Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I studied media so I definitely had an interest in communications, but I graduated at the height of the recession in 2009 — I was prepared to take what I could get! Thankfully I landed a marketing assistant role as soon as I left university which gave me a really good grounding in marketing, events and PR.
I went down the PR route for several years before turning my hand to internal communication at Macmillan Cancer Support. That was seven years ago now and I’ve been there ever since.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
Curiosity is key. Ask lots of questions, listen and learn! As a communicator you need to understand the big picture so you can help connect the dots to create clarity and direction. I think anyone who has a desire to keep up with understanding how their business operates and the people who work in it will go a long way.
Another one is not being afraid to challenge. Internal communication teams are often hailed as the conscience of an organisation. You need to be able to speak up and do the right thing on behalf of your colleagues, even if it involves having difficult conversations. Always equip yourself with evidence so you feel prepared to confidently put your case forward.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
A perpetual challenge is trying not to overload employees with information. I work in an ambitious organisation with lots of projects on the go at any one time. Negotiating how much people really need to know and by when can sometimes be tough to navigate, especially with loose timescales.
What one thing would make your working life easier?
As above, I would love to be able to plan to timescales that didn’t shift! That’s very rarely the case but it’s the nature of the job. You’ve got to remain adaptable and be able to roll with the punches.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
Overall, our employees really do get the fundamental role it plays in building advocacy and helping the public know how to give and get support from Macmillan.
In terms of internal communication specifically, we’re a fairly mature function. We work very closely with senior leadership and are often involved in projects and programmes from the very beginning to provide insight, advice and help shape strategy. But we also do a lot of delivery.
I think our internal response to Covid has helped internal communication to step out of the shadow of media and PR. Although as so much of our work remains behind the scenes, inevitably there will be plenty of people who don’t realise the full extent of our role in getting a piece of comms to the final product. Often it takes questioning, challenging, influencing, translating, integrating, sequencing, briefing and rehearsing to name a few!
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
It’s probably not a secret but I’d say much of your success as a communicator will come down to your relationships. This goes back to my point about being curious and confident to challenge. If you’ve built strong trusted relationships where people feel they can be honest with you, you’re likely to get more candid, and therefore useful, answers to your questions. Challenging also becomes far easier with someone who respects your expertise and trusts your judgement.
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?
It will depend on your objectives and what you’re trying to achieve. Ultimately, we’re most interested in showing how our efforts have shifted attitudes or behaviours. Sometimes there are existing measures for those things, but often we need to go out and ask people.
Every month my team produces a report which includes everything from the reach of our channels to the cut through of our key messages. This is where we randomly select employees to ask questions about recent projects or campaigns they should have heard about. It’s those conversations that give us rich insight into how messages have landed, whether they’ve been understood, if people have taken action as a result and if there’s more they want to know.
It isn’t about proving our worth or giving ourselves a pat on the back for our brilliant work (although that is important too!). I love it when people are comfortable enough to tell me what we got wrong or what didn’t work for them. That’s the useful stuff that allows us to make improvements to our existing work and learn what to avoid in the future.
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
It’s not entirely new but I’m expecting to see a greater rise in employee activism. More people are speaking up in their workplaces about societal issues they care about and are expecting their employers to take a position on these things too. No doubt this comes with its opportunities as well as challenges, but it’s certainly an interesting area for internal communicators to help leaders navigate.