Paul Masterman on tactfully speaking truth to power

Paul Masterman on tactfully speaking truth to power
Paul Masterman, interim director of communications/communications consultant at Idsall Limited, joins us for a very clever interview on the upgraded importance of comms post-Covid.

Paul Masterman, interim director of communications/communications consultant at Idsall Limited, joins us for a very clever interview on the upgraded importance of comms post-Covid.

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

The reality I think is that communications chose me. From an early age I was a reader, writer, and lover of what we now call media. I wasn’t great at most things at school, but I was always “good at English” and have parlayed that into a what in retrospect looks like a career. Later I wanted to be a journalist having read about the Washington Post exposure of Watergate (I would have been Dustin Hoffman in the film) and moved in what used to be the traditional way from local reporting, to the nationals and broadcasting, and then into public relations.  My parents always wondered when I was going to get a proper job.

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

Some of the simple stuff I learned as a journalist still holds true for me in comms today: above all curiosity, resilience to take the hard knocks, having a fine-tuned BS detector, the ability to see what the real story is, and tell it well in plain language with powerful visuals.

Also, strategic thinking, which I think means understanding what your business does and why, the role of communications in delivering the organisation’s goals and the ability to look ahead and plan for an uncertain future.  And a sense of humour (or as Clive James called it: “common sense dancing”).

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

It is always tempting to say the need for more money, more time, more people, and even more money. Yet my experience is that when you have a small budget and have to deliver against a seemingly impossible deadline it really starts to make you think. Just look, for example, at the great work by councils up and down the country during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic; sharp and creative stuff on a shoestring that saved lives.

What has frustrated me a little in my freelance or in-house roles is the belief that you can comms your way out of the lack of a clear strategy for your business, service or project. Often quite senior leaders don’t know what they are trying to achieve and how they would measure success, and this gives professional communicators a challenge to help develop the business strategy first before then writing the comms plan to deliver what the business needs. 

What one thing would make your working life easier?

You mean apart from the invention of  healthy caffeine, an endless supply of Twix bars and the occasional long lunch with Gillian Anderson?

Being much better at taking useful and intelligent notes during business meetings that I can understand a day later and actually rely upon to produce good thinking and work.  Or a machine that can do that for me. 

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation? 

The bulk of my work as a consultant is working with executives, politicians, and comms professional in the public services, and mainly in local government. My experience is that most organisations understand they need good communications, however dimly they understand why that may be.   The current pandemic, whilst horrific and terrifying, has at least shown public service organisations how important good communications are in managing such an unprecedented crisis.  Good communication has been fundamental to protecting and saving lives. The challenge for comms people now is not to return to being those “nice people who run my Facebook page.”

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

Speaking truth to power, but in a way that shows you to be a friend and supporter of the business. As communicators we have an important role to advise without fear or favour on how our leaders should  listen to their residents or customers and are clear about the consequences of their decisions.

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?

At all times communicators should be presenting honest data on how the organisation’s comms is helping it deliver its strategic goals, “Your tweets have been seen by 100,000 people” doesn’t cut it any more, if it ever did. But, surprisingly, I still see organisations where the comms people don’t report performance and data to their stakeholders. This is bad for the reputation of and respect for the communications team, and bad for the organisation if it is investing in something it doesn’t know works.  Like science, medicine or justice, you can’t make good decisions about your communications without evidence.

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

I was alive in the 20th century during the Age of Newspapers when the overhead projector (Google it) was dangerously cutting edge. I’ve seen the arrival of the home PC, floppy disc, Nokia 3000, iPhone and TikTok. Now I read that machine learning or AI is being used in international diplomacy.  I never saw any of it coming, so have no idea what is next (and distrust anyone who tells me they do).

That said, I don’t think we public service communicators, with some honourable exceptions, have really got to grips yet with how to use behavioural psychology to help transform society for the better.