1. What does a Group Director of Communications actually do?
I’m responsible for the reputation of the organisation, contributing to a good internal culture and keeping relevant people informed about relevant matters so they can operate effectively. When you think about it, those are all things everyone who works for us are also responsible for!
2. Can you lead us through a timeline of a typical day in the office?
It sounds clichéd, but no two days are the same. I probably have a rough split between progressing long-term planned activity and helping to manage communications about newsworthy developments, events and any challenges faced at Group level or at our 19 or so venues nationwide.
First thing in the morning most comms people will want to be aware of any news or comment of relevance that has been published or broadcast, but these days so much media is immediate and at any time of day, and you tend to be across output that will appear in the next day’s newspapers the night before with stories being filed online and front and back pages being released onto social media.
If you have an announcement about something that usually takes up a morning and potentially with interviews through the day, otherwise you’re progressing the various internal and external communications projects you’re working on to deliver against your overall plan.
If it’s Monday we have a Group Comms team meeting to discuss forthcoming activity and share new ideas to achieve our objectives. If it’s Tuesday or Wednesday I sit down one-on-one with team members, which are really valuable hours, even though in an open plan environment and through the power of technology of course we’re speaking all the time. On a Friday we have a call with our comms agency to discuss progress. In a day you probably receive 100 emails and when you’re ‘in-house’ like me (rather than a PR consultant) that includes sales bumph you could really do without! You are also likely to make and receive various calls, usually with colleagues all around the country who might be looking to you for advice or keeping you in the loop on information, with media about stories, requests or insights, and with suppliers about projects you’re delivering.
As horseracing happens almost every day of the year in Britain and The Jockey Club stages some of the biggest sports events in the UK calendar, we’re a busy company. When you factor in that right now there’ll be a social media conversation of relevance to you going on, a typical day is a non-stop but fulfilling one!
3. How do you become a Director of Communications?
There isn’t a prescribed route. To get into communications in the first instance, I think gaining relevant work experience is the most essential door opener and then you need to prove you’re really bright with a good attitude. Comms isn’t rocket science, but if you want to be successful you need to be pretty switched on, have great instincts and work incredibly hard at it. You need to care about what you’re working on else don’t bother starting. If your organisation suffers damage to its reputation that can cost jobs, lose investors money miss out on partnerships that can achieve great things and so on.
In my case, educationally I did a BA Hons degree in English Language & Linguistics and then a postgrad at the highly-regarded Cardiff School of Journalism. During the postgrad I worked one day a week at a PR consultancy in Cardiff and then a month at Easter at a top 5 PR agency in London. They offered me a job but in case they didn’t I also interviewed at a couple of other big London agencies. I joined one of them, starting as the junior guy working on big and exciting global PR accounts. I worked hard to make myself invaluable to the more senior people and clients, and was part of some award-winning campaigns. After two years the phone rang and it was the world’s largest PR firm, Weber Shandwick. I’d been recommended to them by a former colleague.
I joined Weber Shandwick as an Account Manager in the corporate division run by the former Political Editor of The Sunday Times, which was a real ‘sink or swim’ operation. That was fantastic for a committed and driven young person because you are given every chance to succeed and gain more responsibility. Having started working on the Sochi 2014 Olympic bid upon joining in 2006, by 2008 I was running the sports practice as Head of Sport alongside my colleague from the consumer division, Fiona McLachlan. I was then headhunted to join The Jockey Club after getting back from the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Working in-house is a great place to be as long as it’s as broad and varied as our organisation because unlike agency, the buck stops with you!
4. What are the qualities needed to be a Director of Communications and what have you learned since being in the role?
I think the human qualities are: being passionate about what you do, putting yourself forward, learning from everything, bringing fresh ideas, embracing teamwork, earning trust, not settling for ‘okay’ and never giving up.
The more professional qualities are the obvious ones about being a skilled communicator. You need to be a strategic thinker with a clear idea of why you might do something and be able to model the outcome of your actions in advance. You need to know what motivates or moves a particular audience and how to achieve that. You probably also need to be a great writer and relationship-builder. Being calm under pressure and favouring collaboration are also qualities I think are essential.
5. Can you tell us about a project/task within your career that you have particularly enjoyed?
Most recently it was fantastic to plan and lead our communications campaign to raise nearly £25 million from the first retail bond in British sport, which is capital that has gone towards our £45 million grandstand development at Cheltenham Racecourse. You shouldn’t need a trophy gathering dust to feel a sense of achievement inside else you’re probably in the wrong job, but we won a few PR industry awards for that campaign. But I guess the most ‘exhilarating’ project had to be helping Sochi to win its Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bid. It was a bit surreal to be jumping up and down with Olympic champions, cultural icons, politicians and billionaire business chiefs when the vote came in, but more importantly you knew you had been part of something with resonance for hundreds of millions of people and hopefully a vehicle for positive change through sport. For example, in Russia attitudes towards people with a perceived disability were pretty poor, mainly through ignorance, so I was pleased to hear that programmes launched around the Paralympic Games had really seen a shift in views and behaviour.