15 things I’ve learnt so far from LG Comms Future Leader Programme

I am on the 2017 LG Comms Future Leader Programme and I’m very glad I took the time to fill in the application form. I followed the journey of the previous cohort and knew I’d get a lot from the scheme. I didn’t quite realise how much value I would wring from this opportunity already. 
To kick the programme off, there were Best Practice days in London last month. These were two of the most valuable days of CPD I have done in the last five years. We heard from some awesome people in our industry, and we also had the space to consider what sort of leaders we want to become. It left me with a lot to take on board.

We spent day one at London Councils with Heads and Directors of Comms, experts in leadership, and social media, and finance colleagues too.

Day two consisted of spending the day in one of the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms learning about the incredible Government Communications Service (GCS) led by Executive Director for Government Communications Alex Aiken.

I’m grateful to LG Comms, the Local Government Association, GCS and all the speakers who took time to see us in September, as well as my line manager Emily for her support.

I’d like to share with you some of the takeaways that have stuck with me:

  1. Make your comms human scale. If you’re talking about something large, break it down so it opens the door to a bigger conversation.
  2. What you rather from your team? Two years working at 100% or 20 years at 20%?
  3. A great leader is not afraid to ask for help
  4. The scale of the funding gap for local government is immense over the coming years and we more than ever need to work closely with our finance teams
  5. Bring leaders of the organisation with you. Let them know what you’re doing and why. Don’t assume the cogs in their heads work in the same way as yours do.
  6. Take time to think about what leader you want to be by writing the retirement tribute you want to hear in the future
  7. Anti-abstract comms messaging, such as “build a wall”, can help your audience see this in their mind
  8. Think commercially to become a successful at self-funding your Communications Team, such as thinking as an agency and upskilling your team to pitch to new clients
  9. By better managing your client expectations, you can reduce the out of hours demands placed on your team 
  10. Work with your internal clients to train them in outcome setting – this will pay dividends when you come to evaluate your comms
  11.  Use the Hemingway App to refine your writing. Seriously, it’s excellent. (This blog has a grade 7 good rating.)
  12. Alex Aiken cites the 3Gs for leadership: grace, grit and goals. He also recommends Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit”, which I’m working my way through.
  13. Use data and evidence to speak truth to power
  14. The future is bright for the use of data within government to strengthen communications. I’m watching to see the outcomes of their data analysts/scientists/journalist.
  15. Don’t develop best practice in silos – read/watch/do/share

I’m looking forward to seeing our group next week when we all head up to Leeds for Comms Academy – which looks like a cracking lineup.

You can read more about the Future Leaders Programme on the LG Comms website.


PR Week: So, you want my job?


Earlier this year I took part in PR Week’s ‘So, you want my job?” feature, to give an insider look at my role within the fire and rescue service.

The original article was published on PR Week.


Sarah Roberts


Comms Manager, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service

Starting salary/salary band for the job: 

£35k upwards

What qualifications do you need? 
A degree or relevant equivalent experience. A professional qualification does help and shows commitment to continuous learning – I completed the CIPR Diploma and this was a fantastic foundation to build upon and my next step is to become Chartered.
What level of experience do you need? 

A strong understanding of what makes people tick and how internal communications can drive employee engagement is a must, particularly through periods of massive change. And in our world, the pace of public sector reform is not slowing.

Is previous experience in a public sector comms role necessary/useful? 

While I don’t think it’s necessary, I do think an appreciation of the political dimension and how this affects decision-making is helpful. New perspectives from people outside the public sector are useful to challenge our thinking.

What are the main day-to-day challenges? 

75 per cent of our fire service staff are operational firefighters, based at 51 fire stations across Essex, so keeping this remote part of our workforce up-to-date is a constant challenge. Smoke signals are not an option!

What is the best part of the job? 

Knowing my role helps (even in small way) to make peoples’ lives safer, and having the privilege of working with some incredibly talented people keeps me coming back for more.

What is the most unusual fact you know as a result of this job? 

The current UK fire and rescue service is 96% white and 95% male – we need to progress diversity in our sector to reflect the communities we serve. This is a massive priority for fire service reform.

If you get an interview, do say…

What’s your biggest comms challenge? …here’s how I can solve it.

If you get an interview, don’t say… 

I don’t enjoy variety and facing new challenges every day. Oh, and I especially don’t respond well to changing priorities.

If you’re good at this job you might also be well-suited to… 
A professional plate-spinner – keeping a lot of comms projects going at any one time.

PR Week: Empower emergency service employees to take over social media for added authenticity

So far this year we’ve learnt that trust in government institutions, media, businesses and NGOs has plummeted to an all-time low.

Set against this backdrop, change is coming thick and fast in the public sector. Devolution, digital transformation and fire service reform are all on the horizon, and comms professionals, more than ever, need to think about how they are going to keep pace.

At a time when budgets are falling, leadership teams’ expectations of what comms departments need to deliver have never been higher.

And what’s clear is that it’s not just about doing more with less; it’s about being more impactful with what you’ve got.

It’s up to communicators to get beneath the skin of what the change means for the future delivery of public services and determine who it’s actually affecting. When it comes to the crunch, communicators must focus attention where it matters.

The Policing and Crime Bill will receive royal assent imminently, enabling Police and Crime Commissioners to take on the functions and duties of fire and rescue authorities.

While this is big news for fire, for the general public as long as blue light emergency services respond in their hour of the need – whether that’s a firefighter extinguishing a fire or a paramedic responding to a cardiac arrest – people aren’t concerned with changes in governance and scrutiny arrangements.

Internal communications, however, will be essential in the months to come, for both police and fire.

Front-line staff managing local social media accounts is on the rise as the value of loosening the reigns on comms channels and empowering employees is realised.

There’s always a risk in having your people post content, although it’s outweighed by engaging communities through the unique perspective of the individuals who do the job.

This is significant as employees are now viewed as the most trusted spokesperson of an organisation, and in a world where the public demand the truth, this is one way of providing it.

There are so many great examples of NHS trust staff talking directly to patients and local fire stations showing their community why inconsiderate parking delays their response to emergencies.

One Twitter account that sticks out is The Coastguard Team, who share the adventures of the ‘wee guys’, their Lego Coastguard team, as well as coastal safety messaging, and this was all created by one of their volunteers.


So while budgets may go down, there’s ample opportunity to be more impactful with what you’ve already got – employees and their perspectives are a great place to start.

The original article published on PR Week is available here.

2016 Book Challenge in the bag!

So 2016 is up and I’ve managed to complete the 52 week book challenge. Overall I’ve enjoyed most of the books I have read this year – I discovered Bernard Cromwell – who is a compelling historical fiction writer and I have been utterly moved by the words of Alice Walker in the Color Purple. I finally got round to reading Harper Lee’s classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and I’m glad I read it at this time in my life as I think I appreciated it more than I would have in my teenage years.

Here’s the 52 books I read this year:

  1. Rose of Sarajevo – Ayse Kulin
  2. Before I go to Sleep – S J Watson
  3. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  4. The Dalai Lama’s Book of Wisdom – Dalai Lama XIV
  5. Mr Mercedes – Stephen King
  6. The Bees – Laline Paul
  7. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  8. Katherine – Anya Seton
  9. Secrets of the Sea House – Elisabeth Gifford
  10. 1984 – George Orwell
  11. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
  12. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  13. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
  14. Bricking It – Nick Spalding
  15. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
  16. Red Queen – Victoria Aveyard
  17. The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell
  18. Thoughts on Life and Advertising – Hugh Salmon
  19. How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran
  20. The Master of Strathburn – Amy Rose Bennett
  21. The Miniaturist – Jesse Burton
  22. The Paper Magician – Charlie Holmberg
  23. The Valley – Helen Bryan
  24. Broke Back Mountain – Annie Proulx
  25. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings – Gabriel Garcia
  26. Fish – Stephen Lundin
  27. Me Before You – Jojo Moyes
  28. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  29. Women Who Don’t Wait in Line – Reshma Saujani
  30. Pleasure Island- Anna-Lou Weatherly
  31. Finders Keepers – Stephen King
  32. Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee
  33. The Adventuress – Tasha Alexander
  34. The Thread – Victoria Hislop
  35. The Taming of the Queen – Phillips Gregory
  36. End of the Watch – Stephen King
  37. The Girl with No Nmae – Diney Costeloe
  38. The Pale Horseman – Bernard Cornwell
  39. Lords of the North – Bernard Cromwell
  40. Glass Sword – Victoria Aveyard
  41. Sword Song – Bernard Cromwell
  42. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  43. A Snow Garden and Other Stories – Rachel Joyce
  44. Who Moved my Cheese? – Spencer Johnson
  45. Glitch – Hugh Howey
  46. Death of Kings – Bernard Cromwell
  47. The Pagan Lord – Bernard Cromwell
  48. The Call of the Wild – Jack London
  49. My Wife’s Story – Richard Babcock
  50. The Most Dangerous Game – Richard Connell
  51. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  52. The Empty Throne – Bernard Cromwell

Unmentoring: How four simple conversations have changed my year

unmentoringFor the last five months I’ve been taking part in LocalGovDigital’s Unmentoring scheme, which is an unconventional approach to mentoring using Spark Collaboration technology. Every month I’ve been randomly matched to another person taking part and so far I’ve had many valuable conversations with colleagues from across the UK.

I’d like to give a summary of some of the amazing people I have crossed paths with and my key learning from the discussions we’ve had. It’s reminded me that every person – no matter who they are, or where they are from – offers a unique perspective on their area of work.

Carl Haggerty – February 2016
Key learning: Think, Share, Do

My first match was with Carl Haggerty, Digital Communications Manager at Devon County Council. As this was the first time I’d ever taken part in the scheme, I didn’t know what to expect, and what struck me most was Carl’s passion and conviction for using digital technology for the greater good.

Something we both found common ground around was that during periods of massive transformation it’s important to create systems and a culture for engagement to prevail and not be reliant on individuals.

A comment that Carl said that really resonated with me was: “It’s about the sweet spot between humanity, technology and democracy. Which is not being represented in the conversation?”

He also shared with me a campaign around 100 days of change which captured stories from across his organisation. It was incredibly successful as it appreciated change is complex, but can also be good.

Instead of over-thinking, just get stuck in and involved.

Clare Salmon – March 2016
Key learning: Manage expectations through reducing budgets

After a successful first Unmentoring session I was matched with Clare Salmon, Corporate Strategy, Policy and Intelligence Manager from Cornwall Council.

Clare and I were able to draw similarities from our working lives around how we translate often complex and nuanced things in meaningful ways for our publics. I’m sure this is something most communications professionals on some level have to handle – but it was so lovely to hear from Clare this was the case – we are all in the same boat!

We also spoke about how we handle expectations placed on our respective departments and I think bloggers Comms2point0 phrased it nicely in their recent post – “You can’t do more with less. You need to be realistic with the size of the boat you’ve got.

Lucy Knight – April 2016
Key learning: Be empathetic of those who hold back from adopting new technology

My conversation with Lucy Knight, Policy/Strategy Officer at Devon County Council focused on empowering and connecting people through digital.

As Lucy is well versed in the latest technology, I asked her about how she has successfully managed to get people to adopt new systems and ways of working. I took away a good lesson that while some people are ready and willing to adopt, other people may hold it back, but not for reasons you might think. Perhaps it doesn’t fit with their life or work flow – and moreover some people may not want to do digital. We need to have empathy for what it is like for them and offer encouragement on a different level.

I also took away a super idea of a rumour board which I’ve begun thinking how it could be used in my organisation – where people use an open forum to ask questions about anything in the workplace they have heard to get the right information following hearing a rumour. How awesome is that?!

Stewart John – May 2016
Key learning: It’s not what you do, it’s how you’re doing it

John Stewart is a new Communications and Engagement Manager at the DVLA in Wales and I enjoyed our conversation as I felt we were both at similar points in our organisations -relatively new with a passion to make a difference.

I loved John’s approach around getting more things done by focusing on the positives. We spoke a great deal around perception – it’s not what you do, it’s how you’re doing it – and this is something that I personally pride myself on. You choose your attitude, and whilst you often can’t change the circumstances, you can change how you react to them.

I also thought John’s approach to making sure there is an evidence base for change was great. We need to get our communications internal clients to gather the evidence to justify why they need to communicate rather than it just being opinion based.

You can sign up for Unmentoring here.

The TED talk I’ve enjoyed most in 2016


I don’t know about you, but I love a TED talk. The chance to hear a new perspective and gain insight into areas I know about, and more often than not areas I don’t know about, excites me.

I was fascinated to know what TED stood for – technology, entertainment and design – and I’d listened to many talks and only recently learned this.

The talk I’ve enjoyed listening to the most in 2016 is Celeste Headlee’s: 10 ways to have a better conversation. It’s an obvious one for me that communication is important in my line of work and I’m always interested in having more impact and strengthening relationships around me.
Celeste explains that in a recent study of 10,000 people, it showed we are more than ever divided by polarised opinions, and less likely to listen to one another. She says somewhere we lost the way to balance speaking and listening, and this is partly down to technology – though it’s not entirely to blame.

The quote I loved the most from Celeste was “I listen to be amazed”, which means we have to truly listen to seek out what amazing gems the other person has hidden.

Watch it for yourself and try out her 10 tips – they’re definitely something to try and live by.

TED description: When your job hinges on how well you talk to people, you learn a lot about how to have conversations — and that most of us don’t converse very well. Celeste Headlee has worked as a radio host for decades, and she knows the ingredients of a great conversation: Honesty, brevity, clarity and a healthy amount of listening. In this insightful talk, she shares 10 useful rules for having better conversations. “Go out, talk to people, listen to people,” she says. “And, most importantly, be prepared to be amazed.”

18 down, 34 to go …


I never tend to make New Years resolutions, as I’m generally rubbish at sticking to them. Why set yourself up to inevitably fail and kick yourself when you do?
However this year is different.

I had seen a number of 52 week challenges in 2015 and I loved how they broke down massive goals into bite sized chunks a week at a time. This to me sounded like people had hacked resolutions – how awesome is that!

So this year is my first ever I have set a New Years resolution, well the first ever stuck to for longer than a week, and my aim is to read 52 books, averaging one a week.

I use Goodreads as a way of tracking what I’ve read, and it beautifully lets you know how far off your yearly reading goal you are.

I’ve managed to read my way through 18 books – some older, some newer books – and it’s striking what I’ve found. I’ve been changed as a person by some of these books and namely by the ones written in the middle of the last century. A Town Like Alice was such a beautiful tale – it showed me that a good story is a good story no matter when it was told.

I came across The Color Purple as part of Emma Watson’s ‘Our Shared Shelf’ feminist book club and I was inspired that the human spirit can endure and overcome so much.

Here’s the entire list of what I’ve read so far in 2016 (as of 29 April):

  • Rose of Sarajevo – Ayse Kulin
  • Before I go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • The Dalai Lama’s Book of Wisdom – Dalai Lama XIV
  • Mr Mercedes – Stephen King
  • The Bees – Laline Paul
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  • Katherine – Anya Seton
  • Secrets of the Sea House – Elisabeth Gifford
  • 1984 – George Orwell
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
  • A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  • A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
  • Bricking It – Nick Spalding
  • Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Red Queen – Victoria Aveyard
  • The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell
  • Thoughts on Life and Advertising – Hugh Salmon

I’m currently reading Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, which I’m devouring at great speed.

What else should I read to help to 52? I’d be interested in hearing your book recommendations, so drop me a comment

PR Conference – What Journalists want, FE Sector

I’m excited to be attending the upcoming conference ‘What Journalists want, FE Sector’, organised by The Last Word Events & Training on 29 November held at Kings College, London.

The wide variety of guest speakers will make this an insightful and interesting event, in particular I am looking forward to hearing Jeevan Vasagar, former Education Editor for the Guardian session speak about the day in the life of a journalist and also Tracey Playle, of Pickle Jar Communications cover the role of social media in the FE Sector.

If this conference had taken place two months prior to the November date, it would have proved to have been even more useful to aid the completion of my CIPR Diploma final project which was consequently on the role of Social Media on Further Education!

All the same, it will be great to gather amongst like-minded PR’s attending the event and share best practice ideas.