What makes a Comms Expert?

Sue Dewhurst's Book
Successful Employee Communications, by Sue Dewhurst and Liam FitzPatrick

Trainer and author Sue Dewhurst has been working with internal comms for over 25 years. She suggests that whilst aspects of the role have changed beyond all recognition in that time, others have stayed central to being a true communication professional.

When I started out in internal communication, computers were in their infancy. There were no mobile phones. Email didn’t exist. Amongst my team was a small group whose job it was to print letters, put them in envelopes, stick on address labels and send them out to our 21,000 employees or 1100 managers. If you think it’s an uphill job winning respect from senior leaders, I can tell you it’s no mean feat when your team is known as the ‘lickers and stickers’!

Fast forward 20+ years, and the range of tools available to us has been transformed. Thanks to technology, we can reach thousands of people at the touch of a button; cross geographies and time zones, and give everyone routes to comment, converse and collaborate.

But amidst the changing channels landscape, three areas have remained critical for internal comms professionals. Even as someone who’s spent her whole career in communication, I’m still fascinated by them and continually looking for ways to work more skilfully with them. They are:

  1. Using communication strategically. In simple terms, this means using communication for a purpose. Being able to make great videos, produce a conference or write compelling content are great craft skills that should be a means to an end.A true comms expert uses communication to help their business organisation achieve its goals. They can skilfully and positively move a conversation which starts with ‘I want a video’ onto a more valuable exploration of a business problem which needs to be solved. They’re the person the management team wants to hear from, because they bring genuine insight about what’s happening in the organisation. Instead of drowning employees in corporate blah blah, they understand how to connect and make issues meaningful.In short, they harness their creative, tactical skills and use them in a structured way, to make a bigger difference. As a result, they should be more valued by their organisation and more fulfilled in their work.

2. Working as partners, enablers and collaborators. Internal comms professionals are usually dependent on other people to make things happen. We don’t have line responsibility for the organisation’s employees. We generally don’t have huge budgets. We can’t force people to do what we’d like them to do, whether it’s the project manager who brings us into conversations too late or the leader who puts communication at the bottom of their priority list.

This means a comms expert must be able to influence, coach, facilitate and consult. They    also need the skills to manage their own inner resources. And, in a role where they can      find themselves pulled in many directions with multiple stakeholders, they must           effectively prioritise where, and with whom, to invest their time and energy.

3. Helping organisations transform. Working with change is part and parcel of a communication professional’s job. Science is bringing us a growing understanding of how people’s brains respond to change and what influences our behaviours. I’m fascinated by this whole area, and the insights it offers communicators to support people’s experience of transformation and work more effectively with behavioural change.

All three areas were important when I first started out. Like many communicators, I landed in a standalone role, reporting to a manager based elsewhere, supporting an operational management team and trying to work out what I should be doing. I fell into producing newsletters, posters, trying to ‘improve morale’, giving out the Christmas gifts and generally doing what I was asked to do … until I stumbled upon the idea of using communication in a strategic way and the lightbulb went on. I met my first challenging stakeholder on my very first day – he arrived at my desk, announced the previous post holder had been ‘useless’, and asked to see my action plan. Meanwhile my organisation battled with periods of industrial action as new technology appeared on the horizon, destined to carry out the work people were currently doing. Sound familiar?

Years later, I’m still looking for ways to make a bigger difference, to organisations and the people in it. The need to influence, coach, facilitate – and manage my own emotions when things get heated or frustrating – are all still there. Change still brings its challenges; behaviours have never become miraculously easy to change. I’m always learning and constantly looking for ways to step up a gear.

My point is that whilst tools and channels change, I believe these three areas are timeless essentials for any communications practitioner. Over the years I’ve worked with thousands of communicators whilst they stood back from their day job for a few days and looked for opportunities to learn new skills, re-set habits and boost their resolve and confidence. I’m grateful the original and well-loved Melcrum Black Belt, which I co-wrote with Liam FitzPatrick, made a difference to so many people.

Now my tools and frameworks have found a new home in my Comms Expert workshops. Still focused on the timeless essentials and updated with additional frameworks and a smattering of insights from neuro- and behavioural- science.

Strategic Communications Expert: use communication as a business enabler

Collaborative Comms Expert: help others see and use the power of communication

Transformational Comms Expert: smooth the path to organisational change

I hope they help many more communicators feel inspired, re-energised and equipped with new tools to make a positive difference in their organisation And I know I’ll learn something from every one of them I meet. Looking forward to it!

Guest Post By Sue Dewhurst


About Sue Dewhurst

Sue Dewhurst

Over the past fifteen years, employee communication expert Sue Dewhurst has built a reputation for being the best in the business. She is a creator, trainer, coach and trusted advisor to leaders and professional communicators all over the world.

She co-created the first ever Internal Communications Competency Framework, as well as the renowned Melcrum Internal Communication Black Belt programme, which was completed by over 4000 communicators globally. Her models and frameworks are used in organisations worldwide.

Her first book, ‘Successful Employee Communications’, published by Kogan Page is available now.