Sarah Roberts on balancing urgency and strategy in hectic environments

Sarah Roberts on balancing urgency and strategy in hectic environments
Sarah Roberts, head of digital communications at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, joins us to chat about juggling urgent tasks and strategic goals.

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

I came across marketing and communications when I was studying business at university. I thought it was the perfect blend of creativity, writing skills and helping an organisation to serve its purpose.

I must admit I stumbled into the public sector after I did a summer placement at Coventry Council in 2008. I haven’t looked back since though - well apart from the short stint of working in payroll when I graduated into the 2009 recession. If anything that experience built my resilience and taught me not to give up on working in a profession you’re passionate about.

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

I think the most important personal skills are around influencing and the ability to clearly articulate and present your ideas - which is especially important if you are trying to get buy-in to do something new. It’s an area I have been working on for a number of years and will continue to do so.

I’d say being flexible and adapting to changing situations - the pandemic has highlighted this more than anything. Keeping pace with the flow of information and discerning what different audiences need has also been integral.

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 within my role are twofold. The first is striking the balance between reacting to what the organisation needs and operating strategically. Some days with every will in the world I aim to work on longer term important projects, and get side tracked responding to operationally urgent work that can’t wait.

The second is developing a high-performing digital communications team, which is very rewarding, though takes time, energy and consistent effort. Giving people the space and opportunities to thrive is important. I’m lucky to have the team I do - they’re a bunch of talented comms pros.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

An app that brings all your messaging platforms into one place - I spend my professional and personal life flitting between emails, Asana, Trello and WhatsApp!

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Communications is valued greatly within Cambridge University Hospitals. Our director Ali Bailey sits on the management executive and does a great job of making sure comms is seen as a strategic management function. The pandemic has opened many peoples’ eyes to the importance of communications and the resource that’s required to do it well.

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

Always listen and absorb. Whether that’s when you’re developing a strategy to respond to your audiences’ needs, adapting your messaging/approach during a communications campaign to improve cut-through, or simply responding to comments on social media - listen and absorb to generate insight that informs your future actions.

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?

Anywhere you can highlight the outcomes of communications is the best, but hardest to achieve. It means you need to think about your measurement ahead of time when setting your objectives and gaining a baseline to measure against. This isn’t always possible, yet the thought needs to be kept near the top of your mind.

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

While I’m keeping my eye on AI/ automation and the impact of Web 3.0, which has the potential to decentralise social media and how we interact with online communities, what will remain is good old fashioned storytelling that connects us together through the ups and downs of life.

The ability to use new technologies to tell these compelling stories that transform and create dialogue will still be essential whatever happens next.