrown in the deep end can be a good opportunity

Hayat Rachi
Posted by Hayat Rachi on Apr 27, 2021 11:52:50 AM

In this interview, we chatted with Katie Pennycook, Digital Communications Officer at Basildon Borough Council. Read on to find out more about the importance of showing off your wins and to learn how the COVID crisis has embedded comms as an essential service. 


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

A bit of both! My background is slightly unconventional - I quit my English literature degree and went into fashion marketing. I started an apprenticeship at 18 with a very small company, which was the best learning opportunity I could have asked for. Within two years, I had experience in copywriting and SEO, social media management, community management, email marketing, PR and selling.

Then, I saw the job description for the digital communications officer at Basildon Council. Joining the public sector wasn’t something I had thought about, but I loved the idea of speaking to real people about ongoing issues, in my hometown too! There’s a lot of interchangeable skills, and I’ve enjoyed learning more on the job.


What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

Problem-solving is a big one - it’s not just a CV buzzword! Bouncing back quickly from a mistake, or keeping an unprecedented situation under control is an invaluable skill, especially when a lot of stakeholders are involved and all eyes are on comms.


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

Sometimes the work that goes into digital communications is underestimated - we’ve all heard “just do a Facebook post.” In previous roles, I’ve single-handedly become the communications department, leading social media, PPC, PR, graphic design, SEO, the list goes on.

Occasionally, being thrown in the deep end is a good learning opportunity, however, you run the risk of being spread too thin. It’s important to know when to ask for help - you don’t need to be brilliant at everything!


How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Before the pandemic, in my experience, there was a mixed understanding. Some services appreciated comms and involved us early on with any programmes, but for other services, it wasn’t a priority. Then, with an imminent pandemic, every service suddenly had to urgently adapt and communicate the new way they were working. I think, now, there’s a consensus that comms is an essential service.


At React & Share, we’re obsessed with measuring our efforts to prove our worth to internal stakeholders - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to their board?

We often share campaign reports to keep stakeholders engaged - and show off a bit! I think it’s important to share the wins i.e. video views, email newsletters and social media engagement.

Also to be transparent and think about what you would do differently next time. For example - would you include videos in the content mix, does the messaging need tweaking, do you need to post more/less on a specific channel. That’s how growth happens!


What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?

Don’t stop learning. Communications and marketing evolve so fast, I don’t think anyone’s ever an ‘expert’. The basics of communication may be the same compared to five (even ten) years ago but how we apply them and publish content has been completely overhauled.

If you know what you’re talking about, people will listen. I’m 21 and used to being the youngest person in the room but I’m confident in my skills because I know I put the hours in. Keeping your skillset up-to-date with industry trends is the best thing you can do to keep your seat at the table!


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

  1. Be nice, and just get on with it. We often get last-minute, panicked comms requests from across the council, and it’s easy to be frustrated. But, you have to pick your battles.

Sure, if a particular department is regularly taking up time, speak to them and discuss how to organise working together. However, if someone you rarely speak to sends a hasty high-importance email, chances are, they’re having a bad afternoon and just need a hand.

  1. Find a great team! Our communications team is small compared to other services in the council, but we’re one of the most productive teams because we just get things done.

  2. Finally, probably most importantly, understand your community. A community isn’t something that stands still - people come and go, their opinions change and discussions evolve. I’ve spent time shadowing community workers, call centre officers and watching social media threads to see what residents talk about. These aren’t one and done tasks, it takes a lot of work, but it’s what keeps communications ticking.

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