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Anyone can do comms, right? What to do about it – how to position comms at the strategic heart of your organisation.

by Anna Caig

Communications as a profession doesn’t always get the professional respect it deserves. In part one we explored some of the possible reasons for that. Not to dwell on the problem – although it is important to acknowledge the impact this issue can have on our teams – but to learn.

With an understanding of the challenges we face, we are better equipped to tackle them and one of the reasons I became a Head of Comms was to get to grips with this. I worked with my fantastic team on a programme of activity to affect change. We took responsibility for demonstrating our worth – demanding more from ourselves, our colleagues and the organisation we work for. And we learnt a lot along the way.

I have also consulted with public sector friends and colleagues. This is the result – practical actions you can take to support your organisation to get the best from its comms function, and improve professional respect for your work along the way.

Some of these are tried and tested, some we’d just started to implement before a big old virus came along and turned the world upside down, and some are insight from other professionals. 

Make the position of the comms service within your organisation the focus of your strategy

When I was asked to create a new communications strategy, I knew I wanted to put this front and centre. Not only what comms we’ll do and how we’ll do it, but also broader outcomes around the position of our service in the authority, the ways we work with the rest of the organisation, and officers and members at the most senior level.

This takes courage. It takes putting yourself out there and saying you can have a greater impact than you currently do. We were doing good evidence-based and outcome-focused work, but was this always the right work at the right time? Were we engaged with the key priorities of the organisations in a way that enabled us to deliver optimum results?

I had conversations with the Leader and the Chief Executive, and was clear they could be getting more strategic, valuable work out of us; we talked about their priorities so I could reflect these in the strategy. And we designed a system where the Executive Management Team (EMT) and Cabinet would approve comms priorities on a quarterly basis (more on this later!)

To get buy-in at this level you’ve got to understand the priorities and preoccupations of your leadership teams and show how you can make a difference to these – and focus resources so you can deliver.

This top level buy-in is also crucial to the delivery of several of the actions below. We all know every service thinks their comms demands are the most important and “the Leader and Chief Exec haven’t prioritised that” elicits a very different response from “We can’t prioritise that.”

Know your onions and evaluate your onions

Market research, data and real insight should inform all the work we do, clear rationale behind the decisions we make on what communications work should be done when.

Just as important is evaluation, ideally focused around ‘real world’ outcomes, of what has been effective – both to inform future planning and to demonstrate the value of our work to others. It’s hard to beat a clear-cut: Forty vulnerable children now have secure foster homes because of this work; this channel shift campaign has saved your service £50k a year.

But, in itself, this still isn’t enough. Yes, we can show the work is good and it’s getting results. To really have an impact on how comms is valued, we should evaluate to what extent our work has contributed towards the priority objectives for our organisation as a whole. A host of things, some outside of our control, need to be in place for this to happen, but it’s the gold standard to aim for.

Do less, but better – end the culture of ‘you’ll just have to fit it in’

Getting the strategic approach above right enables you to do that crucial thing that eludes so many of us so much of the time (and I definitely include myself here) – saying no.

By having a clear and credible model for how work is prioritised – one that has built-in Cabinet and EMT backing – you are much more able to explain why you can’t ‘just fit it in’ in response to the myriad of other requests and demands that come your way.

There will always be things that come up at the last minute – that’s the nature of our work. Most of us are in this job because we love and thrive on juggling competing demands, but by limiting the amount of ‘absorption’ we’re expected to do, we can put more time, creativity and expertise into getting the things that really matter right. That starts a lovely iterative loop of higher quality work that in itself contributes to way comms is valued within the organisation.

Development time

The communications landscape is almost unrecognisable from twenty, or even ten, years ago – the growth in digital communications, the constant development and shifting of new channels and best practice in content. It means we all have to prioritise our professional development, and we have to show our teams that we value their professional development. And the biggest barrier to this, in most cases, is time.

We ask every member of our team to set aside a half day a fortnight for their own development, researching new best practice or looking ahead at their planner and thinking about how an upcoming piece of work might be done differently or more creatively. When we’re stretched, it’s all too easy to do what we’ve always done, take the same old familiar approach. By taking this time out, we create a culture where innovative work is expected and valued.

Try quarterly planning

We came to the conclusion that annual planning cycles don’t work for comms. Areas of work we could never know about at the start of the cycle emerge every year and require substantial resource.

Too often we ended up allocating comms resource to services purely because they talked to us in February and March – a time when most parts of the authority are busy with their own planning. This resulted in a programme full of work that was important to a particular service, but not necessarily to the organisation as a whole – and we wanted to change this.

Combined with a schedule of sign-off slots at the beginning of each quarter with Cabinet and EMT, the idea is to have a more agile and flexible approach to planning which means the team aren’t already fully booked when that huge new priority is decided by the leadership.

Do your research

…And not just when it comes to professional development and best practice in communications. An example of this is Christine Porath’s research on incivility in the workplace. There is a minority of people in many organisations who feel like being disrespectful makes them more powerful – that by intimidating others, they are more effective. And communications professionals can find themselves on the receiving end of more than our fair share of this behaviour.

So, I did my homework. Porath’s research is great because it’s not just about how incivility makes those on the receiving end feel sad or demotivated – although that should be enough in itself to give us pause – she explores the many ways a culture of incivility impacts on profitability in the private sector, and innovation and success in any sector.

Being able to articulate clearly the ways any inappropriate behaviour towards my team is bad for our organisation as a whole makes tricky conversations easier and more effective.

Find allies

Most communications professionals I know work with some superb senior and influential people in their organisation. People who are great at their own jobs and have the insight and confidence to know that, where comms is not their field of expertise, they benefit from frequently availing themselves of our input.

Don’t be afraid to be honest with these people about the challenges you may be facing in other quarters. Ask for their advice, and even their help, in tackling some of these. Where you build trust, you can create strong alliances with people who will sing your praises and fight your corner, if needed.

Be the change you want to see

Give others credit when they do good work, and be generous with your appreciation for your colleagues. This is vital in your own team, but also a great habit to get into with colleagues across your organisation and beyond.

Every time you make the effort to demonstrate you value the good work of others, you take a step towards normalising this behaviour in your professional networks.

Empower your team

One of the first things I did when I took on the Head of Communications role was arrange one-to-one meetings with everyone in the service. It’s a relatively big team and this was a time consuming thing to do. But it was important to me for two reasons – firstly, for purely selfish reasons, they’re brilliant and I wanted to gather insight and advice on how I could do my job well and improve the work of our service (many good actions came out of these meetings). Secondly, I wanted them to know how much I valued them and their input. It was important to me to explicitly show this.

As a leader, you have got to have your team’s back if you want them to feel empowered. Which brings me onto…

Don’t be afraid to challenge

Both on behalf of yourself and, even more importantly, on behalf of your team. You will have to push back. You will have to say no. You will have to call people – sometimes senior people – out on their unrealistic expectations or less than ideal behaviour.

“You get what you settle for,” says Louise in Thelma and Louise – and she’s right. It’s important to show your team that not only do you respect them, you need them to respect themselves at work. I found that sometimes people had been tolerating unreasonable requests or rudeness because they didn’t see any alternative. I made the alternatives clear – if they pushed back, I would support them. And if they didn’t feel able to push back, I would help them.

Always be polite, always be reasonable, but showing both your own team and the rest of the organisation that you’re not afraid to challenge when it’s warranted will pay dividends.

Accept you can’t win ‘em all

There are some people for whom the work you do will never be satisfactory. In these cases, there is no correlation between the quality of the work and the credit or appreciation they will give. There is a minority in many workplaces who would rather complain to others, and use comms colleagues as convenient scapegoats, than work with your team productively towards a successful outcome.

This is not about you, it is about them. Your focus should remain on making your and your team’s work the best it can be rather than trying to impress people who are determined not to be impressed. They’re few and far between – thank goodness – but it’s worth an early decision to disregard the opinions of these people.

Try a ‘business owner’ model

This is something we have implemented relatively recently, prompted by the Covid-19 emergency and even tighter resources in the team. We often find ourselves – particularly in a crisis situation where things can be more rushed – receiving different steers on the same work from different sources, not always joined-up and sometimes downright contradictory.

This is nobody’s fault in a challenging set of circumstances, but it’s time-consuming to untangle. It can also be detrimental to the reputation of the service when two senior people expect different things – we can’t do both and end up as a go-between trying to clarify what is needed. Even at the best of times, we often receive incomplete information to communicate, and have to spend time tracking down and chasing content to fill in the gaps.

To address this, we’ve implemented a model where we identify a lead ‘business owner’ for each campaign, project or issue – someone from the service with primarily responsibility for the content behind the comms. They have the job of sifting through the steers and information, and filing in gaps, leaving us to do what we do best.

None of these suggestions comes with a magic wand, and no one solution will work for every comms team in every organisation. But, in an industry where many of us face similar challenges, some of the things that have worked for us may well work for you too.

I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg of good ideas though, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve found alternative ways to position your work at the strategic heart of your organisation and get the recognition it deserves.

Anna Caig is the former Head of Communications at Sheffield City Council, a tutor on the MA Journalism course at The University of Sheffield and a freelance communications consultant. You can say hello on Twitter at @AnnaCaig

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