Sara Nelson on long-term projects against the grain

Sara Nelson on long-term projects against the grain
Sara Nelson, head of communications at Transport Focus, joins us to chat about cultivating traits for success that may not be natural for you.

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

I started my career as a journalist so it was a fairly natural move over into communications. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, and am naturally very curious (some might say nosy!). Communications has that perfect combination of variety in your everyday work, the chance to get to know new people and topics, opportunities to exercise creativity - and crucially lots of short-term deadlines to keep me focused. 

I love the constant learning and development too – recently I’ve been working with some colleagues in insight to understand the ‘seldom heard’ audiences better, and to think about where and how to reach them.

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

Great communicators aren’t broadcasters, they’re in a conversation with you. So I’d say listening skills or curiosity are pretty key. Talking to people, being interested in them. This applies to external comms activity, stakeholder or internal relationships – everything, really.

If you assume you know things and don’t keep a flow of information both ways, you’ll quickly lose touch, make mistakes, and be a very boring dinner companion.

I’d also say patience is an underrated virtue – it’s my ‘focus’ word of 2022, because I don’t have much naturally! In comms we’re used to chasing deadlines and instant impact. But relationships and reputations can take time to build and often can’t be rushed. 

And lastly, resilience. There will be knockbacks, you will have to work on things you don’t agree with, campaigns won’t land how you planned, people will ignore your sound advice and insist on doing stuff you can see will go wrong. Resilience doesn’t mean not-caring about these things – all the comms pros I know care deeply about them. But being able to own your feelings, reflect on what could have gone better, and give yourself whatever you need to bounce back is key. I’ve got some trusted people I vent to, sometimes combining this with going for a jog or a glass of wine (never tried all three at the same time).

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

Leaving aside the challenges of walking the political tightrope when you’re part of an independent arms-length body in a complex sector with major reform on the cards….and the challenges of operating on a very small budget (champagne dreams on a lemonade income)…

One constant challenge is the balancing of long-term strategic planning and thinking, and short-term instant-gratification activity. Making time to go and think about something in depth when you can see other colleagues churning stuff out rapidly can feel uncomfortable – but sometimes it has to be done. And other times you do have to drop everything and be all hands on deck. The art is working this out!

What one thing would make your working life easier?

A paperwork fairy.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Our reputation is basically our main ‘weapon’ as a watchdog, so comms is taken very seriously indeed. 

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

In my view, the key to success in anything is understanding why you’re doing it. And (hopefully) caring about it too.

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?

Firstly, remembering to share measurements with internal stakeholders full stop is important. We are happy to play back the outcomes of big set piece activities – publications, responses to big news events – but showing people how the day to day stuff is going is really useful too. It demonstrates to people how the smaller, everyday stuff like the twitter feed, the website, or the newsletter are keeping our organisation front of mind to the people we represent or want to influence. It’s also nice to acknowledge their role in it; we rely on our colleagues for content and help fact-checking stuff, so it’s good to show them that it was successful.