Syeda Hasnain-Mohammed on organisation, drive and compassion

Syeda Hasnain-Mohammed on organisation, drive and compassion
Syeda Hasnain-Mohammed, head of communications at King's Health Partners, shares her take on the most crucial skills for a comms professional and the challenges of healthcare comms during the pandemic.

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

I like to say that I meandered in a very pleasant stream-like fashion to communications. It was not always what I wanted to do; I actually started out my career as a budding lawyer, but found it wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped. I had grown up with a keen interest in politics and the news which my dad drilled into me, so when I saw an opportunity in policy in a government department I made the switch to public sector. From there I found my way into stakeholder management and other communications roles. It suited me well because of my creativity I think.

Of all the communications disciplines I’ve had experience in, media has been the most fun. I enjoy the tangible nature of getting a positive story out and seeing the reach and impact almost immediately. The rush and camaraderie of comms offices can be a great experience for those who like a fast-paced environment. I’ve become quite passionate about and have relished the opportunity to support stories that make an impact on patient care or help NHS staff. Now I have the viewpoint to be able to see how integral sound strategic communications advice is to successful organisational programme or objective, I can’t imagine a career outside of communications!

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

Firstly, I think organisational skills are key. In a communications role so much can come at you from all sides of an organisation, and as a cross-cutting role you not only need to be flexible and a jack of all trades but help yourself plan and prioritise well. I love creative discussions and am often full of ideas but with zero organisation, so I personally rely on online task management software which has been a game changer. 

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, drive and compassion can make or break your impact. If you don’t really have drive for the role or subject it can really show in lacklustre creative discussions and outputs, and so it’s important to really care for what you’re working on and who you’re supporting. It can often be a pressured environment as we all know, so compassion is key to having healthy teams and productive relationships. The days of sweary, barking managers in high-octane comms offices are gone and that’s a bit of a caricature now – the most successful comms leaders I see are ones who emanate humanity, humour and compassion. 

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

I’m sure most people feel the uncertainty posed to work environments due to the pandemic, but in healthcare communications it is of course a different ballgame. It can be tough to get buy-in and lasting momentum on projects when there’s so much happening in clinical settings that take priority. The constant ups and downs can be a drain on drive and motivation, and fighting that as individuals, as well as at a team and organisational level is an ongoing challenge. That’s where that compassion I mentioned comes in – where I work we have experts on compassionate leadership who offer training and support with this. It is such a treasured and important quality as a manager. Being understanding of our human experiences these past two years is vital to create communications which is plainly and honestly put and connects with people about what really matters.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

More staff please! I kid. Actually no I mean it. And perhaps a toddler who wasn’t *so* used to Teams calls that she insists on dominating every single one. 

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

I’m really lucky to have a lot of respect and value put on communications where I work. At the highest level we are recognised and supported. I have a position on our executive and I know that’s a thing that doesn’t – but should – happen in every organisation. All comms staff I know shout till they’re blue in the face about how integral communications is to early business or organisational strategy and planning, and honestly life is just so much easier when you land into a place where that’s not a fight you need to have. And this helps because I am nosy and have so many ideas about work that don’t strictly fall under ‘communications advice’ but support project planning creativity. Communications folks are creative – so let us be creative when you’re wondering what to do about a thing, not when you’ve decided! 

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

Lots of baked goods, general bribery, a supportive and funny team. That’s three things. There is not one secret to success in all seriousness. It takes a team that knows each other, knows its brief and knows what works – and an organisation that recognises all of that. Finally, and I sound like a broken record now, but I’ve known teams that are slick as hell but suffered in unrewarding and negative cultures or leadership styles. That environment cancelled everything else out. So again, care and compassion from the top is key.

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?

We recently realised as a team that we should shout a little louder about some of our successes, and actually at this moment are designing a new dashboard to share measurements internally. We will be focusing on digital analytics, particularly where socials have bumped up other channels. Although we’re looking at analytics and I am slightly obsessed with them, one thing I’m keen we don’t lose sight of is where our work or discussion has led to people getting together and developing a great piece of work. Fostering connections with stakeholders can be a qualitative and sometimes difficult measurement to obtain, but it holds such long-term value. I think we should all be showcasing how we facilitate organisational productivity. 

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

Not the next big thing, but the thing that should have been ‘big’ all along is inclusive and diverse communications and outreach. As a result of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement we have done so much, so well, in the NHS and in other sectors to reach out to under-represented communities and audiences. We have also done great work to find out how we bring diversity and inclusivity into our own organisations. But not enough, and not early enough. There are so many incredible people doing thoughtful work in this area and it’s inspiring to see. But we have a lot of work to do to reconnect with under-represented groups and build trusting relationships and it will take some time, and I really think any communications strategy that doesn’t prioritise this in the coming months and years will be an absolute failure.