Mark Flannagan Communications Director at Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust, sits down with us to discuss his experience of handling crisis comms and to stress the importance of comms as a strategic function rather than a service.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I had my first PR story at age 18 – 40 years ago - dressed up in a gorilla suit to campaign for CND I got the story on the front page of my local newspaper! At university I was involved in the student council work and, being always “political”, wanted to do more in my career, rather than anything else. I volunteered for my first employer (Action on Smoking and Health Scotland) after reading a book on the issue. I approached them to offer my time so I could learn and get involved in something to change the world! From there I kind of moved between roles starting in a formal press office role at the BBC. I have worked mainly in charities, in Comms, but my last role was CEO of a national cancer charity. I moved to the NHS role, because I wanted to move out of the London area and because my life changed allowing me to do that
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
I think you have to be as determined to get your story out there as any journalist is hungry for their by-line – that’s what drives you to look for a better story approach and campaign than just the usual.
You have to be “always-on”, meaning you are prepared to answer the phone etc any time day or night – a good Comms person can’t turn down opportunities or not be available. It isn’t a 9 to 5 job and you can’t just go through the motions.
You have to be happy with others getting the credit or limelight for your work – Comms is a backroom role and you should actually take pride in that, working quietly behind the scenes helping others succeed. By the same token, I think you have to be a very corporate person – by which I mean you are loyal to the organisation, although always ethical and honest.
And you have to learn to be calm but busily energetic – you can’t make sound judgement and advise others if you are flapping and the strength of a Comms person is that you are the one others turn to when there is a crisis.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
The primary one is always getting others to understand the central role of Comms in everything we do – it is a corporate function, a driver of strategy, not a service. That is closely followed by the related issue of patiently learning to understand that everyone thinks they can do your job. The big challenge, therefore, is possibly showing how you can help deliver or even shape the strategy and getting senior leaders, especially the CEO, to appreciate that and value your role.
The challenge that we all will likely face is a crisis – that is where Comms plays its core role, doing the basics of tracking what is going on, shaping the responses needed, taking a wider view than just a reactive response each time, advising on reputation. In April 2018, nine months into the job, I had this challenge with the international news story of a very sick baby and the related court case. Overnight we had protestors outside our door, the world’s media, various lobbying groups and everyone, from the Vatican to the Foreign Office to handle. It was a tragic case but my team worked hard to ensure that child’s privacy was protected by us, but that we also kept colleagues informed, and, ultimately, proud that we were doing the right thing. On a wider level it helped established Comms and my role more clearly because I was able to demonstrate expertise and judgement in a crisis. And, a willingness to work non-stop to do so.
What one thing would make your working life easier?
Retirement!!!! I am not sure I want an easier life. When it is quiet it is boring. I am lucky that I have a boss (CEO) who “gets” Comms and whom I respect enormously. If this wasn’t the case then I would wish to have it.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
In my four years, it has changed from a service to a central role. It has changed from coming at the end of the process and then an ask to “just do some Comms” to being engaged early on in the planning and strategising. We now have a corporate Comms Strategy, not a department of Comms Plan. That is a game-changer, but we now have to deliver on it as it is ambitious and all about a brand-led approach that will take some “brave” decisions going forward. My team is viewed very positively – they are a great bunch – and respected by everyone. This allows us to give more guidance and advice about what should be done rather than just doing what people ask of us.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
It isn’t a secret – just be hungry to get the best story out there about your organisation, be proud to be Comms, always learn and recognise that it is constantly changing.
That said, I personally still think one to one relationships with journalists is vital and I am worried we are losing that as we move more to driving Comms through social media, through lack of time etc. For reputational purposes, as well as “selling in” a story, knowing your contacts well is still core. Getting to know and like them helps day to day as well, as I think we can be become divorced from our conduits to delivery. Having a relationship of trust and, dare I say, friendship is enormously helpful – with dividends like being able to understand what their needs are so you shape what you have for them. I wonder if too often we put a story out there and don’t think of the publication’s needs and craft it for them. In the “old days”, we used to do that with different style release on the same story for different papers, for example. But “in the old days” we all had time for lunch with our journalist contacts and used that well.
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 have almost never worked somewhere where I have the budget to do this properly, except the BBC. The ideal is to use an agency to help measure impact based on strategy and key message delivery (Comms for me is just about key message delivery really). In reality, without money to spend, we just use judgement, demonstrate outputs and link back to expected outcomes. It is also right to point out that our change is delivered over time – years not months.
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
Is there any “big thing” now?
As said, I still think the core is getting a story out with your messages using your contacts. I think we need to focus more on quality and not quantity, on shaping the narrative of your “brand” not on just coverage. I think this is something we need to get back to, as the plethora of channels, including your own social media, means it is possible to demonstrate that you have got the message out there without necessarily it making a difference. Comms is a medium to long game, not a short term return on investment! I will be interested, however, to see whether new broadcast outlets like GB News will succeed and, therefore, create a need for Comms people to segment their efforts more – targeting stories and messages for the editorial bias of outlets even more than we use to do, say, when we produced release for the Sun and the Guardian!