Working in comms opens doors – a whistle-stop tour of my comms career – by Caroline King, Head of Communications and Engagement at Helena Partnerships

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Cardboard Caroline enjoys team chocolates.

This blog has been written to support Helena’s latest comms recruitment campaign. I wanted to talk about how comms as a career can really open doors for you and will do this by reflecting on my own career. It’s fair to say that Comms has and always will be my passion, regardless of where my career takes me. It has been an amazing journey against a backdrop of changing comms practices, channels a go go and a technological revolution. 

These days my role is more generic but it’s my comms skills and knowledge that get me through each day. I work at a senior, corporate level at Helena in a role framed around business transformation.  I work with peers to make decisions that will change the face of Helena’s service proposition plus how we engage with and develop our wonderful teams. What my comms grounding has given me is the ability to make sense out of mess, turn 75 pages of flipchart into one killer sheet and take a high level view when others are focussed on their own service areas. That’s my contribution to the management team I work in. I have vision and can see the big picture. This can be a curse as I struggle to keep my grasshopper brain focussed on one thing. That’s something I need to crack in 2014.

Right so the look back in time is all true, albeit slightly tongue in cheek. It attempts to show how day to day comms practices have shifted to an unrecognisable point. I guess it also conveys how some really important skills never go out of fashion.

I embarked on my comms career in November 1998. At that point I had never sent an email in my life – seriously. Now I’m surrounded by kit and a walking advert for Apple.

In my first job, the primary method of internal and external communication was fax. There was a fax room and two full-time staff employed to send, receive and distribute faxes. To be honest I found that hilarious at the time, but it was an international company so pigeon English faxes were the norm and effective. My major project there was to create a company brochure to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary. It was a family firm with an old school boss. His brief was: “to make it flashy and spend as much as you want to”. At £25 a copy with five paper types, cut-outs and gold leaf I think I exceeded expectations. My reward was a trip to Argentina to launch it.  Oh yes, I forgot to mention that it was dual language Spanish and English and I did the proof-reading!

The next two years were at a college where I learned the trade of print and paper – Pantone pads on my desk, proofs sticking out of my bag every night and days spent sitting alongside designers who I envied completely.

If you are concentrating to this point you will see that in the first 3.5 years of my career I got to grips with fax, email, print and advertising and not much else.

In August 2002, I strapped myself into a rollercoaster and went on a complicated 11-plus year ride around communications, engagement, websites, social media and much more. I’m still strapped in if you are wondering.

Helena was one of the early adopters within the housing sector of customer insight. I mean we really got to grips with it. Until that point I used to wonder how Tesco knew I needed a 50p off voucher for Weetabix and why I waited for ages when I tried to cancel my mobile contract but got a cheerful hello within two seconds of trying to set up a new one. Easy – big businesses are framed on intelligence and customer insight. Helena’s use of CRM and customer insight allowed the comms team to get a lot smarter about the solutions we created.

I mention customer insight because it was a turning point in how we deliver communications and how we manage our internal relations. This was the start of the “don’t come to us with the solution” phase of Helena comms. We treat our internal clients like an agency would. We spend time building up a relationship with our clients, anticipate their needs and offer support when we know it’s needed.

What customer insight meant on the outside was the dawn of multi-channel communications. We may use five or more communications methods to get a message out there because we know from insight that our customers will respond to one of those ways. We know that because we understand their preferences and behaviours. This might seem a bit OTT for a housing provider but the approach has served us well and past and present team members comment on how the daily practical application of these techniques has blown their mind. Somebody commented to me yesterday that they didn’t know how I managed to keep all those thought processes and considerations in my head at once. I guess after all these years I take it for granted but it is exciting every day and you can’t really knock that.

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The inner workings of a comms pro’s mind

 Comms is ever changing. People tell you their business problems and your clear-thinking comms approach helps them to reach a solution and agree a way forward. It’s about relationship building, having confidence in your own ideas and knowing when you back down. The most successful comms people aren’t the ones who sit in the corner writing excellent copy. I have met and worked with a fair few of those over the years. True comms professionals have people skills, emotional intelligence and can recall something somebody said six months ago and link it to a thought they have just heard. They are advisors with a huge amount of responsibility and an innate sense of what’s right and wrong.

People often comment that I think differently to them. If you read my blog from earlier this week about coping mechanisms for comms people then it might be obvious why. Yes, comms people are different but you will rarely meet a bunch of people with so much passion and drive, builders of brands and fierce protectors of reputations. Our recruitment campaign is called #NoTwoDaysTheSame which just about sums up why I am so lucky to work in and around comms.

I’m really looking forward to welcoming new members to Helena’s Comms Team in the coming months and supporting them on the broadest communications grounding out there and some amazing new multi-channel campaigns.

The challenge of communicating welfare reform

Today’s post comes from Janelle Hardacre, PR and Media Officer at Helena Partnerships…

Having come from an agency background, I have been lucky enough to deliver comms for a huge array of different organisations and brands, from NHS Trusts to ice lollies. However, I was a complete ‘newbie’ to the housing sector when I joined the Helena communications team last year.

Judging from the various 2013 round ups from the housing press, it’s clear that I joined during one of the most challenging years the social housing sector has ever experienced.

This has been a huge eye opener, particularly from a comms perspective, and it’s been really interesting to watch how housing associations, including Helena, have approached the challenges of getting communications right in the midst of huge changes like welfare reform.

I’ve already learnt so much from my Helena colleagues and other housing communicators in 2013. Here I explore what I feel are some of the key considerations, learnings and innovative approaches coming from the sector to answer the challenges of communicating benefit changes to such diverse communities.

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Customer Insight

As communicators, it’s vital that we understand as much about our audiences as possible. By analysing customer insight into demographics and motivations, communications can be tailored to ensure that messages are targeted, and reach tenants in a format which appeals to and will resonate with them.

I’d argue that the housing sector needs to start working more like the private sector, using data to develop a strong understanding of what our organisations’ brands means to customers and how customers interact with us.

Multi-channel approach

We know that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ answer for how we communicate with tenants, and as a sector it is important that we are flexible with our approaches and continue to share best practice to ensure tenants are receiving the most appropriate advice and support.

Now more than ever, we need to consider how to maximise income and minimise cost at the same time as providing effective communications. Every channel has its place in the communications mix, so it’s important to develop a tailored strategy for each tactic, with tangible KPIs in place.

Personalisation

One of the barriers to communicating with tenants can often be making sure communications cuts through the noise of adverts, junk mail and sales calls, and that they really gain an understanding of how changes to the benefits system will affect them personally in pounds and pence, rather than how it affects society in general.

We have found that something as simple as addressing a person by name and communicating exactly how they are affected by the changes in a tailored mailer can have a noticeable impact on the number of people engaging with the organisation.

Embracing digital

There is often an assumption that social housing tenants lack access to computers and therefore the internet. Our digital insight indicates that there is a strong appetite among customers for digital services and in a survey of one of our most deprived estates, 77% said they had access to the internet at home.

It’s important that information and advice about welfare reform is easily accessible online. Video has also been successfully utilised by several housing associations, to explain changes in an engaging and digestible format, often attracting thousands of views.

What more can we do?

Working in one of the most challenging operating environments in recent memory, it’s ultimately the job of social landlords to make it as easy as possible for all tenants to interact with them and for those affected by welfare reform to feel they can get in touch.

Inquisitive as my colleagues are, they have asked me whether I would have approached welfare reform comms differently had this been a brief that had come into my previous agency. I’d like to think that a lot of what we’d recommend would be similar to the effective work which has been done to date.

Building on this, I’d look to try and harness the power of word of mouth. In marketing, nothing is more influential than a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member, so it is important that we are creating content that is not only informative, but that people are compelled to share. As the saying goes, ‘content is king!’

I’d also say, as communicators we should never stop looking outside the housing sector at current trends for ideas and inspiration.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. Leave a comment or tweet us @helenapartnersh