“There’s no way you can be a leader without so many mistakes”

“There’s no way you can be a leader without so many mistakes”

I had the pleasure of catching up with Hel recently to talk about everything from social media creativity, perfectionism and storytelling for the blog’s latest spotlight.

I was inspired by Hel’s ‘give it a crack’ motto, which she embraced after quitting her fancy agency job five-weeks-in with no real plan in place.

Fast forward seven years and Hel is now at the helm ofComms Creativeswith her sister, Lesley, inspiring talented comms pros to harness their creativity and to use social media in a more impactful way.

 “In 2005, I took a temporary job in local government comms, which turned into a nine year career.

“I began faffing around with MySpace and I think we were actually the first council to use social media for community engagement.

“It was brilliant because I was making it up as I went along – there was no such thing as social media courses at the time!

“Soon after, Facebook came along and then Twitter. I carried on experimenting and over time, I became the social media person for the council.

“I had a great job and lovely colleagues but by the time I became a manager, I missed the creative, hands-on stuff.

“I didn’t realise at the time because I was just trying stuff out but the work I was delivering was pioneering and we won loads of awards! But, there are always barriers and I never really received a ‘well done’.

“I started to blog and people from other areas were really interested in what I was doing. I received loads of encouragement and it felt great!

“That’s when I took the private sector job but three days in, I realised it wasn’t a great fit for me.

“Lesley said I could live with her rent free if I wanted to quit so after 5 weeks, I left and began to freelance.

“Freelancing turned into loads of training gigs, which I loved. So seven years ago, I decided to turn it into a business.

“I wanted to focus on citizen engagement rather than just putting out messages and that’s what Comms Creatives is all about.

“Lesley and I run the company together, supporting mostly non-profit organisations to build confidence, be more creative and be a bit fearless about what they do.

“One of the main things I say is, don’t try and be perfect.  Perfectionism is the worst thing that you’ll ever have that will hold you back in your career.

“It’s okay to get things wrong because that’s how we learn and improve our craft. If you put something out and it works straight away, you won’t get the pleasure of those ‘AHA’ moments.

“I really want us to find that spirit of ‘let’s have a go’ but it isn’t an approach you can learn in a text book. It’s about learning by doing and receiving feedback from audiences.

“There’s no way you can be a leader in this field without so many mistakes but you lose the embarrassment after a while.

“And actually, there are studies like the Pratfall effect, which show how mistakes can make us – and our products – more likeable.

“The premise extends to social media too. It’s called social media, so we should be social and we should be human.

“Many organisations have values such as ‘person centred’ or ‘collaborative’. These values say an organisation is conversational and listens but often, their social media will say otherwise.

“If you’re a listening organisation then you need to lead by example and display these behaviours online too. If you don’t do what your values say then your customers won’t trust you.

“Being conversational on social media is one of the most public facing things you can do. It’s so high profile. If people just see you talking about yourself all of the time then they’re not going to connect. 

“So many people come to us saying they get negative comments on social media. I will encourage them to deal with the comments but often, what they actually want is to stop them in the first place.

“But that’s not realistic. You can’t stop them – we’re human and organisations can have flaws. You just want to be able to handle it and turn it around.

“It’s easy to want nice comments and have people thank you for your hard work but what you hardly see on there is organisations talking to individuals and thanking THEM. That’s what we explore with our clients; we encourage people to be conversational, not transactional.

“But sometimes, there are hurdles we need to cross to achieve this. I find that there are two main types of fear holding people back, stopping them from turning their comms into the best it can be.

“There’s external fear like, ‘what if this goes wrong’ or ‘what if it isn’t received well’.

“The second fear is self-limiting beliefs fuelling thoughts like ‘I don’t know enough about this’.

“These factors lead to people being risk-averse, preventing them from doing better work. And better work in my view is creative work.

“Creativity is about recognising that we need to try new and engaging ways to encourage people to talk to us.

“The organisations I work with inspire behaviour change. Their work is about doing good so yeah, I want people to be fearless and I don’t want them to worry about something going wrong because what they’re trying to achieve is amazing!

“It’s not always that easy though because even if you want to try new things, the culture of your organisation might prohibit you.

“To that, I’d say build your own confidence and make sure you’re clear on what you want to achieve. The first step in changing culture is changing yourself.

“It won’t happen overnight but if you find allies within your organisation and people who support your ideas, you’ll be in a better position.

“Perfectionism comes back into the mix here. Get your buy-in slowly by making small changes and getting them right. That’s the way to make a difference in your comms when you work for a risk-averse organisation.

“Being fearless and creative not only makes your work better but it will be more fun when you do the work and that’s what we got into the job for!

“It’s really important to have fun to be successful. Workloads are huge and comms teams are under a lot of pressure. If organisations don’t recognise that and don’t let their employees have a bit of fun, the team will break. It’s about comradeship and bonding.

“Think about social media. If a brand’s pages are dry and dull, you can guarantee that they’re not having any fun. How can you be fearless and have a go at something if you’re in an environment where you’re stressed and can’t experiment?

“Some people see the word ‘fun’ and think wacky or fluffy idiots who don’t know what they’re doing but think about Doncaster Council – it’s actually a sophisticated form of humour that will get people to listen.

“We’re not working down the mines! If we have an opportunity to have fun we should take it!

“The thing is, time is always the issue. We hear people say ‘we can’t invite too many comments on social media because it will give us more work’ but I’m like, ‘well if it gives you more work then you need to rethink your resources because that’s what you’re there for!’

 “What’s exciting for me about social media is that we get to know our audiences much better and we can keep changing things until we get the right answer. Back in the day, campaigns had to be perfect. Billboards and radio ads couldn’t be changed easily or cheaply. Now, it’s much more immediate. We can react to our audiences; we can see them and can respond to their feedback.

“But all of this is nothing without the right kind of measurement. There’s no point in reporting stats every month if they don’t tell the story of your platforms.

“This should be much more like an A4 infographic rather than a spreadsheet or a word document – it’s still content. If we’re creative with our external content, we should be creative with the internal content too.”

Tell me more about those comms cartoons:

I found a cartooning course by Martin Shovel who does cartoons for The Guardian and Private Eye.

It just brought me back to when I was a child and I wasn’t afraid to draw. I have to give a shout out to Asif Choudry because I boldly put my first cartoons on Twitter and even though I thought they were crap, Asif loved them and said if I did more, he would publish them in a book for #CommsHero.

This opportunity made me draw and the more I did it the more it became second nature as a way to communicate. I love drawing the more emotive ones like ‘the process of getting approval’ because they’re relatable and I can’t always think of another way to communicate those thoughts!

What advice would you give to your younger self?

All of those people who you think are brilliant at their job? They don’t know what they’re doing either!

The most professional people are making it up as they go along too – there is no magic formula for what you want to achieve.  I used to think that I wouldn’t be good at running my own business or being a manager. I used to think that the people who wrote strategies were magic people in suits but they’re not! They’ve just worked it out.

Whatever you want to do, you can find a way to do it but it won’t be perfect. You need to get over yourself and just give it a go. There’s nobody out there who is just good at stuff. They’re good at it because they crack on and try.

What three things would you include in your ‘survival kit’?

Podcasts  – I’m obsessed! I actually wouldn’t get anything done without them. Listening to podcasts while I’m putting my make-up on or doing some painting makes the task really enjoyable. ‘You’re not so smart’, ‘Blind Boy’ and ‘Creative Pep Talk’ are some of my favourites.

Social media – obviously! This is where I get to have conversations with people.

E-mail – my newsletter is one of the most rewarding things I do because people reply and tell me that it means something to them. I know what it’s like to feel de-motivated and the reason I want people to feel good is because life is hard! I want to remind people that they’re good so when I get feedback from people saying ‘this made me feel better’ – that’s the best part of my job.