Challenging times

There is an interesting piece of research that has been released by VMA earlier this week. It is taken from discussions with many Chief Executives about what they are expecting from their head of communication. I would recommend reading it as there is a lot of useful information within the report some of which I would have guessed and others that are more of a surprise.

One thing struck me loud and clear from the information and that is the importance of challenge. Being able to challenge those in the boardroom is seen as an essential part of the make up of any head of communication. Those in charge want people to have clear views, be able to articulate them and feel able to challenge the considered wisdom and ‘way we do things’ mentality.

It is something that I firmly agree with. All communication and PR roles need to be carried out with strong ethics and a sense of what is right. The key is to be able to provide an alternative viewpoint convincingly and not to be swayed by the hierarchy of the organisation. If something is not right then we need to say so, if elements haven’t been considered we need to raise them, if the voice of the customer or service user has been ignored we have to include it.

None of this is easy. It requires confidence. Confidence in your own ability and confidence to speak openly within the organisation. You need to have no concerns about the next paycheck. You need to be prepared to stand up and be counted when others may fall away.

It is pleasing to know that this strength is now being recognised as an essential characteristic of heads of communications. But it comes with a huge responsibility and the need to have buckets of resilience to call upon when things become difficult. I would recommend you find the VMA research to look at the other skills, knowledge and experience that is being valued by those at the top of businesses from the modern senior communicator role.

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Change and confusion

There is something troubling me and it has been for a while now. It affects all the public sector and is relevant to many businesses. Are we failing our customers and service users in our change communication?

All parts of the public sector have seen significant change over the last five years with more planned for the years ahead. There are mergers and partnerships, new organisations and new devolved powers and it all has to be explained to the workforce. But have we made the situation too complicated for most people to want to understand?

If a business creates a new product or service their will have been extensive discussion, user focus groups and a big budget will be given to promote it. This isn’t the approach made by public services who will make changes and move on. In this increasingly complex world we can be making ourselves even further removed from service users.

The future isn’t as bleak as it may first seem. We can recognise the situation we face and do something about it. This means ensuring the voice of service users is central in the organisation and is considered when discussing change. There must be an ongoing conversation so people can start to understand how things will affect them. Communication and promotion about services has to be a critical part of the organisation’s approach. 

The pace of change is fast at the moment. I remember as a journalism student learning about public affairs and how throngs are structured. I don’t think anything I learnt more than 20 years ago is still relevant beyond the fact we still have local councils.

Putting service users at the heart of organisational change is as important as it is to develop employee engagement as part of it. We need to act now before further change creates further confusion.

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Thumbs up or down?

I heard an interesting discussion at some point this week somewhere but I think it was on the radio. It has been a busy and challenging week so I can’t quite remember where but at the heart of it was the idea that we need to stop worrying about being liked. This is an interesting concept in a world where image is becoming more and more important.

Of course leaving behind any concerns about being liked isn’t about a selfish and hard attitude. It is about being comfortable in our own skin and feeling confident enough that we don’t need to seek constant approval. Yet, this is very difficult to achieve.

From a very young age we are taught to seek approval from our parents, from our friends, from our teachers, from our bosses. What it can mean in a world where people are concerned about being liked is that we behave in odd ways to secure the thumbs up. We do things for a short term boost to our confidence. The actions we take may be questionable in the long term. So how do we make a change?

It has to start in childhood. We need to defy the influence of social media and create an environment where young people feel confident in themselves. Where they don’t need to seek approval because they have a positive view of themselves and the contribution they can make to society. As people grow up they will feel able to step out of the norm to put forward new ideas, try new things or take a new approach. This is the way we can develop and innovate more quickly.

Being confident in yourself does not mean being cruel or harsh to others. You can be independent and also care about those around you. If we are happy with ourselves then studies show that we are likely to be happier. Being liked is nice but it should not be what defines us.

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A volunteer’s eye view

I have been really interested in the arrival of CIPRnet which I am looking forward to getting to grips with this weekend. The aim of it appears to be to provide information and support the work of the many volunteers who support the work of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR). Looking after volunteers is a vital piece of work if we want to have that support available to help us.

All too often organisations like the idea of having volunteers to boost their activities but are not able to put the effort in to make sure that those individuals feel valued. The relationship has to be two way if it is to be really effective. Once recruitment has happened volunteers need to be welcomed into a business, have a clear role and receive regular updates as part of the team. All of this needs time and effort for it to be done right.

I have worked as a volunteer at many points in my life. It started when I was doing my A-levels and I spent a summer working in the local Oxfam shop. In more recent times I have volunteered through the Media Trust and have used my skills and experience to help charities and voluntary organisations. I have given up time, and still do, to judge dressage competitions.

Now I also devote time to working with the CIPR North West committee and recently the Foresight Panel, and I have given up many hours to support the work of the Association of Police Communicators (APComm). Why have I done it? At the heart is the chance to broaden my experience and learn new things. I also have a view that if I can help others, particularly charities, then I should. With the current voluntary work it is about me giving something back to the profession that I love.

When volunteering has worked well it is because I feel valued, I feel my voice can be heard, I feel able to make a difference. This is all stuff that is important to all employees and volunteers are no different. But many organisations don’t recognise this and at worst take voluntary support for granted which can lead to people leaving. We can all do more to ensure volunteers are integrated as part of the organisations workforce.

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Have we lost the public?

For many weeks I have been considering a really interesting question. It is one that has relevance to all professional communicators but will not be the subject of much debate or discussion. It is – have we lost the public element of public relations?

That might sound like an odd question after all public relations is all about communicating with people. But I am not sure that we are considering this anymore as we get focused on channels, messages and developing the creative idea. Yet, in all of the work it is the recipient at the end of it that should be at the forefront of our minds.

In recent weeks and months I have gone out and about talking to people about issues and while it was all about consultation it was old-fashioned public relations. The sort of work that was at the heart of work many years ago but that we are increasingly moving away from. I have spoken to many colleagues working in the public sector and direct communication is used less and less. It requires a huge investment of time and we are all time poor, with too much to do and teams being squeezed.

Stepping away from that direct interaction with customers and service users is something that we will regret in the future. It can lead to a gap between what we believe people think and what they actually think. Ultimately, it can mean products get developed that fail because they don’t meet customer requirement, or there is a loss of confidence in the service that is not responsive.

The world of communication is increasingly complex and diverse. It is changing and the boundaries are increasingly fuzzy. We are finding ourselves driving customer service through social media, revising the approach to advertising and being our own publishers. In the midst of all this change where does the individual sit? For me, it has to be at the heart of what we do and we must ensure that the public exists in public relations.

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A thorny issue

There is one subject that has been a thorn in the side of communication and PR professionals and that is evaluation. It is something we don’t talk about as much as we should and for many it is like learning a foreign language. We know we should do it but we don’t know where to start. We may have bought a book on it that is probably gathering dust on the bookshelves.

It is a subject that is close to my heart but I am still wrestling with exactly what it means. Yes, I am aware of the Barcelona principles and I have looked at the Government OASIS model but I face daily pressures on delivering the work with a reducing amount of resources.

In everything we do we have to know whether it is working or having an impact otherwise why would we continue to do it. It is very nice to win PR and comms awards for creativity and innovation but if the impact is minimal then can we say it was a successful activity?

There is one clear element that should be at the heart of all evaluation work and that is has the activity supported the business objectives in a positive way. I have written many times about the importance of having  communications in the boardroom but that can only happen if we are seen to be critical to service delivery. 

When I am looking at the outcomes of activity my focus is on how it has supported frontline activity. Did that media release and appeal bring information forward to help the investigation? Did that PR campaign encourage victims to come forward? Does that social media account bring improvements in confidence that means service users are willing to engage?

None of this is easy. I am in no doubt that this is a huge challenge for the profession but we need to ensure it is a discussion at the forefront of daily business. There is no way we can be at the top table without evaluation being part of our conversation on communication. This means we have to use good practice and make it live for the organisation we are supporting. 

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Another day, another thought

What did you do today? Did you go to work? Was time taken up looking after the children, doing family things, or perhaps going shopping? It is so easy for us to get caught up in these day-to-day activities and to lose sight of the bigger picture – the reason why we do things.

I had an interesting Facebook post that popped up a year on which said ‘stay close to anything that makes you glad to be alive’. It is a sentiment worth considering in the busy hustle and bustle of life in 2017. Today was the ideal time for it to be brought to the forefront of my thoughts as I have had more than a few things on my mind.

In my younger years I moved jobs quite regularly. I acquired new experiences and developed my skills. But since 1999 I have been working in police communication roles and for the past 16 years for the same organisation. It is easy for me to forget why I am still in the same place albeit in a slightly different role from the one when I started. The reason I do it is that on the whole all things considered it is something I enjoy doing. It gives me a purpose to my day and I know I am lucky as many people are in jobs they don’t like.

For the past 30 years I have been in the same relationship. It is quite an achievement and despite the ups and downs and the challenges we have faced it is still a strong partnership. So what does that all mean?

It means that despite the daily challenges, the routine, the domestic chores and the distractions I have those things that matter to me really close. I just don’t always notice it or be grateful for it. Instead I get focused on the frustration, the things that don’t go right, the bill that arrives in the post, and what I don’t have.

A year ago we lost a good friend who died far too early. It was an important reminder of the need to grasp each day, to see the positive and to keep what matters to you close. Tomorrow is another day and it will be a bright one.

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