Lorna Kerr, Communications Manager for Education Scotland, shares with us her 10 point plan to achieve success in the communications sphere, alongside sharing some invaluable insights gained across her extensive career. Delve into her interview to learn more.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
Ironically I studied Marketing when I left school but at the time college wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel ready so I left very early in the course. I wanted to work and find out what I love and what I’m good at.
I worked in various administration roles, receptionist, HR assistant and at one point a store manager. On weekends I volunteered as a kids club leader at my local sports centre. I studied business management at night school and after that a facilitator training course which landed me a job as a road safety training officer with Glasgow City Council. I loved going out to schools and working with young people on road safety. One day I was asked to get involved in assisting a road safety communications campaign and loved it! I remember thinking ‘this is what I want to do’ and I felt that passion straight away. My curious mind started thinking about opportunities for how to get there.
At 25 I started my degree at Glasgow Caledonian University and graduated with distinction in Communications and Mass Media. I loved my uni experience and I knew straight away this was the right path for me. And so started my career in Communications.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
There are some solid skills that help us as communications professionals, like the ability to write and connect with our audience. To take something complicated and turn it into something everyone will understand and engage with. To build relationships with our colleagues and our partners.
Within this, there’s a huge amount of essential interpersonal skills to make communications work such as teamwork, creativity, leadership, motivation, time management, planning and organisation. I go into a bit more detail in my 10 point plan next.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Based on my experiences here’s my 10 point plan to the secret of success in Communications:
1. Understand your work. Take time to really get to know what you’re working with. Is there a website you can read about it? Blogs? Podcasts? Read as much as you can for a variety of different viewpoints and keep asking questions. The more informed you are the better understanding you have and the ideas will come naturally.
2. Understand your main routes to market. Establish what communications channels you have available to you. For example: Website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, e-newsletter. Build your Communications activity plans and timelines around these and make sure that your chosen channels complement year other and ply to the strengths of the channel,
3. Stay calm in the chaos and distinguish between project work and communications work. This is the message I hit home to my team each week. When you’re immersed in your work it’s sometimes difficult not to get involved in project work. This is where a clear understanding of your responsibility will come in handy. Build the confidence to speak up at a meeting if you’ve been given an action that doesn’t sit with you and explain why.
4. Develop a strong communications activity plan, get sign off and stick with it. Planning is key! Find out what the project’s key milestones and goals are and develop an activity plan providing a timeline, Communications platform, the proposed text/ supporting images/ video proposal and circulate for everyone involved in the work to agree. That way everyone will be clear on what’s happening and you can start to schedule the activity straight away. Having a solid plan in place makes a huge difference, but don’t forget to review the plan regularly and dial-up what is working.
5. Identify your key internal and external partners and build strong relationships with them. A regular catch up makes a big difference in understanding each other’s work. You will be able to provide an update and capture any new work coming up. Consider co-creating plans with partners. A good open and honest relationship at work goes a long way in getting the best results all round. Plus it’s just nice!
6. Understand yourself and your team. Get to know each other’s strengths so you can work together. I don’t think this needs much more explanation. Be there for each other, even when you’re frustrated.
7. Keep learning! Look for development opportunities all the time. This might be some professional reading or an online seminar. Perhaps you want a refresher on effective communications or leadership. Take time to regularly stop and check in with your professional development.
8. Take your time and keep it simple. Rule number one of Communications, right? Keep your messaging simple, keep your images simple. I know more than anyone what it’s like when you get carried away and just want to have an essay on a small social media image. Stop and think: like an espresso with a lump of sugar - short and sweet!
9. Keep talking & keep asking. Before the start of any new campaign I spend about 80% of my time asking questions. I want to know all about what I’m communicating so I’m more informed. The most important thing to do here is put yourself in your audiences shoes and ask ‘if I was them what would I want to know?’ Stay inquisitive!
10. Don’t be afraid to shine. You can be a leader at any level. Recently I took a professional development day to attend the online Women in Communications conference. One of the speakers, Susie Ramroop, said something that stuck with me: “your natural tendency is to measure your success by looking at others. When you do this you wait for others to lead but your leadership is untapped if you don’t show people.” Speak up, share your ideas, ask all the questions, don’t wait for others to do it first. This is your journey.
What one thing would make your working life easier?
There are loads of things I do every day to help make things easier. For a start, lists are life! I’m sure many people reading this will agree when I say ‘more time in the day’; but recently I concluded that even if I had 4 more hours in my working day I would still fill them so instead I’m going to say getting into a good mind-set.
Finding that work-life balance has been hugely important for me and makes my work life easier and far more productive. What do I mean by that? A few years ago I reduced my hours slightly at work so I could pick up my daughter from school. When I changed my hours I decided to change my mindset. For a lot of years, I was putting myself under a huge amount of unnecessary pressure to always prove myself at work, always asking myself ‘is this good enough?’ and the simple answer is yes, it was. It’s amazing how far a little self-belief will go. ‘I know my stuff, I know what I’m doing and I’m good at it' is what I tell myself now.
That mindset came with time and part of a bigger journey but it has made my working life a lot easier and far more enjoyable and productive. Anyone starting their career in communications or 20 years in shouldn’t forget that mindset.
You are absolutely capable.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
Everyone knows who the communications team are. The team’s work is split into portfolios and within each portfolio sits several areas of the business. We support those areas with communications advice, planning and activity.
Each week I meet with my direct reports to keep up to date with what’s happening and support them. Once a week the entire Communications team meet. It’s a highly supportive conversation and we always carve a chunk of time in that to brainstorm and come up with creative ideas.
We have good relationships with our Chief executive and Leadership team and other teams throughout the organisation.
It’s important to help the organisation develop a good understanding of what the communications team do and what we don’t do. Understandably colleagues may think something sits with communications when it doesn’t. We don’t know what we don’t know, so to help with this when working with a new team or colleague it’s important for us to set out how we work and the support we provide so everyone has a clear understanding going forward.
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?
I think analytics are essential. How many social media posts, how many followers, how many unique visits, how that correlates to sign up or sales etc. However, I think taking that a bit further is more important; what impact is it actually having? That is by far the more difficult answer to reach but if you can crack that nut you can see clearly what’s working and what needs to be reconsidered.
I also think website statistics are fantastic for presenting ideas to teams internally. The most popular pages give you a clear idea of what people want to know about. From there you can start to get creative in proposing content marketing, for example creating 10 short videos on the 10 most popular areas of the website. A bit of search engine optimisation and before you know it, Boom! You’re the leader in your field and the go-to for anyone looking for that information. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight and needs the creative mind of a Communications professional working closely with a project team to get there.
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
I’ve no doubt change is coming, if not already here! The way we work, the way we live, the way we communicate will grow and develop post-COVID-19. We can’t go through what we have and fully go back to the way things were. All sorts of landscapes are changing and Communications is right in the middle of that.
The wonderful thing about this is opportunity. With change comes new opportunities for Communications to get creative. Throughout lockdown digital communications took off with short ‘how-to’ videos to help parents with homeschooling, the nation’s grown-ups became obsessed with TikTok, digital team meetings became the norm and ‘a nice top and pyjama bottoms’ became the new get up for video nights in with friends and family.
Digital communications was always ‘the way forward’ but I can see that developing a lot quicker with more short creative videos being produced to hit the message home across social platforms. That and podcasts which are growing at an exponential rate.
People like a story, they want to connect and they are finding new ways to communicate with each other. As communications professionals, we need to keep our finger on that pulse and find ways to facilitate that connection.