Image courtesy of flickr user Kumar Appaiah

So, you are a head of comms

I have been interested in the discussion taking place in the last few days about the role of the head of communications. There has been an issue raised about how hard being the most senior communication person in an organisation is, particularly in the squeezed public sector. But what does the head of communications actually do?

In many cases I am sure the senior people in organisations are not really sure themselves what they want from the person in charge of the communication function. They are not sure what they want from the changing communication landscape itself and it all becomes a very confused situation. This makes it critical for the person given the responsibility to lead communication to be clear about what they believe the role is and what they can bring to the business.

Being a head of communication means you have to be able to scan the whole organisation and understand how it works. You don’t have to know the minute detail but you are expected to know what it is, how it functions and where the priorities are for the next five to 10 years. Alongside that you have to be able to keep up-to-date with the developments in communication, what works, what opportunities exist and how you can make best use of the changing landscape for the organisation.

There are a whole range of skills that the senior communications person needs to have. They have to be resilient as it is a tough world where the responsibility stops with you. It is your decision-making that may be put under scrutiny. You have to be calm and confident in the middle of the worst possible situation. When the crisis happens it is up to you to be the voice of reason, calm and support to deal with things. You have to be able to influence at the highest level. Often you will be the lowest paid of the senior managers round a table but that can’t affect how you operate if you want to be effective.

Above all you have to be a leader and be able to motivate a team, providing training and support, bring in new talent and build and rebuild a team as people leave and join. Any leadership position can be a lonely place which makes having a strong support network really critical for a head of communication.

So why do we do it? After more than 15 years at a senior level and as I start my ninth year as a head of communication I can say it is because there is no better job. It is pressured and tough but you get the chance to see things develop, come to fruition and really benefit the organisation. If you are in the public sector it can’t be about the money so it has to be about the opportunities and the feeling of having a positive impact on people’s lives.

We have lost some of the best public sector heads of communications as they move on or retire but I believe there are many keen people ready and willing to take on the responsibility. For me it still remains an interesting, exciting and rewarding job to have.

Image courtesy of flickr user Kumar Appaiah

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Crisis comms, FCIPR. FPRCA, PRCA trainer, Chartered Assessor. Former PRCA Council chair. Women in PR ambassador.

  1. For me it seems the HOC role is often the one that has to ask the hard, sometimes obvious, frequently uncomfortable questions.
    When that voice is heard it can be incredibly valuable. When it is not invariably the job shifts into damage limitation.

  2. Good and succinct piece here. I would add that our role as heads or directors of comms is also sometimes to be the conscience of the organisation. And in the public sector we still have lots of brilliant leaders who are still around and some way off retirement as well 🙂

  3. Absolutely loved my job as head of comms in Police (Northern Constabulary. Now working as head of comms for council having also worked in NHS and Enterprise roles.
    The job is what you make it. Spotting and seizing opportunities, saying what needs to be said and being brave enough to stick you neck out at times. Public sector is constantly changing – which is a real challenge but also a key part of the meaning of the role

  4. I think you have summed up the role and challenges so well Amanda. It triggered many memories from my two Head of Communications roles and brought a smile to my face. Your point about understanding or more the lack of understanding of the role and what colleagues want from you is particularly interesting.

    I celebrate 40 years in the industry this year and have been in my current role for 5 years. Like you it is interesting, exciting and very rewarding but we must take the lead in clarifying what we bring to the table and the many skills required!

  5. A really interesting read Amanda, thanks for sharing your experience and views, especially about what organisations want from their head of comms. I’ve found recently that it’s all about the tone we set as leaders, how we deal with our teams who are also under a lot of pressure to deliver and prove their value. Your point about skills struck a chord – I think the head of comms role has always needed to be a person who is decisive, clear, confident and trustworthy – but in this instant news age I feel there is an acceleration in the demand for these skills and qualities.

    I liked your optimistic conclusion – like you my role is an interesting, exciting and rewarding job to have. Onwards and upwards!

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