Suzanne Hughes on succeeding in an ever-changing comms environment

Suzanne Hughes on succeeding in an ever-changing comms environment
Suzanne Hughes, head of corporate communications for Humberside Police, chats with us about her comms career and her tips for success in the field.

Suzanne Hughes, head of corporate communications for Humberside Police, chats with us about her comms career and her tips for success in the field. Read on for her thoughts on persistence, resilience, and networking.

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

I know that Communications can be a profession that many people fall into, but I deliberately chose it. I was at University in Leeds when I decided this is what I wanted to do.

I chose Public Relations simply because I liked the class — and the lecturer was a practitioner so she was able to bring it to life in a way that I felt I understood what it was about.

I really like the traditional CIPR definition of what we do that goes, "public relations is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and it’s publics."

I think that may have evolved a bit and it’s definitely been misunderstood at times by some inside and outside of the industry, but to me, this felt like a noble and worthwhile thing to do for a living.

I enjoy that process of building and maintaining goodwill and have always worked for organisations where I have felt proud to be able to fulfill this service both to the organisation and the public.

I should say that I also liked the combination that communications offered to be creative and imaginative, whilst at the same time, being strategic and influential within an organisation. There aren’t many professions that provide the opportunity to do both of these things at the same time.

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

The profession has changed and grown massively in the 25 years I have been working in it. There are some skills that are still as relevant as ever — the most obvious being verbal and written communications. An interest in people, current affairs, news etc is also very important.

But to me the most important thing I look for in recruiting is personality. I look for people who are great problem solvers, who are comfortable with being uncomfortable and who are willing to get stuck in and have a go. You have to be pretty resilient and you have to be confident too as you often need to work with people at all levels inside and outside of the organisation, including very senior people — from an early age. You need to be able to listen carefully, understand quickly, and then provide advice.

You have to be able to challenge in the right way and you need to be persuasive, as you are often advising colleagues who have a different view of a situation than you do. I always say that communications professionals need to have one foot inside the organisation and one foot outside of the organisation — and that combination is important to provide the right advice.

What sort of challenges do you face in your role?

In all of the organisations I have worked for, without doubt the biggest challenge is internal politics. Whether this is a large complex organisation with many layers of management, or a small organisation, you need to be able to build up strong relationships and establish your own credibility.

Emotional intelligence is crucial to this — you need to be acutely aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and you need to be able to have the courage to stand back and ask for advice and input from others at times.

Navigating your way through a raft of colleagues and internal stakeholders who have an interest in what you are doing, whilst trying to meet tight deadlines can be tricky. It’s important to know when to go a bit slower to ensure others are with you, and when to be decisive and move ahead in quick time. It’s all about balancing risk and opportunity really.

Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?

For me the biggest challenge in my working life has been the rise of social media. When I first started working, we had longer deadlines to respond to media stories, and the way we worked with media was very different.

When I was at the Environment Agency in 2009 we saw some terrible flooding in Cumbria and we worked as a comms team 24/7 to keep the media and public up to date. We said yes to every single broadcast interview during that period as this was the most important channel for communicating with our communities. It was a mammoth effort to keep up.
Then I remember at the de-brief a colleague saying to me that the next major flood would be completely different due to the rise of social media. And he was right!

It came the following year, and the pace of information was already so much quicker. There were hundreds of people sharing hundreds of pieces of information across a range of channels in real time. We quickly realised that we could not control the narrative in the same way we had previously and that we needed to adjust our approach by harnessing this information. We started to use hashtags (which sounds pretty basic now), trained frontline responders to share information in real time, and started to generate and share our own photographs and footage via social media as well as continuing to work with traditional media.

The whole rise of social media and citizen journalism has transformed how we do everything. It’s undoubtedly the biggest challenge and change in our industry.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Most of my career has been in public sector and charities. I think Communications is perceived as fundamental in all public sector and charity organisations now.

It’s about public trust and confidence, accountability and meaningful engagement with communities. I think the public sector is actually really good at this stuff and has come a long way in my working career. There was once a perception that public sector was closed, slow to respond and naive about public relations and communications but I don’t think that’s true at all now. I think the public sector has some of the most forward thinking, sophisticated and creative communications professionals — people who get a lot done, under huge public scrutiny, with very small budgets.

What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?

Know your profession — understand the true value of what you can offer to your organisation — do not underestimate this. Get to know the academic background, the professional insight and research and see yourself as an expert with a really useful and unique set of skills and experience.

I think it’s really important to mix with other communications professionals and network because you will undoubtedly find that the things you’re struggling with are the exact same things others are struggling with — and there’s always someone with an idea or solution.

I think the PR and Comms network is really strong and really collaborative — people are so willing to share the benefit of their experiences — good and bad.

One of the most important things is to observe others, watch, listen, learn — put yourself forward for projects, get involved, and stretch yourself — don’t focus on grades and titles, just get the experience and the rest will come.

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

A sense of humour!

And resilience. This a profession that will test you beyond what you ever imagined. You have to be ready for anything, and it will always surprise you!

I hear a lot of people in the profession stressing about the profession not being valued or understood properly. This does happen, and it can be frustrating but it’s important to put this to one side and try not to get too hung up on people who don’t understand what you do or think it’s easy — they are in every organisation and always will be, and it’s not their job to understand how we do our job.

So take a deep breath and just continue to deliver great work, consistently give good advice, and provide good communications support, and you will win people round.