Shak Rafiq on coronavirus and comms' strategic function

Shak Rafiq on coronavirus and comms' strategic function
Shak Rafiq, strategic communications and stakeholder engagement lead at Act as One – Bradford District and Craven health and care partnership, shares with us his take on key comms skills like creativity and resilience.

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

I’d always planned to do a Law degree and only stumbled on a degree in Public Relations. I went to an open day for law, decided I didn’t want to spend three years reading case law and there was nothing in there that excited my creative side (I must add creative with words, my artistic side leaves a lot to be desired – I do a mean drawing of stick people though!). An open day for the Public Relations degree made my mind up for me. Looking back I’d have never have thought of a career in PR/communications and it was pretty much unheard of among my peers and in my community. Therefore it is a passion of mine to raise the profile of our career and attract the widest possible pool of talent as we still are not doing enough to promote comms as a career. Working with talented people drives us all on to achieve more, we may well be missing out on fresh perspectives and ideas.

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

First and foremost it’s all about relationships. Never underestimate how relationships can help you when you need to influence key stakeholders and how they can also help when you need advice from a fellow professional too. This goes hand in hand with listening skills whether that is through listening in the conventional sense or listening through sentiment trackers, social media analytics and media analysis or better still finding out what your colleagues and your communities are really thinking and saying.  I don’t think you can work in communications (and engagement) without a keen eye on the news agenda, understanding how this translates for your audiences while seeking to unpick what else drives their decision making and behaviour and the ability to use this insight to craft effective messages.

We are often seen as problem solvers. To do this we need creativity and the ability to use insight to generate ideas but only if you get the balance between creative and audience insight right. If there’s any way of testing ideas with a representative sample of your target audience it’s well worth doing – although we don’t often get the chance to do that, especially during Covid.

Resilience is important as we will often have to deal with serious issues and crises that we have to manage from a reputational perspective and these can take a significant toll on us. In addition, in this always connected world where one social media message or troll can newsjack your communication or campaign activities you need to maintain a thick(ish) skin and probably accept that at times work-life balance might be tricky to achieve.

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

One of the challenges I find is that everyone sees themselves as a communicator or a marketer. There are times when you’re given a solution to the problem and asked to implement someone’s idea. This is where you need to use diplomacy skills, insight and demonstrate your professional expertise as a subject matter expert to give people the confidence that you will work together to find a solution.  Effective planning is challenging due to the reactive environment we often find ourselves in. Attracting the right level of resource can also be difficult, especially within the public sector where it might be seen as taking resource away from services. I did say earlier we need to broaden our talent pool so despite these challenges I really do like working in communications!

What one thing would make your working life easier?

An auto delete function on social media for fake news or misinformation.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

I’m really lucky that not only does the organisation value communications but so does our wider health and care partnership for Bradford District and Craven. Of course Covid has helped many of us to demonstrate the value we bring as a strategic rather than just an operational function.  We do now have the challenge of being able to show how we continue to help our organisations meet their strategic objectives.

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

Being the unwelcome mirror and speaking truth to power, which is easier said than done. As communicators we are in a privileged position that brings the wider organisational, community or customer voice to the boardroom or meeting table – this gives us a unique opportunity to influence decisions and highlight how our actions can impact on both our reputation and the experience someone has with our organisation.

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 really like the OASIS model from the Government Communication Service as it provides a really effective way of planning and evaluating comms. I would like to be in a position to use the AMEC Barcelona 3.0 principles for evaluating and demonstrating impact and outcomes. There will be a place in for simple metrics such as follower numbers, reach or website tracking as an example as they may have been the objectives you or your colleagues/clients set but we need to go beyond this and look at outcome and behaviour change measures if we want to be seen as a strategic function. This requires time and resource - especially when we want to go beyond sentiment and track behaviour change - a luxury we aren’t often afforded as we deal with the next issue.

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

Artificial intelligence and automation will have an increasing role in our lives. Although I should caveat this to say that we are a way off from a position where all our audiences are digitally savvy and aware. So we are in that strange positon where the digital world never stands still yet we need to remember our audiences who do not, or chose not to, access our content through digital means. As communicators it’s not about the latest trend but identifying the channel and tools that are most likely to help us reach our audience (am I allowed saying the printed leaflet is not yet consigned to history…).