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Beyond the organogram – Shaping comms teams for future challenges

9 February 2021

No communications leader will truly thrive without the right people, skills and mindsets in their team. In part four of our Beyond the Organogram series, we look at how some comms leaders are shaping their teams to meet the challenges of 2021 and beyond.

The rise in ‘T-shaped’ skills

We have noted a trend towards bringing comms functions under a single reporting line to create a stronger audience focus. But reporting lines can only go so far in breaking down functional silos.  You also need the right structure and team culture.

Comms leaders are now actively shaping job descriptions and recruiting for ‘T-shaped people’. If you’re not familiar with the concept, imagine a capital T. The vertical line represents the specialist functional knowledge and experience that someone brings to a role.  The horizontal line represents their ability to collaborate with colleagues across other specialisms and use the knowledge gained to achieve collective objectives.

As Wellcome Trust’s Dan Metcalfe explains: “I don’t want to hire a media relations manager that’s only interested in media coverage, you want to move people away from being too siloed, too inflexible, too focused on outputs over impact.”

The theory is that teams with a critical mass of these kinds of roles are better placed to spot cross-organisational opportunities and dependencies and will naturally gravitate towards more integrated outputs.

Boosting strategic capacity

It’s the evergreen challenge for comms leaders: how to balance everyday comms delivery, plus the inevitable firefighting, with a strong strategic approach.

Most comms leaders we interviewed were grappling with this.  It was heartening, therefore, to hear of charities (of varying size) creating specific roles to boost strategic planning and management capacity.

Crisis is one charity that has invested in this area. In 2020 their Head of Marketing and Communications, Kate Nightingale, created two new posts: a Strategic Communications Project Manager and a Communications Planning and Strategy Manager. “The team was under resourced against the ambition of the organisation. We were constantly struggling to get on the front foot. We want to flip how we’re seen. For people to think ‘how are marketing and comms going to help us achieve our aims’ rather than being given things at the end of a process.”

Crucially, Kate wanted these roles to be seen as ‘neutral’ and cross-organisational from the outset – so was careful to reflect this in where the posts sat and their reporting lines.  She also ensured they had a strong focus and a ‘ring-fenced’ remit:  

“The day-to-day service elements are important and don’t ever stop,” says Kate.  “You have to get the basics right before you are trusted to step into that strategic space.  Creating roles away from direct delivery and churn has been helpful.”

It is important to emphasise (if you need to make your own case around this) that Crisis wasn’t a sole outlier here.  More capacity at leadership level and strategic planning posts are being created elsewhere. And both Mind and Prostate Cancer UK are boosting their strategic approach through enhanced brand management roles.

“Bringing in new skills in brand has enabled us to think much more strategically about how brand can build a  sense of common purpose across our network,” says Mind’s Annabel Davis.

Everyone needs to do digital

This theme is not revelatory but bears repeating (particularly if briefing boards or trustees who do not have deep comms knowledge). Digital skills can no longer sit in isolated pockets within organisations – there need to be digital literacy across comms teams as a whole.

Creating and sustaining a strong, healthy culture

In our work, we are constantly dipping in and out of team cultures. We have seen first-hand how influential culture is to comms teams’ motivation, resilience and agility. It took a pandemic, however, to hammer this home at a sector-wide level.  It is now clear that when a crisis hits, a strong organisational culture matter. This realisation appears to be impacting on comms roles and skills in two ways. 

Firstly, recruitment experts are reporting a rise in the number of internal comms jobs. Interestingly, these are almost all senior, permanent roles, and created on the assumption that remote working and employee engagement will remain high on the agenda for charities post pandemic.

Secondly, charities are now explicitly looking for comms leaders with the personal attributes and skills to create a healthy, productive team culture. Annabel Prideaux of Taylor Bennett describes this as “Leaders that can build a communications function that people want to be part of, and which other parts of the organisation can see serves their needs.”

Many comms leaders already lean into this way of working by instinct. However, these skills need development, investment and, most importantly, time. And for every comms leader’s mental health and wellbeing it is vital charities take on board this advice from CharityComms trustee Lucy Devine: 

“To create a strong team culture takes real time and real awareness. It’s not an add on to your duties, it’s one of your core duties as a leader and it needs to be prioritised”.

Watch out for our final blog in the Beyond the Organogram series where we’ll be reflecting on what comms leaders told us about the rise in agile working – and its application across charities of all sizes.

A note on methodology: We gathered this information in interviews with 16 comms leaders towards the end of 2020. It is therefore based on a snapshot in time and can’t reflect the charity sector as a whole.

This is #4 in our Beyond the organogram series which looks at comms team culture and structure. Check out instalments #1, #2, #3 and #5 here.

Photo: Boba Jaglicic on Unsplash

Selina Fox

director, RandallFox

Selina Fox is a director and co-founder of RandallFox. RandallFox specialises in strategic comms support for charities with the goal of helping teams develop greater clarity, focus and direction so that they can make more of an impact. Services provided by RandallFox include supporting team development and structure; strategic planning; audience focus, research and message development; facilitation and coaching. 

Contributors

Thank you to the following for sharing their experience and expertise and helping to shape the ‘Beyond the Organogram’ blog series: Caroline Bernard, Head of Policy and Communications, Homeless Link; Annabel Davis, Head of Communications and Marketing, Mind; Ali Day, Director of Communications, Prostate Cancer UK; Lucy Devine, former Director of Communications for a national equality charity; Daniel Fluskey, Head of Policy and Research, Chartered Institute of Fundraising; Joe Jenkins, Director of Supporter Impact and Income, The Children’s Society; Felicity Lowes, Head of Health and Social Care, Ellwood Atfield; Matt Horwood, Director of Communications and Campaigns, akt; Laura Mason, Head of Marketing and Communications, The London Wildlife Trust; Dan Metcalfe, Head of Brand and Communication Campaigns, Wellcome Trust; Kate Nightingale, Head of Marketing and Communications, Crisis; Annabel Prideaux, Practice Lead (third sector), Taylor Bennett; Claudine Snape, Deputy Director: Communications; The National Deaf Children’s Society; Kristopher Gravning, Manager, Aleron; plus contributors who wished to remain anonymous.