Melissa Ittoo, digital communications manager at the Institute for Government, shares with us her journey in comms. During her time in journalism and comms, she's leaned into the importance of listening to internal voices and external readers. Read on for more!
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
It was a bit of both to be honest. I’d always loved being creative, and my dad got me into current affairs and taking a keen interest in the news from quite a young age. So, my plan was to go into journalism, and I even did the NCTJ training course and spent some time working for local newspapers. But it’s such a difficult sector to break into, and I graduated from university not long after the recession — which didn’t help matters. Then luckily a paid, year-long internship in the press and communications team at the University of Sussex came my way — and it was too good an opportunity to turn down. It gave me such a good grounding not just in news writing but in internal communications, marketing, web editing, photography — you name it. I continued working in communications in the university sector for a few more years, mostly in students’ unions, and that was where I got to move more into more of the digital/social media space, and even had the opportunity to do some web design work. I loved the variety of the job and really enjoyed speaking to different audiences, thinking creatively about how to connect with them and working collaboratively as a team — it just felt like a much better fit for me career-wise.
I moved to the Institute for Government, a think tank, just over five years ago now, initially as their Web and Publications Editor before becoming Digital Communications Manager, and have 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?
I think you need to be really interested in people. I used to worry that you needed to be a bit of an extrovert to get ahead in communications — that’s definitely not my personality! But, in reality, I think a huge part of the role is being able to have a conversation with people and listen to what they’re saying or trying to get across — and then using that to inform or craft your messaging or strategy. You need to be able to translate different content for different audiences — so you ultimately need to know what people want to hear and where they are to going hear it.
Being organised is also a vital skill. Communications is such a fast-paced environment; it’s deadline-driven. And I think in most organisations, it’s one of the few roles where you get to work across all the different teams. It’s one of my favourite things about my job because you get an insight into lots of different pockets of an organisation, but it does mean you are constantly juggling multiple projects, some long-term and some more immediate. So being able to stay on top of deadlines and knowing how to prioritise is really important — and will help you handle any last-minute challenges that inevitably get thrown your way!
I would also say you need to be eager to learn and open-minded. There are so many routes to take in communications — from writing and editorial to content design and web management — and they all require different skills and expertise. One thing I have found in the think tank sector is that communications teams are typically quite small — but the opportunity and the benefit of that is that you get to try your hand at lots of different tasks and responsibilities.
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 think Covid-19 and remote working has definitely been a challenge. As I mentioned before, communications is quite a sociable role — you really do have to engage with everyone in the organisation and you rely quite heavily on being able to share information with your colleagues in order to get things done. And so, when you're in an office, it's really useful to be able to just pop across the other side of the room if you want to bounce around ideas, run things past project leaders or even give a gentle nudge when a deadline is looming. It certainly takes a bit more effort to recreate that atmosphere over Teams or Zoom.
What one thing would make your working life easier?
It’s probably not the most original answer as I imagine a lot of comms people say this, but definitely more time! As wonderful as it would be to have unlimited space to think more creatively and test out new ideas, sometimes you have to focus on what is achievable and how you can have the biggest impact with minimal effort — especially when timescales shift without warning. But working in a fast-paced environment and dealing with the unexpected is the nature of the job — and you’ve got to be able to adapt when that happens. But that in itself can actually be a fun challenge. That said, I also wouldn't say no to an edit button for Twitter!
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
I'm really fortunate to work in an organisation where communications is seen as having quite a key role. People are really keen to work with our team, to hear our ideas, and they try to engage us in the early stages of planning their projects so that comms isn't just an afterthought but is involved from start to finish. I've worked in organisations before where communications is often treated as something that's tacked on last minute at the end of the process and it can be really discouraging. And I think even in instances where people perhaps aren't familiar with or haven't ever worked directly with a communications team before, they've been really open to learning more about our processes.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
I don’t know if there is one secret to success to be honest. I think a lot of it comes down to the relationships you build with people. You need to be interested and open to collaboration. There can also be a lot of demand on your time, and so you sometimes have to be comfortable enough to challenge or ask why. It's a lot easier to do that if you have a good rapport with your colleagues.
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 it depends on what objective you're trying to achieve. Measuring and reporting our efforts can include anything from publication downloads to viewer figures for live events — and we use a mixture of reporting tools to allow us to pull that quantitative data together. But it’s also important to look beyond those top-line numbers and to drill down further to get a better sense of who your users are, how they find your work and what exactly it is they are looking for when they're on your website. That said, I don't think measuring impact should just be about numbers or analytics. We sometimes hear directly from people in government or have our work cited by select committees, journalists and other relevant organisations — that isn't something you can pull out of Google Analytics but I think it's just as valuable in understanding and measuring our impact.
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
That's a really good question! I think, particularly for organisations like think tanks, hybrid events will be a clear reality as we move forward from the pandemic. Platforms like Zoom and Teams have been hugely beneficial in allowing us to bring together speakers and audiences across the world without the need for travel. But it will be interesting to see what that means for in-the-room discussions and conferences. The big thing we will need to think about is how we can combine both in-person and virtual experiences — and what innovative tools and technologies we might need in order to do that.