Paul Fawcett on uncertainty and flexibility

Paul Fawcett on uncertainty and flexibility
Paul Fawcett, head of PR and Communications at Futures Housing Group, shares his journey into comms and what he sees as the role of communications in an uncertain world.

Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?

A happy accident. I left university with a degree in biology and no idea what to do next. After doing random jobs for a while I started volunteering with Shelter and I got on really well with their press officer so started to learn about what she did. She had to take an unexpected break so I ended up more or less holding the fort. I really loved the work I did and the experience it gave me, which included some fairly high profile campaigns, gave me the fuel I needed to get my first full-time paid job in communications.

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

I would say first and foremost empathy and sensitivity. If you can’t put yourselves in other people’s shoes and pre-empt how they may react to what you communicate (and how) then you risk things landing badly or just simply missing the mark.

What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?

Currently I work in a sector (social housing) that, in my opinion, has undersold itself for years. Our trade body, the National Housing Federation, has done perception surveys and while people who deal with the sector generally value it and the contribution it makes to society, the vast majority of people know little or nothing about us – even our own customers. Yet we provide secure, affordable homes for around 6m people in the UK and housing is a constant topic of concern for a large proportion of the UK public. A lot of the time we have to overcome indifference or misperceptions – such as people equating us with commercial property developers, which are generally pretty disliked – whenever we communicate. That makes for a great challenge but it brings frustrations too.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

Having a Mac instead of a PC at work – but it’s not my call…  

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Generally I think pretty well – which is greatly helped by the fact that the Chief Executive sees it as really important. Futures is a very dynamic place to work though – there is lots going on and a lot of change. So when colleagues are all extremely busy I sometimes feel that communication is something that slips down their ‘to do’ lists. We tackle this by offering our creativity and proactively getting involved in projects to help raise the bar for communications again. Alongside this the government is bringing in legislation which, among other things, will mean that all housing associations have to work harder at engaging with their customers and improving transparency – which from my point of view is really increasing everyone’s interest in good communication right now.

What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?

Be flexible and go with the flow. Our job is to engage with a world that, for the most part, we have zero control over. Planning and having a clear sense of where you are trying to get to is important – but I think it’s more important to keep your eyes and ears open, adapt to the environment quickly, and be ready to grab opportunities to get your messages out there.

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’ve not been in this role all that long and most of my team is quite new too so this is something that we’re still working on. We take a quarterly performance report to our senior leaders every three months and at the moment it’s still a work in progress. There are lots of things we can and do count – particularly in the digital domain – which show how busy we are. But it can be a challenge to actually show the difference you’re making. We’re really fortunate though to have a great internal research and intelligence team who, for example, are regularly surveying our customers and measuring perceptions and awareness of Futures. So we can see that over the last 18 months or so our campaigns have clearly made customers more aware of the ways in which we can help them – which is one of our strategic objectives. We do periodic and independent stakeholder perception audits which again are far more useful in helping us understand the difference we are making rather than simply showing a chart of how many people open our e-newsletters.

Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?

I think that while there is lots of exciting stuff going on in the digital world, much of the cutting edge stuff is still the domain of trendy and specialist agencies. Out in the real world I think mainstream organisations still have a long way to go in their use of targeted digital messaging and use of video for example – because the degree of technical knowledge you need to do these things really well is quite high. For an organisation like ours though, we must remember that digital inclusion is a big problem for many of our customers so while it’s not ‘sexy’ there still is a place for ‘old school’ approaches. In a way I can see the needle swing back to more face-to-face and traditional ways of engaging with your audiences as after two years of the pandemic a lot of people are craving something more than screen-based connections.