Laura Dibb is Head of Communications at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and has worked in the health and science communications field for over a decade. Laura started her communications career at the prestigious Royal Society (RS), disseminating key information on global issues such as climate change and biofuels. Following her time at the RS, she spent 10 years at Cancer Research UK where she played a leading role in their communications and campaign work to improve outcomes for cancer patients as well as finding better ways to prevent the disease, leading to her work to secure a ban on under 18s using sunbeds. She chats with us about some typical comms challenges and what's required to tackle them. Read on for her view of the organisational value of comms.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications?
I’ve always been interested in health and science and, in particular, influencing people’s health behaviour though campaigns and communications. It was this interest that lead me to study Psychology at university, and then I went on to do a master’s in science communication. I was particularly interested in learning how I could put educating and informing the public about science and health into practise. After I’d finished my masters, I applied for a role at the Royal Society (national academy of science) as an assistant press officer. I was thrilled to get this role as it really kick-started my career and I learnt a lot on the job, working with many fantastic people in the industry — comms professionals and scientists.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
A mix of lots of different skills is important for a communications role. You need to have good writing skills and be able to break down complex information and explain it to a lay audience that know nothing about the subject — I always say imagine you’re explaining something to your gran or 7-year-old nephew. You also need to be personable and have good diplomacy. Often you’re caught between what your organisation thinks is ‘newsworthy/interesting’ and what you know an external audience/journalist will find interesting, and you have to use your negotiating skills to navigate between the two and find the middle ground.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
Challenges can be trying to juggle lots of deadlines, often a journalist can ring, and they need something within the next couple of hours. It can be challenging meeting these demands when other teams internally don’t work to these tight deadlines in the same way. Another challenge can be ensuring comms is at the table. By that I mean making sure that comms is part of early conversations from the outset of a project, so that we can help shape the messaging and narrative. All too often, the comms team are brought in at the end and expected to work our magic!
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
Communications is key within my organisation. Its value is highly regarded, and its importance acknowledged. Recently we have been able to clearly demonstrate our value through successful campaigns such as our access to medicines campaign, ensuring that people with cystic fibrosis had access to life saving medicines on the NHS. And last year we were thrilled that we won two excellence in PR awards.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?
Get stuck in, be enthusiastic and learn and absorb as much as you can from more experienced colleagues. Listen to advice and the experience of colleagues but also share new ideas and try new things. Read and consume lots of different types of media from the Guardian to the Daily Mail and Sun — all are important.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Get to know your subject and become a ‘mini expert’ in the area. Build up close working relationships with your colleagues internally as well as making strong contacts with external stakeholders and journalists. Always be on the lookout for a good story and ensure you share and celebrate your successes internally. It’s always a team effort, so work closely with your fellow comms colleagues and be open to try new things — don’t worry if they don’t work, you’ll learn how to improve for next time.
We at React & Share live for helping communications teams through understanding website content sentiment and improving it off the back of feedback. How do you and your team approach content improvement?
We want to ensure our content is serving our community — telling them what they need to know, at the right time and in the right way. We adapt to the external world and make sure we’re relevant. During the Covid-19 pandemic this has really been crucial, making sure we provide timely information and that this is published in different formats depending on the channel.