From CO to CEO: North East Strategic Communications Forum

By Huw Lewis Chart.PR, Customer Services Director, Nexus.

The skills and qualities we learn in the PR industry equip communications professionals for a career in the board room.

Rather than feeling out of place or second-best at the executive table, we should recognise how our experience and insight adds value far beyond our own fields, and into areas including strategic planning, risk management, and inspirational team leadership.

That was the message to the most recent North East Strategic Communications Forum from three PR professionals who moved on to senior executive roles, responsible for much wider portfolios within complex large organisations.

We shared conversations, questions, and insights with Laura Skaife-Knight, Deputy Chief Executive of the QE Hospital Kings Lynn, Peter Holt, Strategic Advisor at Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and former Assistant Chief Executive of South Northamptonshire Council, and Caroline Docking, Assistant Chief Executive of Newcastle Hospitals.

Among the technical tools that are second nature to a good PR professional but a precious commodity in senior leadership teams the panel highlighted:

Stakeholder mapping: One of the first things someone starting in PR learns, this is surprisingly little understood in other technical fields. And yet it is a key to success in project management and change programmes.

Listening and research techniques: The most complex challenges an organisation faces are best tackled not in the board room, but by understanding the interests of customers, employees and partners.

Media training: The discipline need to go on camera or brief journalists has many cross-overs with leadership skills.

Storytelling: Your experience in creating a compelling narrative for the organisation will also help you build support and approval for projects you champion within it.

Objectivity: The corporate communicator’s need to have one foot in and one foot outside the camp, seeing the organisation as those outside the dominant coalition do, never stops being important. It adds huge value in boardroom situations.

Our three guests talked about how important the experience and maturity a communications manager gains from dealing with the daily uncertainties of the role while keeping a cool head and their team focused has been in their later careers.

But moving beyond our vocation into broader leadership has its challenges. The message was to be under no illusion: It will take you out of your comfort zone. But you should embrace this and be confident in your personal qualities. It is natural to feel imposter syndrome at times, but reflect and remind yourself what you are bringing to the team.

Boardroom peers may question why the ‘comms (wo)man’ merits a place alongside them, but will soon see the value you bring. The last year has demonstrated to senior leaders across many sectors the unique power of a two-way communications perspective. Your peers and other senior managers can also learn from your personal communication skills, diplomacy, and strategic perspective.

One tip for someone taking on much wider responsibility after a promotion is to visibly step away from day-to-day communications, trusting in your successor and focussing initially on your newer portfolio. Use your experience of managing a range of comms outputs at the same time and apply this to the disparate functions you now lead.

Our three guests all had personal case studies which demonstrated how a commitment to openness, transparency, and challenge, first put to good use in a ‘head of communications’ role, marked them out for leadership, and continued to be an asset in senior leadership roles.

For this reason, it is important the organisation you work for is a good fit for your personal values and moral compass — even more so when you are accountable for the decisions it takes, not just charged with communicating them. Being at the heart of decision making, and influencing the ‘how’ in that process, was described as a hugely rewarding place to be. Authenticity is as important at a chief executive level as it is right through the communications and management chain.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) North East Regional Group has created a series of professional development and networking events for senior / strategic professionals in the North East’s PR & communications industry. If you are the person with overall responsibility for communications in your organisation and you are interested in the forum please tweet or DM @CIPR_NorthEast or email CIPR North East.

Further events for strategic communicators from CIPR North East via the North East Strategic Communications Forum are planned throughout the year. CIPR North East also has various training, networking, and social events across the year for all PR practitioners. Follow @CIPR_NorthEast on Twitter or LinkedIn to keep up to date.

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Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

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