All good communications managers need diplomacy and negotiation skills
Originally published: February 2018
MissionBox speaks to Sadie Constable, communications manager at Bliss — a charity offering emotional and practical support to families of babies born premature or sick — about the skills all good comms professionals need and why she enjoys her job.
How did you get into communications?
After I finished university, I took on an administrative role at the Dogs Trust working with the education team. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do long term, but I knew I wanted to work for an organisation doing good work.
I did the job for a year during which time I took on other tasks such as looking after a small advertising budget and helping with writing and proofreading. It became clear I had a good aptitude for communications, and was promoted to campaigns officer. I went on TV ad shoots, recorded voiceovers in radio studios and worked with a marketing agency.
In my last year at the Dogs Trust I decided to hone my skills and get a qualification to my name. I took a one-year marketing communications diploma with the CAM Foundation. There was a lot of variety: I studied media and PR, advertising, direct marketing and sales promotion. It’s a rubber stamp: I had done the work experience and now I understood the theory behind it. I think my other employers have taken it into consideration when recruiting.
CharityComms has also been important for me during my career: I've taken full advantage of seminars and conferences to find out best practice and seek sector knowledge.
Where did your path take you after the Dogs Trust?
After five years at the Dogs Trust, I took on a digital marketing officer role with Turn2us, managing the charity’s website and social media and leading on marketing campaigns. I then moved to CLIC Sargent, as an account manager. The creative team was based in-house and our clients were colleagues in the fundraising and information teams; staff would come to me to get creative work done.
Having worked with agencies before, I had seen how they had managed their clients so I was able to adopt similar approaches and techniques. For instance, I would gently push back on work or make recommendations and negotiate when people were asking for things that weren’t reasonable. It’s important to be able to have those conversations and point someone in the right direction when they’re fixed on an idea which you know isn’t going to work.
Tell us about your role at Bliss.
Although the role is largely strategy-based and involves managing a team of six, a lot of hands on work still comes my way. We're a reasonable sized communications team, but Bliss is a small organisation — 52 staff in total — and everyone mucks in when something needs doing. I recently worked with a new corporate partner to put some content together last minute; the rest of the team was busy so it made sense for me to get stuck in.
I also work closely with the head of fundraising and communications — my line manager — on a variety of projects. We’re currently developing new audience strategies and preparing for the launch of the General Data Protection Regulation (we need to ensure we’re handling our supporters’ data correctly).
How does your team coordinate its work?
Since I’ve started at Bliss, I’ve done a lot of work with others managers to formalise planning processes, so we’re not taken by surprise when someone says they’re going to brief us on a huge project. We have a yearly planner showing the different teams’ work and how it all fits together.
I’ve also set up new tools and systems for the communications team specifically. We map out the campaigns we’re leading on centrally and the work we’re doing to support other teams. This shows us where our resources are needed and what additional support we might need. For each campaign, we’ll have a project plan which is developed by one or two members of the team who are leading on it, with input from others across the organisation.
We also use an online project management tool called Active Collab to track our work. It's mainly used by the senior comms officer and designer to plan design and feedback stages for particular projects.
We get together as a team every Tuesday morning too to update each other on what we're working on that week. For instance, sometimes the senior comms officer and designer are working closely together creating content that the rest of the team isn’t aware of. By briefing their colleagues, the digital officer, for example, will know to schedule this into the social media planner for a set date.
What do you enjoy about your role at Bliss?
You get involved in a variety of projects and a broader discipline of communications when you work at a small organisation. That was one of the things that appealed to me about the role. In my previous job I was focused on content, creation and scheduling. Now it's all that plus working on the website, digital channels and media campaigns.
With any role, the main enjoyment comes out of the successes you have. Earlier this year, for example, we ran a media campaign to launch Lady Sarra Hoy [wife of Sir Chris Hoy MBE] as our new ambassador for Bliss Scotland. We got her onto Lorraine’s couch [TV presenter Lorraine Kelly] and BBC Breakfast. Team successes are gratifying for anyone working in communications. You always have that slight fear that you put a release out or do some selling in to the media and everyone says I’m not interested, or you launch an online ad campaign and nothing happens. When you have successes it’s rewarding.
What are some of the challenges you face working in communications?
The biggest challenge I've come across is the contradiction in people’s expectations of a communications team. On the one hand communications is often the poor relation in terms of investment and getting buy in can be tricky. But on the flip side, people often have high expectations of what can be achieved. A classic example is when people say: “Can we make this go viral.” People think we're miracle workers and we'll just make stuff happen. The two views don’t marry up.
What skills does a good communications manager need to have?
I think people skills — negotiation and diplomacy — are core to being a good communications manager. It’s vital to form good relationships with other people across an organisation. Ultimately, you’re relying on others working well with your team. Therefore there’s onus on the manager to be the figurehead of the team and lead by example.
Flexibility is also key. There will always be things that change. Even with the best will in the world, things don’t always pan out how you want them to. Or you simply get an opportunity you can’t say no to. If you're rigid and say “we can't do this for another three weeks as we've got x, y and z to do” that's not going to help anyone achieve their goals. Being willing to reassess plans is important.