There are plenty of pros and cons working as a comms team of one. This new guest post perfectly captures them and is packed full of learning and insights if this is your world…
by Eva Duffy
After two and half years as the sole communications professional in a small and niche health organisation, I’m about to move on to my next challenge in the world of NHS charity communications. When I took this job, it was in the hope of developing the strategic and influencing elements of my communications practice, and it’s certainly lived up to my expectations.
I’ve had opportunities I wouldn’t have benefitted from if I’d stayed in a larger set-up, working alongside the leadership team and board of trustees on designing policy, and steering the social and digital direction of the organisation. There’s the joy of relative autonomy when in complete control of operational delivery, as well as the job satisfaction that comes with executing a project or campaign from start to finish, from insight to evaluation, from strategy to granularity.
But it can also be a lonely role, especially when you’ve cut your teeth in a newsroom and experienced the inimitable camaraderie of local government and NHS communications. Even before the global pandemic changed the way we all work, I worried about the risk of professional isolation and found myself yearning for the informal learning that comes with simply being in the same company as your fellow communications experts.
So, as I finalise my handover briefing and get ready to update my LinkedIn profile, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my key learning points from the past couple of years.
1. Be Your Own Advocate
If you’re the only one delivering communications, performance reporting can feel really uncomfortable. It took me a little while to work out that you’re not putting your work forward for critique, it’s much more than that: you’re focusing attention on the value of communications to the organisation.
That can take the form of KPIs and service annual reports, but there are lots of other ways to fly the flag for great comms, like getting a slot at an all-staff meeting to talk about a successful initiative or campaign. Grab any opportunity to demonstrate why comms is fundamental to the successful delivery of corporate objectives.
My biggest fear as a solo communicator was that I’d miss out on learning opportunities and that as a result my skill set would be less relevant and in turn I would be less employable. So, for the first time in more than two decades in corporate communications, I started using the CIPR’s CPD platform to formally record my professional development.
But it wasn’t just the formal opportunities I felt I was missing out on, it was the incidental learning you get by being around others, the nuggets you pick up in conversation or the brainstorming that takes you to unexpected places. That’s when I grew to fully appreciate real-life interactions and the digital spaces where we meet as a profession.
Whether it’s reading about best practice in a comms2point0 blog or chatting about specific challenges over a Comms Hive peer-networking dinner, I’m continually impressed with the generosity of the communications community when sharing their insight and experience. Sign up to the best-practice platform; make arrangements to meet comms people you admire and respect; hush your inner introvert and go to the breakfast or dinner networking event.
3. Learning beyond comms
Allow yourself to be inspired by your colleagues in other roles and disciplines. Working for a small organisation means it’s very likely that your colleagues are similarly the only practitioner of their specialism, and there’s so much to learn from others.
I leave this job with a greater appreciation of the challenges and rewards of involving patient and the public in healthcare commissioning and I’ve had the privilege of hearing some of the finest legal and information governance brains in the UK discussing the intricacies of language around health data sharing. Recognise that professional growth isn’t just about expanding your tactical skill set.
Recognise too that learning opportunities can come in many guises. Thanks to my three children, I’ve learned that: teenagers use emojis as a sop only, a digital pat on the head when messaging “old people” like their parents; full stops at the end of messages are interpreted as the height of passive aggression by young people; and football clubs have nailed the use of TikTok as a corporate channel.
4. Ask for help
“Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.”
The musician Amanda Palmer – who famously crowdsources everything from a bed for the night when on tour to funding for creative projects – believes passionately in the redemptive power of asking others for help and giving of yourself in return.
I belong to three separate closed Facebook groups for communications professionals (sounds greedy but my role spans the public and charity sectors). In that space, I’ve been humbled by the selflessness of our profession who respond constructively and without personal gain to queries, rants, and the odd SOS. I’ve thrown a few queries in the ring and at times I’ve offered the benefit of my own experience. Most of these interactions are with people I’ve never met in real life.
I’ve also sought out former colleagues to ask for advice, trusting their guidance when I wasn’t sure of my gut instinct or I didn’t have experience of an issue I was dealing with. Remember that being a sole communicator doesn’t mean you are alone – we belong to a profession that’s passionate about best practice and full of people who are gracious enough to help and humble enough to know when it’s their turn to ask.
5. Leave well
As the lone source of communications expertise, your resignation has the potential to be quite disruptive for your employer. Be extensive in your handover notes. Recommend what activity can be paused pending the recruitment of your successor, identify the essential deliverables and, if needed, produce a foolproof ‘How To’ guide to help whoever ends up in an interim communications role, officially or otherwise.
Be prepared for the fact you’ll have to work the full notice period and accept that as a sign of how valued the role is. Offer to help with the recruitment process for your successor – this will be hugely appreciated if your line manager has little comms experience.
Legendary goalkeeper Victor Valdés once explained the pressure of playing in Spain’s top flight by remarking that a year at Barcelona is like two years anywhere else. I’m not equating my job with Valdés’, but I can certainly relate to the concept that in a particular situation, you feel like you’re in a period of accelerated growth and disproportionate [self-imposed] pressure. The advice I’d give to my two-years-younger self? A solo gig doesn’t have to be a solitary experience.
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Image via Wikimedia Commons