Lucy Denton, director of comms for the Gambling Commission, shares with us her views on the essential skills for comms success and the importance of impact over outputs.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I never even realised communication was a profession when I was growing up! History was my passion, and I studied archaeology at university. But while studying, I started taking an interest in how history is taught and the stories we tell about our past; importantly the unspoken stories of those who lived before us. It’s easy to look at an old house, for example, and think about the lives of those who lived there because you can see their portraits on the walls, but it was those silent voices that were more interesting to me – the people who tended to the gardens, who cooked the food, cleaned the fireplaces, and so on.
I started volunteering in museum education while studying, and after university, eventually found myself as an education officer at the UK Parliament, helping school children learn about democracy and their rights to have their voices heard. From there, my interest in comms grew, and I was lucky enough to land my first comms job as a digital engagement manager where I supported Commons Select Committees to make their inquiries more accessible to the public. As it was a brand-new post, I had the chance to try some innovative things, and work with some amazingly passionate people.
The rest, as they say, is history!
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
I love how varied our roles are as communicators - we must be strategic thinkers, data analysts, change makers, creatives, influencers, negotiators, and crisis handlers. But over the years, I have found there are two skills that can add value as a comms leader.
The first skill is a capacity to step back and see the bigger picture. Finding the time to take an overarching view of our work and how it aligns to the needs of the business allows us to ensure we’re prioritising the right things, at the right time, and adding the greatest value to our audiences and our organisation.
The second skill is emotional intelligence. Its so important not only on a personal level - in our interactions with our stakeholders and team - but being able to understand how others feel, to put ourselves in their shoes enables us to create better communications. So much comms is manufactured because the business wants to tell someone something, its much more powerful when we’re able to give people the information they need from us, in a way that works for them. This is why we need to be in the rooms where decisions are made – so we can bring out insights into the discussions as early as possible.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
I once sat in a room advising a CEO on the need to introduce a communications strategy (something we’d never had before), and I will always remember them saying - “so we’re going to be making more noise?”. I will admit to an involuntary silent scream at this moment. But noise wasn’t what we wanted – it was impact.
Most of those we work with never see what goes on behind the scenes to create excellent communications, they see the outputs – the posters, the events, the social collateral.
I think it’s this lack of understanding for our professional expertise that sometimes gets me down, but also makes me so much more motivated to showcase the value of strategic comms and create a supportive environment for teams to thrive so we can make less noise, and more impact!
What one thing would make your working life easier?
Someone who shuts my laptop and makes me go for a walk!
We have a mental health crisis in the comms profession, and we need to recognise the stress our job puts on us. We take on a lot as comms professionals, and often bear the burden of the organisation on our shoulders, but I have been trying to embrace a better work/life balance and taking care of my own mental wellbeing. My hope is that by role modelling ways to support my own mental health, I’ll be able to help create a culture where my team also feel able to care for themselves and be open about saying when things aren’t ok.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
I joined the amazing team at the Gambling Commission a few weeks ago, and I’m pleased to say that the team, and their value, is widely recognised by the CEO and others. I’m still in learning mode here, seeing what we do well, and where we can add greater value.
At my previous organisation – Office of the Public Guardian – we had a fantastically supportive CEO and senior leadership team and were well regarded across the organisation, and it’s a fantastic experience when comms is trusted, and our advice is valued.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Being bold! Take risks and try new things! I would never have got to where I am today without putting myself out there and just saying ‘let me try this’. Sometimes it’s a viral success, sometimes it’s a bit flat, and rarely, very, very rarely it goes horribly wrong. But if we’re always scared of something going wrong, we’ll never try something new.
Learn from what you do – why did something go well, why didn’t it go so well, and what are others doing? It is such an exciting time for communicators, and I am always taking the time to see what other exceptional organisations are doing and seeing what we can learn from them.
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?
Impact is the most important measurement for me. It's so easy to talk about your engagements, reach and views but what does that mean for the objectives you set out to deliver? I like to use the Government Communications Service evaluation framework to set this out, I’ll share the outputs, outtakes, and outcomes (after all, who doesn’t like an impressive metric?!) but for me impact is key – how did our work add tangible value to the organisation and our audiences?
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
Blended campaigns. Hear me out! 😊 Traditionally many organisations have separate internal communications and external-facing communications, but to me that delineation is arbitrary.
Organisations, now more than ever, have a duty to act according to their values, to have values that embrace diversity, equality, and inclusion and to be socially aware. This means using the same language internally and externally, sharing our messaging across our channels and holding a mirror up to ourselves if we aren’t living those values.
It offers fantastic opportunity to blur the lines between our internal and external approaches and something I think isn’t yet embraced as much as it could be within communications.