Head of comms can be a tough job. And it’s getting harder. Many good heads have left the public sector in the past couple of years for this and other reasons. It's an issue, and one we should do something about.
By Darren Caveney
Those of you of a certain vintage might remember the Paul Whitehouse character from the Fast Show in the 90s – Archie, the pub bore who had done every job in the world (he hadn’t) and who would tell tales about his feats. Teacher, doctor, lorry driver. He’d done the lot. Each one of them was the hardest game in the world. That was his catchphrase.
“Head of Comms? Yeah, I did that – 30 years man and boy. Hardest game in the world.”
There are hundreds of much tougher jobs than being a head of comms, of course. But it is a tough gig. And it’s become harder and harder, especially if you’ve been front and centre of public sector job cuts.
Expectations on a head of comms are enormous (and by ‘head’ I mean director, assistant director, manager, lead – whoever the most senior comms person is in an organisation)
Senior teams expect and demand a lot. And that’s to be expected.
Other departments expect to get an excellent comms service. And that’s fine.
If you work with elected members or MPs they will demand great things of you and your team, and no doubt tonnes of coverage in the print press. That's fine too.
And your own team will also place big expectations and demands on you too. To protect, to develop, to nurture, to trust. That’s only to be expected.
But add those to a backdrop of cuts, restructures, change programmes, transformation projects, reducing team numbers and rising demands for comms work and you’re soon into a potential world of pain.
You’re also responsible for the delicate balancing act of making people redundant, trying to eek out performances from a pressured team, sorting out the problems of many a service in your business and, at all times, you must give the impression of swan-like grace with oodles of calm, controlled worldly wise advice and counsel (which will often be ignored, by the way)
Every comms lead in the land has my full respect – I did the job for 10-years so have many a lesson, tale, secret and scar to empathise.
None of this is a moan-fest – if you have the top comms job in your organisation it didn’t happen by chance. You’ll have wanted it and worked very hard for it. And someone somewhere will have seen something in you that marked you out. It certainly isn’t for everyone.
You’ll probably really enjoy the job 70% of the time, be fed up of it 20% of the time, and hate it 10% of the time (mix the ratios to match your world)
What I personally found, and what I hear a lot from current heads of comms now, is that there isn’t a great deal of support around for them. Yes, they get paid well (usually, although this is an emerging issue – more of that later) but that doesn’t mean they don’t need some support.
Often it can be a lonely role being a head of comms. Even other ‘head of’ colleagues, who may have previously been a good ear, are often now thrown into direct competition with you for roles which you are both trying to secure. We’re in an era of senior roles becoming less specialist and more generalist (e.g. three heads of services roles – say customer services, comms and policy – now morphing into one role) Three into one doesn’t go, so two people disappear and this creates added internal dynamics, tensions and other issues.
So what is the point of all of this?
I see our heads of comms as an endangered species. People we might be best looking out for a little more. They are invaluable to an organisation. When I think about all the best orgs I have worked with in my consultancy role these past two years there is a very clear pattern: A strong and effective head of comms and an excellent comms team working with them. I can’t think of many/any examples where an organisation is working at a high level of performance with good customer satisfaction and a good solid reputation where there isn’t a strong comms leader front and centre.
One of many real challenges now for the public sector, and local government especially, is that there has been a flood of good heads of comms leaving for other sectors, retiring or moving into consultancy. Talent, nous and experience has been lost.
If that leads to opportunities for new people to emerge and grow then fantastic.
The problem is that there has been a trend in some organisations to down-grade the seniority of the head of comms and this is dangerous to our profession. Now you could argue that we have brought some of this on ourselves. Maybe, to a point.
The outcome of this is two-fold:
1. Comms get shoved down the pecking order of seniority - in very traditionally structured organisations that’s a genuine problem
2. Less experienced people are moving into the comms lead roles and being expected to operate at the same level as someone proven in the role. That’s not fair on the new people.
The second of these points is something which the excellent Paul Masterman and I had a brief offline chat about last week. It’s a subject which the sector needs to focus more attention on and quickly.
You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to predict that more heads of comms will leave their public sector roles in 2017. The unknown is how many posts will survive versus how many will be swallowed up as a ‘cost saving’.
I believe it’s an emerging crisis for our industry and that it’s about time we talked about the issues, threats and opportunities more and began pitching them to our most senior leaders. Is it on their radar, do they believe it’s an issue? Some will, some won’t. That’s quite normal.
Getting a place at the top table was, quite rightly, something we were advised to push for. But in many organisations, not only has this not happened but the meeting room door has actually been firmly closed on the comms lead too. That’s going to take down us a cul-de-sac of related problems.
What do the heads think?
Later on this month I’ll be launching the first in a series of 10 opinion pieces from 10 leading heads of comms in the UK to give them a voice on this and other issues.
Called Talking Heads: 10 x 10 it will be a fascinating glimpse into the challenges and opportunities facing the leaders in our industry in 2017.
And in the process it could create a support group for them and other heads of comms, if that’s a useful outcome. I have some ideas on how this could be developed.
A bit like President Obama’s prophetic words to the massed media at his final Whitehouse Correspondents’ Dinner last year – “you’ll miss me when I’m gone…”
Let’s be careful what we wish for with our heads of comms. Once they're gone, they're gone.
If this is you and your world and you would like to join a new support group for heads of comms on Slack drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd
image via Rennett Stowe