Thom Burn on trusting counter-intuitive insights

Thom Burn on trusting counter-intuitive insights
Thom Burn, corporate strategy and engagement manager at Welwyn Hatfield Council, shares with us his take on the necessity of blending scientific and emotional thinking.

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

After a few years of sales my brain wanted more challenge, and my liver rather less. I followed my instincts into a postgrad diploma in PR and that’s where it all began. My first roles were agency-based working on some fun but ultimately rather frivolous accounts – and with the liver no less challenged. Now I get to do a job I love in a way that has social value.

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

I suppose it’s what some would call emotional intelligence. It strikes me that all great communicators have an innate ability to get under the skin of how others think and feel.  Also creativity, of course – when that’s blended with the scientific desire to digest data, inhale insight and examine everything, it’s a pretty potent mix.

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

Time is always a challenge for me and for the team. We all hate not being able to do a job to the best of our abilities but pragmatically that sometimes has to be the case. Operating in a political environment can present challenges too. The wheels can sometimes be slow to get going.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

Apart from an extra few hours in each day, getting to a stage we can reasonably call post-pandemic would be good!  For the last two years I have chaired the countywide comms cell for the local resilience forum – the network of local authorities, NHS, police and others that have led Hertfordshire’s response to Covid. It’s been a real honour, of course, and I have learned a massive amount, but it would be wonderful to focus wholly on other things for a while!

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Like an increasing number of comms teams in local government, we enjoy a good deal of respect within our organisation and I think we are seen as a highly valued and trusted corporate service by the senior management team. That said, there is always room for us to help people at the service delivery level understand more about what we do and how we can work with them.

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

Don’t fight your insight. If you have gathered it properly and it’s telling you something counter-intuitive, trust it. And be agile and change tack if things are not working. It’s why you need a way of evaluating in real time, even if it’s something quick and dirty.

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?

Lately I have been breaking it down into simple outputs, outtakes, and outcomes. What are you putting out there; what are people taking from that; and what is the end result? On that last point, sometimes it’s hard to distill the causal factor when there are numerous influences on behaviour, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

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

I think AI is what we’re all going to need to get our heads round – and I very much include myself in that. People like Kerry Sheehan and others are blazing a trail on some of this stuff, and rightly recognising the importance of ethics in that area. It’s one of those things that we need to get ahead of now if we don’t want to get left behind.