Suzanne Halls, head of communications and public affairs for the Office for Statistics Regulation, shares thoughtful advice on the personal outlook necessary for success in comms. Read on for her detailed responses about getting in the door and believing in what your doing.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications?
I’ve always had plenty of energy and really thrive on making situations, projects, and people work together for successful outcomes and a wider good. I found myself a work placement in a PR agency during my A-Levels and became fascinated by the potential of well-planned and executed communications. From there I chose a relevant degree and went straight into a reactive and strategic communications role once I graduated.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role?
Every communications professional must be imaginative, determined, genuinely passionate, be able to work well with others, really want to make a difference, and work hard to make it happen. You also need to believe in what you are doing and think big to get wider buy-in and excite others to want to get involved.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role?
At OSR, we oversee the production and regulation of the official numbers that are crucial to understanding and managing our lives. We continually stand up for the public having access to the best possible statistics and data, and this has never been so much at the centre of public life as now. We have become a nation of armchair epidemiologists, using numbers to understand the current pandemic and its impacts on society, the economy, and wider.
This year our priorities will continue to be COVID related, along with other significant events such as EU departure, the decennial census and elections in Scotland and Wales, with statistics and data remaining firmly in the public eye. My small but dynamic communications teams reactively and digitally support this work, securing maximum impact on regulatory interventions of OSR through planned activities, close liaison with key stakeholders, public affairs and other creative ideas that successfully utilise minimal resource.
These sorts of teams and projects have always attracted me, because you have a stake in your own work and directly feel the achievement and rewards from it. At OSR I created and embedded the communications team when the organisation launched. Now a team of three, we thrive on supporting our 30 dynamic regulators undertake impactful judgements and activities, in order to deliver our wide-ranging work programme.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
As a regulator, communications excellence is of paramount importance and underpins everything thing we do. The OSR team, management, and governing board all agree that we must uphold our own high communications values, to then oversee and make judgements on others. Clear and well communicated outputs explain our sometimes-complex work in simple terms to our wide, varied, and growing audiences.
This dialogue with statistics producers and users includes government departments, ministers, senior officials, policy makers, analysts, third sector, think tanks, academics, international audiences, members of the general public, and wider. Journalists themselves are also a very special group of front-line statistics users that we work with closely, using important relationships we have built to understand issues as well as respond to their enquiries.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?
If you are passionate about a career in communications, roll your sleeves up and try to get your foot in the door somewhere, even if it’s an unpaid work placement. If you work hard and have talent, this will enable you to gain experience and hopefully then won’t take you long to find your first paid position.
Try working in different sectors to see what gives you most satisfaction, I gained a lot from working in business-to-business communications and the private sector before settling in the public sector and deciding that the Civil Service was the exciting, varied and fulfilling career for me.
Develop as much communications experience as you can to try different roles, allowing yourself to be adaptable and open to as many opportunities as possible. When I am recruiting staff, I like to see ‘all round’ communications skills, someone that can write, understand social media, manage web content, shoot video, handle reactive issues, organise events and generally be versatile to add value to my team.
Learn how to talk to people and build relationships within your own organisation and wider, to create invaluable connections for help, support, advice, and feedback.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Understand the organisation and the people within it and work closely with them to prioritise what they are hoping to achieve, then work out how that can happen and capture it within a strategy and plan.
Make sure individuals in the team understand the plan and their role within it. Use evidence and insights to devise activities and content for the target audiences, then consider effective reach and execution across different channels. Continually evaluate how messages are landing and things are progressing, make changes as required and speak to others and look for examples of similar activities.
I addition to the above, be bold and brave when suggesting ideas and use ideas and evidence to break the mould and suggest new ways of doing things to influence more senior members of staff. Keep on top of issues, trends, be topical, and use the power of personal stories to bring messages to life.
We at React & Share live for helping communications teams through understanding website content sentiment and improving it off the back of feedback. How do you and your team approach content improvement?
Towards the end of last year OSR launched a new stand-alone website to make it much easier for people to see the work we do. This was a great opportunity to review content, structure, and accessibility. We also regularly liaise with key internal and external audiences to get feedback find out what they want and need, to make sure our content is serving their current and growing needs.
Like React & Share we monitor our metrics carefully and put a lot of thought into how we present regulatory content, experiment with opportunities, and review what worked well monthly, continually refining team-wide efforts. We are also planning some further content reviews, user testing, and deeper audience insight analysis to feed into our wider communications strategy once our site is a few months older and further established.