10 tips for communications professionals from leaders in the field


Streem Corporate Affairs Lead Conal Hanna took to the stage at Mumbrella’s CommsCon recently to interview three leading communications professionals about the state of the industry.

Entitled ‘Running at realtime: Staying in front of a news cycle that never stops’, the session featured numerous pearls of wisdom from our panel, made up of:

  • Prue Ryan, Head of PR at Tennis Australia
  • Emily Ritchie, Senior Executive External Affairs at Medibank
  • James Hutchinson, Global Head of Business at Sling & Stone

Here are 10 highlights from the discussion.

1. A simple strategy allows you to stay nimble

When asked how to think strategically about comms when the news cycle moves so fast, Emily said the key was for all staff to be operating off the same simple strategy. Once that’s defined, it’s a framework for all comms situations. “And you only do things that align to your strategy,” she said.

2. You can spend too much time planning

All three panelists agreed that while it was important to plan, you could easily overdo it. Said Prue: “I can’t recall a time when I’ve tried to get ahead of an issue or crisis and I’ve spent a lot of time drafting my perfect holding statement and then that is the holding statement you end up using.” The tone and style are ultimately going to be decided once you know who is asking the questions and what their angle is.

All agreed that it was more important to ensure you had a process in place – a workflow set up to allow you to respond quickly when issues arise. Said James: “Who is involved? What info do you need to gather?”

Emily said she’s a fan of a “plan on a page” – an overarching, single-page game plan without falling into the trap of producing 20 pages of detail that’s unlikely to be used.

3. Don’t scrimp on internal comms in a crisis

Stakeholder management is always important but can get lost in the midst of a crisis situation, which is when you actually need it most. Prue detailed the extraordinary lengths Australian Open organisers went to this year in order to keep all of their stakeholders up to date on events unfolding every day. It was time well spent.

4. Take your blinkers off

In a crisis, James recommended hearing an external perspective. “Often people within a company can struggle to see (the crisis) from an outside point of view.” This involves thinking beyond your shareholders and employees to what an outsider might feel.

5. Get to know your leaders

Having recently undergone a change in CEO, Emily said it was important to reset the relationship by finding out what’s important to an incoming leader. “What do they want to be known for?” All panelists agreed taking the time to build relationships with senior leaders was crucial for establishing trust.

6. The difference between good and bad media training

It’s second nature for comms people, but James said senior leaders needed to be coached on how to tell a story. Engaging with the media is much more effective than shutting down, he said. “A lot of media training is about how to not answer a question. Whereas good media training is the opposite: How do you answer the question in a way that gives the journalist a story they want to write that is good for the brand?”

7. An ideal time to transition away from Ad Value Equivalent

Both panelists and audience members highlighted a strong desire to move away from AVE/ASR as a measure of success. But it’s not always easy to facilitate – often there are legacy reasons that executives lean on these metrics. Advice from Prue was to accept there will be a long-term education process, but also not to waste a crisis (eg COVID) as a time to reset the existing definitions of success.

8. Bigger numbers aren’t always better

All three clients used data to keep track of the success of their comms. Often it was most important to illustrate value for internal stakeholders. A key message, though, was to pick meaningful metrics for the campaign in question. And don’t always assume a bigger publication is better. James said he liked to use social amplification as a gauge of which articles had created real engagement. Articles on big news websites can be easily buried down where nobody reads it, while paywalls can also hamper how much a message resonates, he said.

9. There’s a time and a place to be sorry

James recounted recent advice that companies can easily fall into the trap of over-apologising. “Say sorry when you mean it but don’t jump to saying sorry when you don’t. Because often that sets up a rolling stone of having to apologise for every little thing. If you start apologising for the actions of your partners then it will never stop.”

10. Relationships have become MORE important, not less

After a tricky year with COVID, Emily spoke to the need to keep strong personal relationships with colleagues in a flexible work environment. The same was true with journalists. “(A senior journalist) said to me the other day: Relationships are more important than ever before. He values nothing more than someone picking up the phone to have a chat. It might not be that you’re calling for a story. You might just be ringing for a chat. And when you can, keep having a coffee or lunch.”

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