A special 12 months as PR Director of the Year

Award stuff 2 banner

My position as current CIPR and IoD PR Director of the Year ends about 24 hours from now so I’m indulging myself an evening feeling special about it and what it’s meant. 

The intention was to blog about the value of winning an award shortly after the CIPR Excellence Awards on 3 June 2015 but events overtook me.

Awards recognise best practice, make you evaluate your work and benchmark you against other brilliant practitioners. They make you feel fabulous on hearing your name or campaign read out as being the best of the best.

It was also much more for me and the pinnacle of an awesome second year in my role at Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) – where the first 12 months had been quite bleak at times.

I struggled to feel the work I was doing was any good because I was in an isolated role as head of profession for PR and attempts to update the ways we engaged with our audiences faced resistance.

A phrase that fell from my lips probably far too often was: “It’s not open heart surgery on toddlers. Its only social media / a video / insert new or alternative comms channel as appropriate.” However, I regularly thought I’d suggested something equally risky with the reactions my ideas prompted.

Me and Mike award

 

Any more on how bad some of those times were is probably for a different blog but the important point is that it got better. 

There was a clear objective to work towards and I was sure of what we needed to do to get there, I got a fantastic manager after a few months adrift when my manager unexpectedly changed roles and my work started to deliver results – like the night of the fire at the University of Nottingham.

Some resource changes I’d fought for led to the appointment of two brilliant young communicators and they brought to life the strategy I’d been espousing for 18 months.

I wasn’t alone in achieving what I did to win the PR Director title but it took an award-winning level of knowledge, persistence and persuasion on my part to help NFRS do some of what was needed. That’s one of the arguments I made when grilled by award panel member and then CIPR president, Sarah Pinch.

There was a moment of disbelief when my name was read out as winner in front of about 1,000 peers.

In the year since, I’ve not only found the legitimacy I craved but I’ve been extremely privileged. I’ve participated in vital work to develop our profession (including the Influence for Impact project), trade press have asked for my views on important issues and I used the industry recognition to continue my work embedding excellent communications at NFRS.

My team did more great stuff that achieved excellent results for firefighters and staff at the service and those they serve, and we bagged some more awards.

It left me with a bittersweet choice between having a job that I loved with growing respect and using the opportunity to move on to something even bigger, in my home town.

Good luck to the two finalists shortlisted for the same award tomorrow. May it be an equally special year for the 2016 winner.

Award stuff

Women in leadership: why bother?

Gender and leadership is a much discussed issue of late with Lord Davies’ annual Women on Boards review being published, PR Week writing about PR and The Athena Doctrine and International Women’s Day taking place – all in March.

Coincidentally, an excellent Skills for Justice course for senior women leaders I’d been fortunate enough to have a place on also concluded at the same time.

One of the workshops opened with some words from the Chief of the organisation hosting the event and he posed the thought-provoking question ‘why bother?’ so I thought I’d try and answer it. 

It’s proven that companies with diverse workforces perform better and, more importantly, public organisations should represent the communities they serve to be the best they possibly can.

Yet official figures tell us that women in the police and fire and rescue services make up fewer than 25 per cent of the workforce.

Therefore, that’s one reason why we should bother. But we should also bother because, judging by the people who were on that course with me, the senior women in the justice system are excellent at their jobs, have great values, experience and determination, and are just very cool.

On the very first day of the course I was able to be myself because of the inclusive environment the group created – not only was that great for me as an individual but authentic leadership is a vital factor in business success.

We worked as a group, excelled as individuals, nurtured each other, talked lots, made enlightening contributions and developed each other in subtle ways and, I’m proud to say, we lived up to many other typically female traits that make women great in the workplace.

The group also broke with stereotypes in equally brilliant ways – some of those women have done and are doing extraordinary things to be awesome people, better managers and top notch public servants.

Selfishly, I feel I’ve gained friends for life – only we know the full extent of what it was like to work together so intensely over the duration of the course, open up and share our experiences to get the most out of those days.

Crucially, these people are all in senior roles in police, fire or the justice system and combine with that motherhood, ageing parents, unusual personal circumstances and other priorities to give their full and unreserved commitment to a job that makes other people’s lives all the better.

Why bother? Why would you not try and support such talent in making their way to the top?

 

 

Find your stars and help them connect with your fans and communities

Lancashire County Cricket Club has played a blinder by having its star players call up customers and help them renew their memberships.

It sounded novel but familiar at the same time – and it quickly became apparent that while it’s unusual for the sports world, it’s what the public sector does every day.

Councils, police forces and fire and rescue services are fortunate in that their stars – the representatives of the organisation that the public identify most with – are usually their largest staff body, whose work naturally connects them directly to the communities they serve.

It must be more difficult for high-profile sports clubs because the small number of stars compared with the large number of fans it needs to connect with makes reaching out a hard task.

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try and many sports clubs and players have seen the benefits (and pitfalls!) of talking directly with their supporters and detractors via social media.

Whether it was achievements made through social media or looking across at their public sector counterparts, or even just a concerted effort to try something new, it’s a great idea.

It is great because it says to the fans, the customers, the people whose hard-earned money supports the team that everyone at the club, including the sportspeople at the top, know what really matters: the people who put them there.

While it was contrived in the sense it was planned because they’d arranged to do it in advance, it wasn’t awkward or cheesy because there was legitimacy in the energy and efforts the players put in.

An Instagram picture posted by the club showed some serious concentration and demonstrated committed and authentic leadership. There’s some great coverage of it on the Manchester Evening News website

It made me think of the public service stars, like Dave Throup from the Environment Agency who kept communities informed during the 2014 floods.

He was there to do a job of work that didn’t necessarily need him to pick up the phone and start using to Twitter to tell people about what he was doing. But he did and his informative posts about the work he was doing soon got those affected interested along with a much wider audience (he now has 10,000 Twitter followers).

Our job as communicators and public relations practitioners isn’t to force these things to happen – the public, communities or members can spot something that’s staged or fake from a mile off. However, it is our role to spot opportunities for those we work with to connect with the people they need to, via methods or in places they might not have imagined they would, and we can help build their skills and confidence to use these new tools properly while still being true to themselves.

The power of integration

Firefighters tackling the university fire and one of the pictures that defined coverage in the press and on social media
Firefighters tackling the university fire – the picture that defined coverage in the press and on social media

This blog by me was first posted on http://www.comms2point0.co.uk – a great resource for communications people…

Communications planning for the Nottingham University fire where more than 60 firefighters spent the weekend battling a huge blaze started 10 months in advance.

That’s not a glib, insensitive or plain wacky statement but a genuine sentiment that is testament to the hard work of the Corporate Communications team and all staff in the organisation in changing its approach to engaging with the communities they serve. 

Of course, we didn’t plan for a fire to devastate a £20m iconic building or for our firefighters and officers to spend three days working tirelessly and professionally to stop the fire from spreading to other buildings and put it out – but we have been planning how we will inform people and discuss matters properly with them when the worst does happen.

We are an emergency service that recognises the world we operate in has changed and, as a result, plans we once had in place to warn and inform communities and provide them with safety information during a crisis are changing because the public won’t necessarily turn on the radio now, they may well look at Twitter or turn to a trusted local video blogger to find out what is happening near them.

The way to sum this up quickly (and sorry to anyone who knows me because you’ll have heard me utter this phrase, annoyingly, hundreds of times before) – you have to be proactive about your reactive communications – and the long-winded explanation of this follows.

Information the public needs at a local level is inextricably linked to what the public might be interested in on a wider scale: customer service and reputation management are now more closely connected than ever before with the lines between the two far less defined than residents speaking to us at a cordon and ITN covering an item on News at Ten.

Marketing and communications has always been a strategic function – Apple didn’t design the iPhone first and then figure out whether an audience would buy it and it’s the same with public services. The public sector can only work with people by their consent and to fulfil a need whether that’s to provide housing or fight a fire. Communicators need to work with managers at all levels and be at the heart of the business or service to help design effective products and services in the first place and then decide which tool to pull out of the communications toolbox (the tactics) and how to use it to help drive the organisation towards achieving whichever business priority.

I’ve seen the phenomenal Anne Gregory speak on this very matter and put it eloquently: “There’s no point putting lipstick on a pig.”

Fortunately, the work of the fire and rescue service is far from being a pig – my colleagues do fantastic and often difficult work every day – but we’re modest about that, we’re used to the traditional media championing our work for us rather than having to shout about it ourselves and we’re not used to our reputation and the perception of our work being in the hands of the public via social media.

Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service knows this and it’s something I was asked to work on when I was appointed 10 months ago. We’ve reviewed how we work, we’ve trialled new methods of integrating current communications methods with the work our colleagues do and we’ve done lots – such as putting communications elements into training scenarios, community safety work and even into recruitment processes – just to make sure comms really is at the heart of people’s thinking when they begin a project or get the call to an incident.

Similarly to the way firefighters drill for incidents, we’ve been preparing for what to do in a crisis as well as building the public’s trust in us on big online channels by becoming active, social and an authoritative voice with our communities.

On the night of the university fire, all of that worked. Our Control room notified comms early to warn people via Facebook and Twitter and take all the media queries – leaving them to focus on answering 999 calls and mobilising resources – and so comms could support the Incident Commander’s strategy to keep people safe by using all of those channels to keep the public updated.

Through those good internal comms activities, the external comms worked well: information reached around 900,000 people via Twitter, more than 25,000 on Facebook and NFRS had an authoritative voice in more than 100 news items on the web, which included all of the main media organisations and, most importantly, local people were well-informed, understood the work we were doing to keep them safe and showed their support – which fed back into our internal comms because firefighters’ efforts were recognised and they felt appreciated. Chief Fire Officer John Buckley and Deputy Chief Fire Officer Wayne Bowcock added their voices to those of the public and were able to publicly thank crews via their social media profiles, when previously, they may have had to wait until Monday morning to show their appreciation. 

What happened was extremely sad for the university but a lot of hard work went into the operation to stop it from being much worse and there were really important conversations to have about that, which we had and those discussions reassured and supported people including those living nearby, the university community and our own staff.

FREE money, the secret to eternal youth and how to be successful at everything… my first post

Me - Bridget Aherne!
Me – Bridget Aherne!

FREE money, the secret to eternal youth and how to be successful at everything… now I’ve got your attention, welcome to my first blog post and thank you for reading this far!

I’m afraid I was only playing and can’t deliver the three things suggested in the introduction but I hope my blog will be a place for you to get news, entertainment and interesting musings from my world.

That world is one where I’m lucky enough to be Head of Corporate Communications and Administration for Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS), a new(ish) girl in Nottinghamshire after spending most of my life in magnificent Manchester, and I’m a makeup and fashion fanatic.

I’m deeply passionate about the important work public sector organisations do to improve communities and keen to ensure that communications, marketing and public relations fulfils the vital role it can have in achieving great things for people such as making them safer.

There’s lots to say about the world of work because it’s my life, I’ve been privileged to have some great jobs, better even than what I dreamed of growing up and, as a result of that, I believe in the potential for people to change their lives through developing themselves and others, and being part of a strong team. 

My noble career ambitions are balanced by being a fiery little materialistic princess with a mild shopping compulsion, usually controlled by my physician – Dr HSBC! So there’ll be a few posts about shopping trips, both online and off, fantastic finds I make while bargain hunting or remorseful reflections when I’ve been on a splurge.

I’m a news junky and opinionated so there may the odd rant. I hope that’s a good mix of things to keep you coming back – either way, thanks for having a look.