Sally-Ann Sykes on storytelling and a flair for words

Sally-Ann Sykes on storytelling and a flair for words
Sally-Ann Skyes, director of communications and engagement at Wirral University Teaching Hospital, shares with us her take on the fundamental skills for comms success.

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

The profession was not so well established as a career choice when I started out after graduating with an English degree in the early 1980s. I knew I wanted to write and so I looked for roles where this would be the main activity – I worked in public relations and got a big break working for the global multi-national Ciba-Geigy who invested in my management development early in my career. I also took a master’s degree in Public Relations, by distance learning, at The University of Stirling- having won part payment of my fees, in a bursary from a competition run by ‘Cosmopolitan’ magazine. I followed up this commitment to professional development by studying to become a Chartered Institute for Public Relations Chartered Practitioner in 2011, becoming a Founding Chartered Practitioner.

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

I still believe that writing, story-telling and a flair for words are fundamental, plus curiosity and interest in people, current affairs and how things work. Personal resilience and optimism are important too, as you can get knocked back dealing with clients, stakeholders or journalists.  The job isn’t 9-5, so you have to also be prepared for a life driven by deadlines, the 24/7 news cycle and cultivate an ability to analyse and simplify information – quickly.

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 challenges I face are the increased demands on a small team with the expansion of channels and the appreciation from our colleagues of what good communications can achieve. It’s great that they recognise our skills and talents though.  There’s still a need to develop a better understanding and expectation management in clients, internal and external stakeholders as to what communications can and can’t achieve. Perceptions of our role vary widely, roles and person specifications are rarely consistent and professional qualifications are still developing.  I would highly recommend (as an ex-President) the CIPR’s training and development offer Home ( and the professional networks offered in the Company of Communicators within the City of London, for example.

I have faced a number of challenges in my career – from internal communications and change management associated with business restructuring to being in a major aviation business on 9/11 and being involved in a global crisis.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

A better understanding in our clients and stakeholders of what’s possible – and how long certain things take.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Well- and colleagues in the NHS are very supportive of my team and I. We share the passion and commitment to deliver the best patient care and services – and good communications is fundamental to supporting this aim.

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

Getting a clear brief and playing that back so your deliverables are mutually agreed and understood. People skills, empathy and story-telling are also important as is the increasing need to prove return on investment and impact.

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 we need to go beyond output metrics and demonstrate that behaviours have changed, including far greater use of behavioural insight to inform campaigns and strategy.

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

I think that the internet, social  and digital media tools will need to be regulated in global context .  We have all used these fabulous innovations to connect and share but increasingly it’s also important to make sure information is true, fair, honest and shared with good intent. I think we’ll continue to see amazing innovation in tech – especially in wearables and AI