Yufan Chen, Head of External Communications at Genomics England, checks in with us to share the top four things communicators need to not just survive but thrive.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I actually landed in the world of communications entirely by accident, although it’s a trajectory that made sense for my interests and skills. At school, I had dreamed I’d end up in journalism, but the reality of how difficult it would be to break into that sector really hit me when I got a bit older. It ended up being a combination of my hobby of playing around with the Adobe Creative Suite, teaching myself basic HTML aged 10, my love of writing, and a Christmas temp role packing web sales orders that brought me into the field of communications.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
I think there are four key things I’ve found to be incredibly important to not just survive but thrive in comms:
- Being able to transform passing thoughts and complex ideas into something understandable and engaging. Most of the time people come to you because they don’t really know what they want, they just know what outcome they need. It’s a skill to be able to digest that and turn it into something solid.
- Being open to learning new things and adapting quickly. Communications is one of those fields that is constantly evolving, and you risk being left behind if you don’t embrace innovation. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has really shown how misinformation can spread so easily, and as communications professionals we need to understand how that kind of thing happens in order to combat it.
- Being bold enough to assert that you are the expert. You know what works with which audiences and how to best to deliver it. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t be open to discussing ideas.
- Friendliness. That idiom about catching more flies with honey than vinegar is 100% true. You want to be trusted, not feared, because comms really is about collaboration – whether that’s with your team mates, other staff in the organisation or otherwise.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
This year we launched what we are unofficially calling a national conversation about genomics, where our goal is to reach people who may not have even heard of genomics, and get them talking or at least thinking about it. But as with all (relatively) newer sciences, it takes time and a lot of effort to get even the word ‘genomics’ to stick in people’s minds. That’s where the comms team comes in, and sometimes it’s trial and error. If there’s one thing that the pandemic has done for humanity though, it’s that people as a whole are that little bit more aware of the benefits of genomics in healthcare. We were able to find thousands of volunteers for our study with the GenOMICC consortium that is looking at whether someone’s genetic make-up affects how badly they’re affected by COVID-19. I think that was largely driven by true altruism in the face of a worldwide pandemic. That being said, a deep-rooted mistrust of the unknown is still a factor in why we haven’t quite reached our goal of 15,000 participants and why we’re still looking for more volunteers now, which in a circular nature brings us back to the need for a national conversation about genomics.
What one thing would make your working life easier?
If non-comms people truly understood what comms and engagement really is, and how much time and effort it takes to do it properly. What I quite often find is that my team will be asked to deliver something rather substantial, with a very short timeframe. And even if we negotiate a more realistic deadline, we still dedicate our efforts to getting it done quickly and done well… Which often makes us victims of our own success.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
This is a tricky one to answer. I guess the best way to put it is, as an important service. Overall, we’re recognised for our value across the company, but I think traditionally the different teams have always worked in quite siloed spaces, so communications doesn’t always come to people’s minds immediately. We have technical teams, scientific research teams, clinical teams, and many, many more. We’re such a mish-mash of different sectors – all centred on genomic healthcare – and there are just so many amazing things happening across the company that it’d be a shame to miss any of them. As an organisation though, we’re currently trying to shake up the way we work and fit together, and hopefully, this means that more people will be keenly grabbing the opportunity to talk about what they do. Sneak peeks behind the scenes is one step to unravelling what genomics really is on a national level.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Building and retaining trust, both with your own colleagues and with your audiences.
Your colleagues need to believe in their comms team, to allow you to achieve the best that you can to support their aims. Your audience needs to believe in what you’re saying and that you’re not misleading them.
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?
There’s a time and place for quantitative metrics like number of downloads, audience growth, but the real measurements that need to be shared are the ones that show true impact. Have minds been changed? How? Increasing the number of your Twitter followers doesn’t mean anything if those people aren’t engaged with you and having that conversation with you.
Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?
Grassroots communications. We’re already exploring this now, after watching the way COVID-19 information has been shared. I think the future isn’t as much about the big media splashes as it is in finding how to create the content that is being passed around in group chats on WhatsApp.