Sarah Pickstone on the ideal comms tool

Sarah Pickstone on the ideal comms tool
Sarah Pickstone, PR and marketing manager at Compton Care, joins us to chat about the importance of strategic goals in 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?

I come from a family of amateur linguistics, a bunch of frustrated pedants who regularly talked about why splitting the infinitive was outdated. I think I understood the correct use of a semi-colon long before we were talking about it at school. So, it was probably inevitable that I would land in a job where I had the joy of correcting colleagues’ grammar, writing emotive copy and proof-reading documents. I’ve always been passionate about the community so a job in the third sector was always what I was aiming towards. Yet, my first marketing job was in a private sector event management company, that organised exhibitions. I felt an element of frustration in that role as I’d learnt some fantastic skills but wanted to promote more than just an event. I then moved to a children’s literacy charity promoting the great work they did, a dream job as I merged my English Literature degree and love of reading with my newly-found skills.

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

It sounds like a cliché but being able to juggle is a huge necessity. In this role, everybody wants you and they want you now! I also strongly believe that you should have excellent copy writing skills; my team has to write anything from a quick tweet to a press release for a medical journal. Being able to write in a different style, suited to a particular form of communications, is essential. Finally, I always find that this type of role appeals to people who are friendly, willing to talk to anyone and have a naturally approachable demeanour. To gain engaging content and wonderful blogs, you must have the bravado to go and get that content and smile nicely whilst asking for it.

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

Working in the charity sector, money is always a big issue. We would love to splash thousands of pounds on promoting what we do, but we rarely have the budget for that. However, this often works in our favour, some companies and individuals are extremely generous and often give their time for free to support us. Also, it means we can be creative and innovative with what we can do. We use our staff, volunteers and patients a lot in our images and video, which makes it feel more genuine.

I work for a medium-sized, local charity, we support people living with incurable conditions, so it is a very sensitive subject. Sometimes I wish we could be bolder with our messaging and put to bed myths about palliative and end of life care. It seems that smaller charities don’t have the ability to be bold with their messaging. It would be wonderful if charities could shout from the rooftops about the harder to hear issues that they are faced with, I think this would form a superb campaign.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

One lovely big platform that helped me to monitor engagement on social media, our press coverage, create email marketing templates and also had a design platform for me to create content – all for free!

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

I think the role of communications is changing within our organisation and within the third sector as a whole. Communications was often seen as an extension of fundraising, but now people can see the value in our function in our own right. Previously many people used to think that they could do marketing, that it’s just producing a few posters on Canva and sticking them up around a building. This is also changing, people see the value of an expert being able to write creative, emotive and targeted copy to gain more followers, users of the service etc. We have a Lottery team at Compton who have embraced monthly targeted advertising and after only two months have seen the benefit and an increase in users of the service.

Most things have to be approved by the Communications team, I can see the genuine fear in people’s eyes when they bring something to me to ‘check’. I think they have flashbacks to school and envisage a teacher pulling out a red pen and drawing a thick line through all of their work. Whilst I’m not that mean, I do change a lot of people’s copy, but I do reiterate that what we do is make sure every bit of communications that goes out externally looks as professional as it can, Compton is an expert within the field and I want that to be reflected in our external communications.  

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

Having a clear strategy and targets. Communication teams tend to straddle every department in an organisation, and they need to know exactly what their priorities are. Having a clear strategy enables us to say ‘That’s just not a focus of our team’. It also allows us to know what parts of our jobs are important and we need to spend time focusing on.

I also think knowing each other’s role is crucial, we need to know how we all fit in with each other. For instance, one colleague might write a blog but without it being placed on the website, pushed out through social media or writing a press release about it, nobody will know this blog exists. Every role in this team is essential and we all fit together to ensure we promote the organisation in a streamlined way with no duplication.

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?

For me, I’m always trying to tell people about engagements with their social media posts, I tend to show them a campaign that’s not doing well and one that is, then comparing. Photographs of our clinical staff always have really high engagement, but an image with text on often doesn’t do as well. So, using these analysis tools can enable us to create a social media post we hope will have good engagement.

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

I hate to say the dreaded word, but COVID-19 has prevented us from physically seeing people – whether that’s family, friends or colleagues – and I wonder if the next big thing will be a shift away from digital and towards something more personal and physical. With people leaving London in their droves, it provides an opportunity for non-London based organisations to grab the attention of their local audiences and offer an in-person experience for them. Compton’s in-person events have been so well attended this year, yet our virtual event are struggling to gain momentum. People just want to see other people and get back the time they’ve lost sitting on Teams.

My mum always said fashion is cyclical and I believe this is true for most things in life. Has the digital era had its time and we will be moving back to basics? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind attending a conference where I can drink some free coffee, physically sit next to the person I’m chatting to and one that doesn’t involved break out rooms on Zoom.