How do comms teams show their worth, validate their work and prove they are making a real difference?
These are not new questions. But they are being asked more frequently as comms teams are hit by budget and visibility pressures and a greater focus on analytics.
How do we know this? Because it is something that often comes up during conversations with our clients, media training blog readers and webinar viewers.
To help comms teams with these challenges, we are looking to produce a series of blogs with experts we believe have valuable insight to share.
And who better to hear from than someone who has led a public sector communications department through a wholescale restructure against a backdrop of tightened purse strings, has also worked in the private sector, and who has set up a thriving PR agency?
Michelle Nichols is a former head of communications at Thames Valley Police and Network Rail’s Thameslink programme. And she is the owner and founder of Purple Pitch Communications, with clients in security, tourism and hospitality.
We met up for a Zoom chat to discuss the challenges faced by comms teams – and reminisce a little about our time working in the police.
Michelle agrees that comms teams have always faced pressure to prove their worth.
But she believes it has become more intense as comms team visibility has reduced through remote and hybrid working.
“I think that pressure is there more now because of virtual teams,” she said. “People are not as visible, and I know from when I worked at Thames Valley Police, that visibility of just being able to run up the stairs and put your head around the chief constable’s door is valuable.
“Comms teams need to find another way of doing that.
“Comms has always been difficult for leaders to keep in their mind. You tend to get a couple of senior executives who are good and understand the value of comms. But for most of them, it will go out of their heads.
“So, unless you are in their face and are knocking on their door, virtually or physically, you will not have that influence.”
With that reduced visibility, Michelle says comms teams have to overcome the longstanding issue of struggling to promote themselves.
She says comms professionals should carefully consider who they need to influence internally. And they must then create a plan to make that happen, so they increase awareness of the work the team is doing and what it is achieving.
“Comms teams are bad at their PR,” she said. “It is a standard thing across the industry. I remember having so many conversations in comms about always highlighting the work you are doing because nobody else will.
“Comms teams are good at telling other people to do it but are terrible at doing it themselves.
“But it needs to form part of their influencing strategy. They advise other businesses and people on how to have an influencing strategy and how to have stakeholder management. But they need to have their own stakeholder map and plan how they can influence them.
“Whether it is weekly calls or a weekly email of the activity, to give a couple of examples, they have to work out who needs to know, what they need to know and how best to reach them.
“It is about using the skills they use every day and applying them to themselves to ensure they are visible.”
Part of this involves comms teams recognising, celebrating and promoting their successes.
Michelle said: “Celebrate the little wins within your teams and make sure there is regular recognition at a team level. Then, any work that has achieved great results, needs to be flagged to the people who need to know.
“And think about what rewards you can enter to recognise the work you do.
“It is vital that we recognise the good work comms teams do because their work is brilliant. It is inspirational and makes a difference to the business and communities. But unless you make sure it gets recognised, it rarely does.”
But that awareness activity has to be aimed at the whole organisation – not only its leaders.
During our chat, Michelle recalled the number of times we had been asked to come up with a logo or posters for an initiative.
Other comms teams will be familiar with the sinking feeling you experience when asked to make something mundane ‘go viral’ or to place a tedious PDF ‘on the homepage’.
But there is a serious point to these comms cliches and trips down memory lane. Michelle believes those working in comms must work harder to ensure everyone understands what the comms department does. And to remove some of the mystery that can surround it.
“Comms is a bit like Chandler Bing in Friends – no-one knows what it is and what we do,” she said.
“And, as an industry, we have been pretty bad at explaining that to people. It is a bit of a hidden art.
“We need to spend time with people explaining what we do, the range of things we can do and how it can add value.
“Comms teams should hold webinars internally. You see it all the time with other departments doing drop-ins or lunch and learn sessions – and comms teams usually arrange them.
“We are always busy getting messages out for other departments. We just don’t do it for ourselves.”
Measurement and objectives
One of the things I was keen to explore with Michelle was the ever-growing importance of analytics.
When we started in the police, measurement tended to be fairly rudimentary, and almost entirely focused on media coverage.
But times change and we are living in an analytical age with the increased scrutiny that brings.
Michelle believes analytics can help comms teams to prove value. But they have to ensure they are measuring the right things and are not making evaluations for the sake of it.
She said: “Measurement is a good thing because it has always been difficult for comms teams to show where they add value.
“It has always traditionally been based on media coverage. That is still important. And I think in the modern PR and comms environment, we forget the importance of it because we are focusing on likes, shares and comments and engagement on social.”
Getting the measurement right involves comms teams being clear on business objectives.
“We still have this thing where people come to us and say ‘I want a comms plan’,” Michelle said.
“I can give you a comms plan, but where is your business plan or your sales strategy we are linking that to?
“You can’t sit comms in isolation and expect them to deliver your business. They have to have that strategic understanding of your business plan, your markets, what you want to move into and your priorities.
“Otherwise, what you have is a comms approach that will be haphazard, doing things you think are great but are unlikely to be what the business needs you to deliver.
“The analytics need to back up whatever those objectives are. If it is to get more media coverage, then your analytics need to be around hitting target publications and securing coverage.
“If the business objective is to increase market share in those under 20, you need to understand that is what your metrics have to link into for evaluation.”
“Metrics should be less about what you do and more about ensuring whatever you do is meaningful. Without that, they are fairly meaningless.”
A crucial component of comms teams proving value is to ensure that expectations are realistic and achievable.
Michelle says those working in comms must be honest and admit when a task or target is a stretch too far.
She said: “The worst thing you can do is to agree to something knowing you are going to fail, you are going to struggle, or you are going to deliver something substandard.
“I think most reasonable people will be fine if you sit down at the beginning and say ‘we can do that, but in reality, if we are going to do it well, it is going to take this amount of time’.
“Be honest and upfront and give reasons. If you have got 20 other things on, don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’ve got 20 other things on’.
“Those people you are dealing with are also facing pressure. They know what it is like, and they understand how it feels to have massive workloads.
“What annoys people is when you commit to do something and then don’t deliver.”
Michelle believes part of managing expectations is to shift the mindset from doer to adviser.
“I work with some quite young PR subcontractors, and they come out of working in a corporate environment and have to manage clients,” she said.
“And they don’t know how to say ‘no’ or that something is probably not the best thing to do. It is that mindset of moving from being a ‘doer’ or a task finisher to a comms adviser. Because that is actually what comms people are for and where we add value.
“You can write well or have design attributes, but there are lots of people who can do that. It is the advisory bit that is important.
“If comms teams want to be effective, they must get comfortable with pushing back, managing expectations, and not being afraid to have challenging conversations in the right way.
“If comms teams don’t have those skills, particularly in this virtual environment, they will find it hard to influence and prove value.”
Senior leadership team
Michelle and I have both worked for organisations where the comms function has fallen under the portfolio of someone who does not have a comms background.
It can be a big hurdle to overcome if comms is to showcase its worth.
And Michelle says it is vital comms experts find a way to ensure they are represented at senior leadership level.
She said: “If you want your comms team to be effective, they have to have a seat around the executive table.
“They can’t be represented by someone who is not a comms expert, no matter how much briefing you give them. Comms experts will pick up on things the people without that background won’t see.
“One of the biggest things a comms function does is that it provides a conscience to the organisation. Often you are the one who sits there and asks ‘how will that decision play out with the public?’, and ‘how might it make them feel about your brand?’.
“You are the conscience. Not in a fluffy way, but because you are there to help protect the reputation.
“Without that, organisations don’t have that foresight because the other people around the table tend to be operationally or profit focussed.
“It is the comms teams that think about perception, the impact of decisions and, once those decisions have been made, how they land in the best possible way.”
A part that stood out for me as we discussed comms involvement at the top table was Michelle’s passionate belief they should not be restricted to talking about comms.
She believes they have to be brave and confident enough to give their thoughts on other issues.
She said: “The comms people who take part in these meetings need to be able to hold their own and not just be willing to speak on comms issues.
“They have to be there as a wider business strategic leader. When you sit in an executive meeting, people with their portfolios don’t just speak on the issues relating to their portfolios. They give their expert opinion as a leader on other people’s part of the business. And you have to be able to do that in comms.
“You’re probably sitting there with lots of opinions anyway, so share them. They are valuable as anyone else’s sat around the table.”
It seems clear from the conversations that we have been having with our clients that comms teams are under more pressure.
And there can be a tendency to view pressure negatively.
But it can also motivate, excite and lead to better work.
Michelle and I both recalled high-profile incidents and investigations we worked on where the pressure had been intense.
And we both felt that although the instinct is to dread those times, they can bring comms teams into their own.
Michelle said: “Pressure can be good. It can bring the best out in people, bring the best out of teams and bring the best out of teamwork.
“It can be an opportunity to shine as a comms person. When everyone else is working in a pressure situation, that is when you can step in, deliver value, show your expertise and take that pressure off others.
“The crucial part of that is you need to make sure you are taking care of the wellbeing of those around you, especially in a virtual environment where you can’t see if someone is struggling.
“Those regular one-to-ones, catch-ups and honest conversations with people are vital and should not get lost because you are in a virtual environment.
“You have to carve out time for health checks with your team, even if it means stepping away from the coal-face for a bit. It could just be a WhatsApp message.
“Visible leadership is never going to be less important and those leading comms teams just need to be able to find a different way of doing it.”
Of course, pressure can also lead to mistakes.
And no one likes admitting to errors.
But being honest about shortcomings and reflecting on performance is a crucial part of comms teams improving and ultimately proving its worth.
Michelle said: “The only way you get better is by making mistakes and learning from them. I wouldn’t even view them as mistakes. With anything we do, we should look back at it and think about what went well and what could have gone better.
“But being able to say ‘we got it wrong’, depends heavily on the culture of the organisation. If you work somewhere that does reflect without blame, as I had with the police, then you will have the confidence to say ‘we need to do that better next time’.
“If there is a culture where you are likely to get shouted at or have the door slammed in your face, you won’t want to do that.
“So, from a personal point of view, you have to reflect on what you do and think about where it can be better. And from an organisation point of view, you have to ensure you are helping to create a culture where people feel comfortable to admit to making a mistake and that they will be supported and can learn.
“The best way to get learning out of something that has gone wrong is to park it, deliver what you need to deliver and then when it is calm, look back at what could have gone done better.
“Immediate, emotional reactions don’t help anyone. But it can take a lot of time and development to be able to do that.”
Support and new skills
The final areas that emerged from our conversation were the importance of being curious and learning new skills. And comms professionals having a support network.
Michelle said: “I come across a lot of comms people now who are good on social media side but don’t know how to write a press release and pitch it to journalists.
“And having those relationships with journalists is crucial.
“But equally, those who come from the press release and media skills environment need to upskill themselves to understand more about the digital world.
“Working on my own, I’ve had to understand more about Google Analytics and Search Engine Optimisation.”
That willingness to learn should also involve mentors, coaches and support networks.
“When I took the step up to head of comms, having mentors and coaches helped me get to the next level,” said Michelle.
“And now I do a lot of work helping others through mentoring and coaching.”
Those mentors and coaches should not just come from a comms background.
Michelle said: “You also need mentors who are senior leaders outside of communication to help with those leadership skills.
“If you only have comms mentors, you could end up only talking about things at a tactical level. But senior comms leaders need to widen into senior strategic leaders.
“And to do that, you need to have mentors or coaches outside of comms to give you different skill sets and access to different ways of thinking.
“Sound boarding is also vital. I have a network of comms people I’ve worked with, and I can call them if I need some help with an idea or some creative inspiration – vital if you are in a remote office on your own.”
And with that, our remote catch-up in this still partly virtual world came to an end.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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