We were lucky enough to catch up with Lou Gibson, Communications Officer, Digital Communications and Evaluation, at Sheffield City Council in our most recent interview. Lou has had an outstanding career and has just been shortlisted for Communicator of the Year in the Granicus Digital Public Sector awards. Read on to learn more from Lou, and uncover the importance of evidence-based practice in comms.
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 had a career in comms in my sights though the path to getting where I am was definitely a bit different than I imagined.
I grew up with an ambition to be a journalist, visions of reporting from Beirut for the BBC a la Kate Adie in my head (under 35s may need to Google). At 16 I spent a week doing work experience in our town’s local paper and knew pretty quickly it wasn’t where my future lay. Shadowing the world’s most cynical, jaded and chain-smoking journalist probably helped that realisation along.
I did know/learn for sure that working in communications was generally where I wanted to be just not exactly where… my route then followed:
- Communications degree,
- Ad sales for The Mirror (When Piers Morgan was editor, interesting times)
- Local radio ad sales and marketing (loads of fun, the Wire FM jingles still haunt me)
- Sales and marketing for a global B2B specialist publisher (travelled the world, made amazing friends, worked crazy hours, earned lots, no work-life balance, not very high in the job satisfaction stakes as it turned out).
In 2004 I decided I just wasn’t fulfilled in my job and wanted to do something more worthwhile. Something that fitted that vague mental image of where I wanted to be when I first started out. I applied for, and got, the Fostering & Adoption Marketing Manager post at Sheffield City Council in early 2005 and haven’t looked back. I’ve moved around and essentially changed jobs within the organisation a fair few times since then, each time doing work in comms that I enjoy more.
The amazing thing about public sector communications is that you see a real quantifiable difference to local communities and people when you communicate effectively. I’ve planned and implemented a diverse range of campaigns in my time here, recruiting and supporting foster carers and the children they look after. Generating buzz and footfall to helps energise the city centre, support businesses and create a sense of civic pride in our city. I’ve communicated about initiatives that can save residents money or reduce pollution, healthier eating, ensuring the most vulnerable know where they can get help, the list goes on.
Now I’ve got a role that focuses on digital channel development for the organisation. It’s a job I absolutely relish for the pace of change and opportunities it gives to improve how we communicate with and enable residents.
My current role is all about best practice and evidence-based working. All of the roles I’ve had continue to inform the work I do each day. I get to share best practice, collaborate and support comms colleagues and clients.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
The beauty of communications is that it’s so varied that whatever your personal skills, personality or general demeanour there’s a place for you.
There are some attributes that I’ve found the best people all seem to have wherever they sit in comms, from analysts to content creators, designers to strategists:
- Ability to evolve as the comms landscape changes and more importantly enjoy and welcome the challenges that offer
- Project confidence in their work, borne from evidence-based practice to gain credibility and trust
- Able to work proactively and understand their roles in a team/ organisation, collaborating and sharing
- Able to work reactively, flexibly and quickly
- Eagerness to improve their professional skills and promote the wider profession
- Enthusiastic collaborators; love sharing good (and bad) practice and supporting others to do better
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
This is a really interesting time for communicators. Our roles have never been more important, the work that we do is helping to save and improve lives. Despite that, I’m not sure there’s ever been a wider disconnect between what public sector communication professionals do and what the general public perceive we do.
Sometimes that disconnect, that lack of understanding of what ‘Comms’ is and does can be found within our organisations too. I’ve found this presents us with challenges stemming from three areas:
- A lack of understanding of the role of comms/ comms teams
- A lack of belief or trust in communications as a true profession
- A belief by the other person/service/client that anyone can do comms*
I’ve been working in comms and marketing for 25 years and there have been some major changes in comms during that time, notably digital comms including social media. I can see a direct link to that lack of belief in comms as a true profession/ anyone can do comms with the rise of social media. People post on social in a personal capacity and think ‘how hard can it be to do this for work?’
‘I want a leaflet’ has been replaced with ‘I want a Facebook Page’. Accounts are set up and abandoned or badly managed as non-comms admins often lack the understanding of the nuances and complexities of social media and how audiences channel use. This can be detrimental to our reputation and frustrating for residents.
The important thing here is for us to enable services in getting this right. Sometimes services and the residents that they serve have a real need for a social presence and it’s crucial that we support this where it’s appropriate. We’ve delivered training, pointed people in the direction of blogs, peer support and offered ongoing advice. Communication Service in large public sector organisations can’t manage all of the comms workload but we can provide the tools for services and departments to be more self-sufficient and effective. If we get this right non-comms people can manage digital accounts well, at ground-level with a human voice and good comms know-how behind them.
Social media is often not the most appropriate place for comms to happen. We’ve found that our most effective digital channel for driving calls to action is good old email. Curating subscribers and relevant topics for them is key and has provided a wealth of evidence of good practice.
Evidence-based practice should be at the core of good comms. I’ve tested, tweaked and thoroughly researched before I sit down to discuss communications with a client. Essentially I’ve amassed a bank of evidence about what works for different channels, audiences, content, calls to action, campaigns, and so on from digital data, case studies, research, conversions and experience. Even before the advent of digital comms, I made sure I had research – particularly on audiences – to inform any marketing or communication activity.
I confidently advise on the most effective communication because I have evidence that backs that up. Clients feel reassured and trust us when it’s clear that our recommendations have solid foundations. The beauty of digital communications is that we get immediate audience feedback to some of our comms, particularly on social media so we can evaluate live comms and adapt where necessary.
*On point 3, I don’t disagree, anyone can do comms, in much the same way as anyone can attempt brain surgery if you hand them a drill and scalpel. The results between the professional surgeon and person ‘having a go’ may differ though…
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
I’ve worked at Sheffield City Council for 16 years in various comms roles and I’ve never seen communications be more valued and sought after than it is now.
Covid-19 has obviously played a big part in that with many services suddenly needing crisis comms and feeling passionate that their work was the main priority. We’ve got a Chief Exec and senior management team who understand the worth of the Communications Service and are advocates for our team and the work we’ve done. Our Director of Public Health even gave Comms a shout-out last year for our role in providing critical information.
Pre-Covid we’ve experienced mostly positive work with services within the organisation. The main downfall for us is that we can’t do all of the comms work which needs to be done. Services need comms but we don’t have the resource to deliver it all so managing expectations and maintaining our reputation is a juggling act!
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?
Our organisation is large and complex with evaluation needs to match. We have key priorities and services work to support those. Our evaluation must include measurements based upon KPIs which are set as part of that work.
For communications that will include micro-level evaluation up to big picture comms.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?
Find what makes you happy in communications and do that. Job satisfaction may come from climbing up a management ladder, it may equally come from climbing down it again to find your niche!
Take every opportunity to learn, wherever and whenever you can.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, every single comms person you work with has made them, will make them again and they are not the end of the world. Crucially I’ve learned more from my comms mistakes than successes which is helpful when a service is suggesting comms which mirrors a past mistake and I can say assuredly, ‘that’s not a good idea because…’.
Don’t take it all too seriously (if you figure out how to do this one let me know!)
Join peer groups, there are loads (Comms2point0, Dan Slee’s Public Sector Comms Headspace group on Facebook, Comms Hero), follow comms people on social, sign up to blogs.
Master the basics of understanding your audience, writing and creating good content and delivering that in a way that works for them not you.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
This is an interesting one and for me, I guess it comes down to how you define success? For me, it’s about creating increasingly effective communication. I’ve worked in comms for 25+ years and that’s always been my measure of success, despite audiences and channels being very different then to now, that’s been a constant.
At the heart of all communications is that we have a message we need to deliver to an audience. The most successful communicators strip this down to simple, effective messaging that has the audience firmly in mind.
By taking what we learn, sharing with others, applying it and creating effective communications we succeed.