Ten things I learned in my first year in public sector comms

It can be frustrating - even heart-breaking at times - but it's a fantastic place to be, so here are 10 things that, on reflection, were valuable lessons to learn in my first year.

‘Evaluation’ can mean ‘how many lives have we saved?’, writes Samantha Fielding (pic credit: GettyImages)
‘Evaluation’ can mean ‘how many lives have we saved?’, writes Samantha Fielding (pic credit: GettyImages)

1. Joining comms is like joining a support group

Public sector comms people bear a likeness to the old people you find at the front of a bus. I’ve never worked with a group of people who are so willing to share advice and experience.

Put a question out into the ether, and someone will answer. No matter how stupid, or how many times it has been asked before. And that’s pretty magical.

2. You’ll never know everything…

When we’re faced with a nightmare, my team calls it a 'development opportunity'. When the proverbial has already hit the fan, we call it a 'learning experience'. Every day I learn something new about how things work, and how things have to work – it keeps you on your toes.

3. …but your unique expertise as a comms person can mean the difference between success and failure

There have been many times over the past year that communications input has really 'saved the day'. Without wanting to sound too big headed, I've seen how rewording guidelines, training people before giving interviews, and completely redesigning consultation documents in the space of 24 hours has really helped the organisation achieve its goals – with no distractions and no nasties.

4. 'Evaluation' can mean 'How many lives have we saved?'

It can sometimes be hard to evaluate things in the NHS – there's never enough time, and it can be a bit trickier than using URL-tracking to find out how many people have bought your bespoke, hand-crafted fidget spinners. But ultimately our work can contribute to saving lives, and we should all take the time to bask in our collective glory – evaluation is key to this. 

5. You don't have to just put up with change, you have to have a relationship with it

Though we get a bad rep for being stuck in the past, the public sector changes almost as frequently as you change your underwear. Structures, remits, objectives, the lot.

6. 'Sparkly' quick wins don't have to mean missing out on substance

Every communications specialist I've met has a trigger word that can send them spiralling into a bottomless pit of despair – quite often the word is 'app'; for us, it used to be 'video'. However, we’ve found that when we use these things properly, they can really add something to culture change and reputation.

7. Partnership working can be tricky, but so worth it

With our wit and increasingly dry sense of humour, communications people are usually the life and soul of the party (albeit a party where people are encouraged to donate organs and frequently complain about bins). By working together we’re creating a consistent, reliable voice for the public.

8. People can be both for and against you, very often at the same time

It's a very confusing place to be sometimes, when everyone wants to 'save' the NHS but doesn’t trust you to do it. To see people so passionate in a world of 'slacktivism' is refreshing – it’s just a shame that you sometimes represent the thing that they're passionately against.

9. You'll find yourself doing all sorts of things that weren't in the job description

Over the past year I've found myself writing cake critiques down for GBBO’s Howard, making 'polite notices' to encourage toilet etiquette, and creating Spotify playlists for council meetings. It is in these moments that I try to remind myself that variety is what made me fall in love with this job.

10. It can give you a level of job satisfaction like no other

I was worried about how much difference I could actually make in communications, in our 'ivory tower' away from the blood and guts, but I was completely wrong. In any organisation, the comms team are the group of people who can help keep things together inside, and are the one point of contact to those on the outside. In the public sector, that means more than anywhere else.

Samantha Fielding is a comms assistant for NHS Sheffield CCG

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