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Ten things I learnt as a first-time director of communications

Having spent over 16 years working in PR agencies Mark Hutcheon made to move to a senior in-house role in 2013. This is a move that many senior agency people like to make but one that often seems not to work - as agency life and the corporate world are very different. Here are ten tips from Mark on how to make the move a success.

  1. Keep selling. Yes you are the buyer now, but you are still selling. This time it is your ideas, vision and strategy rather than services.  When you think that 90% of the internal audience are unfamiliar with PR and comms you very quickly need to establish yourself as a thought leader, storyteller and educator.
  2. Hitting your stride takes time. Despite how clever your 100-day plan is, it takes at least two years to put in place the right strategy, story, team, agencies, budget and measurement system in place. Then a full year of it working to hit your stride. By this time you are in command of all of the levers to really start moving the needle. Absorbing the culture of the business, knowing where the influence is and isn’t and intellectually getting to a place where you can apply all of your skills takes time. So don’t fret.
  3. See the organisation as a social movement not a hierarchy. The single biggest surprise to me is how important internal comms is and how much I enjoyed it. I discovered you build a brand from the inside out. The secret sauce of any business, even technology ones, comes from the people. Find ways to empower teams if you want to reveal the true personality and character of a business and give them a cause or higher purpose to march toward. Remember, culture eats strategy.
  4. Bring the customer into every conversation. PR tends to compete with marketing in many businesses yet they should be harmonising their different skills into single campaigns. For it to work at scale the message and call to action should be consistent across all touch points.   In terms of different skills, I believe a campaignable idea will tend to start with PR people, who are closer to the conversations consumers are having, whilst marketing looks more for the commercial trend. Happy to be corrected on this.
  5. Embrace the blurred lines. Agency life is quite neat and linear. Financial PR agency speaks to journalist. Lobby firm has coffee with MP. Consumer agency pitches to the head of brand. Client-side is very different. Marketing, operations, finance and HR make up the ‘quad’ and you are wise to hug them closely as the lines across social, content and comms are dissolving rapidly.
  6. Be business curious. Ask big and small questions relentlessly so you can be a change agent and a warrior for new ideas. Conduct small, forensic enquiries into how and why the business works as it enables you to act like a conductor to the information pulsing around a busy corporation. At Fitness First we had four regions and 14 markets so learn to be close to the different frontiers. Equally, ask epic, giant questions so you can set big, progressive goals to lead the organisation forward.
  7. Don’t underestimate the EQ required of an executive committee leader. Not quite a baptism of fire but when you suddenly find yourself on the executive committee of a 10,000 employee business you accept you are now a senior leader. With that come responsibility, accountability and expectations. To succeed, be resilient to the stress, sensitive to all audiences and act in tune with the highest standards and values of the business.
  8. Reputation management theory only gets you so far. Models, theories and case studies help. They guide and can be an organising framework for your strategy. Judgement is, in the end, what matters and whether you can make the right calls, decisions and actions to steward the reputation of the business forward. My experience is to always trust your instinct and get advice from those you trust. For all of the grand strategy of corporate affairs, I have no doubt that the skill you simply cannot do the job without is crafting a narrative for the whole business and turning it consistently into news and campaigns. It is a premium skill few genuinely possess.
  9. Be the canary in the coal mine. Reporting into the CEO and being his or her spokesperson gives you power and influence. And use it wisely to take your agenda forward. On the other hand, you cannot afford to be just a mouthpiece. Look at the behaviour of the business from the critical lens of the NGO, consumer and wider public opinion to spot any signal or source of possible damage. Keeping the top of the business in step with society and calling it out when they are not is a valued role.
  10. Finally, be on the offensive and campaign. Being proactive should be your default whether you work for a consumer or industrial business. Firstly, if you want to project your brand take every opportunity to be relevant and that means a news-led comms system, rather than traditional corporate affairs one, which is by its nature cautionary. Secondly, don’t sell. Striking a chord with the consumer to build loyalty is everything and we can do this better by campaigning on the issues of the day not selling on product features.

Mark Hutcheon is interim strategy and corporate affairs director at ukactive and a former global comms director at Fitness First Group during its successful rebranding.

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