Leading a team can be tough, lonely and thankless. It can also remind you why you got into the profession in the first place. This very honest review of two years spent as a head of communications will resonate with many.
By GUEST EDITOR Emma Rodgers
Two years ago today, I started a new role at Stoke-on-Trent City Council as head of communications. Two years – that’s 24 months or 740 days - in total and if I’m honest, I never thought I would make this milestone. When I first told people I’d got a new job in Stoke, it was met with mixed reaction.
The city has had a multi-coloured history – it has seen a mayoral system fail, the decline of traditional industries and increased deprivation and unemployment.
The year I joined was the last 15 months before all out elections and that was before you considered the comms function itself. It was always in the media spotlight with a team who had been through what seemed like a never ending review led by a number of interim comms heads.
Most colleagues when I told them about joining Stoke wished me luck while saying quite seriously I’d need it. One person whose opinion I really valued told me they didn’t think I was up for the job and that I’d fall flat on my face. If anything it made me more determined. I decided there and then it was better to try and fail than never to have tried at all. I had grown up near Stoke and knew the city had so much to offer and it was my first head of comms post. What was the worst that could happen? So it was with a mix of trepidation and fleeting ‘eff it’ thoughts, that I went into work that first day.
Now two years on, looking back what do I think I have learnt? Here’s just some of my reflections.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Two of my closest friends who are married, both work full time and who have two children use this phrase often. When they say it (generally to wind their daughters up when they’re not playing ball) we always laugh. But no matter how cheesy it is, it’s true and is definitely one to be applied at Stoke-on-Trent. Our communications team is one of the most hardworking, determined, creative and loyal teams I have ever come across and who I’m proud to work with. While I think (they may disagree) when I first arrived I was met with a little cynicism (to be expected given the perpetual change they’d gone through), we found our mojo. It’s been rocky and challenging at times but without us being able to pull together across the team, sharing resources, changing, focussing and working towards what we needed to achieve, it never would have happened. And yes while I hate to admit, I have cried twice in front of them. Once out of sheer frustration and the other when I was so proud of them after yet another amazing piece of work, I thought I would burst. I don’t regret it though. I think it made them realise I was genuine. After a tough meeting internally, when one of the team thanked me for having their back saying they had not had that in a long time, I felt like there was no better job in the world.
Challenge is good
From the moment I joined the city council, the role has challenged me to within an inch of my being. City councils by their nature mean that you cover 100s of services from bin collections to economic development to services for vulnerable children and it is never predictable. Stoke-on-Trent is also a place where there is so much going on – we become European City of Sport and we’re bidding for City of Culture 2021 for example. It’s at the sharp end of public services, serious case reviews, police operations, the list goes on. Every new day brings something that you’ve not come across before. Whether it’s presenting strategies to cabinet, advising directors on tough issues or fronting an event with members of the public, it’s meant regularly pushing myself to meet new challenges. So while I probably don’t relish change as much as some, I feel strongly that challenge is good and that it has to be embraced. You can always surprise yourself.
Always be learning
The debates rage on about whether communications should be generalists with wide ranging skills or specialists dedicated to a particular medium and what communications teams of the future should be. I have my view on this but it’s not for this post. However it develops, I’m really clear that we need to always be learning. I personally embrace learning new skills and will always encourage anyone I work with to as well. Whether it’s video, social media advertising, blogging, consultation or new ways to evaluate, it’s about staying on top of your game. A professional needs to continually update their skills – you’d expect a dentist or doctor too so why think anything less is good enough for us.
The intensity of a new role and challenging times can be exhausting and emotional. You can lose perspective and it can be all too easy to take it personally. While at Stoke-on-Trent, we’ve been through an all-out election and are now a three way coalition administration, we’ve seen senior director changes and our function has been reviewed twice. Change has been the only constant. I truly believe that building, nurturing and developing relationships inside and outside your organisation is what gets you through. That way, people can judge you for who you are and not just what they might have heard. Genuine relationships also bring goodwill and opportunities – whether it’s with other public sector partners, commercial organisations or internally. Don’t ever underestimate the value of this.
The diversity of local government is truly amazing
I hope this post reflects this already but just in case you haven’t picked it up, if you’re in comms, local government is a great place to have a career. Being a head of comms may sometimes also be the toughest job in the world but the diversity of what you’ll work on from one day to the next is truly amazing. I fundamentally believe there is no other sector where you’ll get this.
Modernise or become extinct
In the tough world of budget cuts that we work in, long gone are the days of resting on your laurels. Communications functions have to be at the forefront of change and working to keep up with the difference in how people live and consume information. We have to keep ourselves relevant for the 21st Century and embrace the fail fast approach. It takes bravery and helps if you do have buy in at the top but the alternative is so much worse. I’m more than clear from the last two years, that if we don’t modernise and modernise quickly, we will become extinct.
The so what factor
When I arrived at Stoke, there was a lot of good work underway but there wasn’t a clear story about the difference it was making. We have had to embed the ‘so what’ factor into everything we do. Having the ability to evaluate our contribution has been without doubt the most important change that has been made to the function. Whether it’s the number of visitors to an event, how many foster carers have been recruited or how many people no longer contact us unnecessarily, we evaluate everything we do so that we can be clear on the difference that we make. Our starting point is whether it’s a priority for the organisation and that way we can always be certain that we’re always answering the so what question and that is so, so important.
Resilience is your friend
If there is one attribute I’ve had to nurture in the last two years, it’s resilience. As an Irish Catholic, I have a natural tendency to overthink and focus on what I could have done better. You have to be prepared to cut yourself some slack and bring some ‘eff it’ attitude to what you do. I have deliberately had to teach myself how to do this and it has paid off. My confidence has grown as too has my ability to embrace change.
Networks and peer support rule
Networks and peer support rule. It’s as simple as that and the public sector is truly fantastic for this. People are always prepared to share and help. Whether it’s LG Communications, the LGA, the comms2point0 network or your own go to peers who you can sound out ideas with (you know who you are), use them. When it’s got really tricky in the last two years, I’ve always had a place to turn and I could not have succeeded to reach this milestone without this.
Be passionate but don’t let it kill you
I am passionate about my job. That means that I can take on too much. I have had to learn the hard way that no matter how many hours I work, there will never be enough hours in the day. By overstretching myself, I don’t help me, my family, my team or my organisation. Down time is critical in such a high intensity job and actually one day out of the office can benefit you so much more than working a 60 hour week. While I still don’t have the balance right completely, I’m in the right area and am better able to recognise when it’s time to stop. That’s a good thing.
Emma Rodgers is Strategic Manager, Communications and Marketing at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. She is also vice chair of LG Communications.
image via Flickr creative commons – The Library of Congress https://flic.kr/p/aecFDF