Looking back on the Mooch’s short – and not so sweet – tenure as White House Communications Director, what is it that makes a great communications chief?
White House Communications Director – as comms gigs go, it’s a biggie. And Antony ‘The Mooch’ Scaramucci will go down in infamy as the one who literally let it get away. In July, he was fired by President Trump after only 10 days in office.
So – expletive-filled rants aside – where did Scaramucci go wrong? What key skills do you need to be a successful and effective communications director? AQ turned to Nick Purnell, Communications Manager at leading UK farming and food producer Tulip Ltd, and Andrew Harvey, Executive Director at VMAGROUP for advice.
Meet the experts
Nick heads up corporate communications, which includes PR, internal communication, corporate branding and corporate affairs. He says the primary purpose of a communications leader is to “proactively promote and protect your organisation’s reputation”.
“To do that you need to have a clear mandate and the absolute confidence and trust of your CEO. You may wear lots of different hats – whether that’s PR or employee engagement – and you’re often one of the few constants in many situations. You’re in a better position than others to see the bigger picture.”
VMAGROUP are communications and marketing recruitment specialists, and Andrew focuses principally on internal communication roles.
“Our expertise comes from our vast experience,” he says. “We speak to around 1,000 communications professionals every week, and we run a number of industry reports, looking at skills, challenges and development opportunities.”
Can you outlive the Mooch? A checklist
I am more than internal communication
Both Nick and Andrew agree – in the past, internal communication has been separated from other corporate communication functions (such as PR and brand), but today they need to be side by side.
Nick says: “There’s both an expectation and a responsibility to be open and honest with our audiences, whether internal or external. There’s no way that you can effectively deliver for an internal audience if it isn’t joined up with what you’re saying externally.”
Andrew adds: “When recruiting for senior positions, organisations used to ask for pure internal communication experience. Now they want something much broader and internal communication professionals who also have experience of marketing, PR and so on are in high demand.”
I understand content
No matter how far up the food chain you get, the ability to deliver clear, concise messaging is key. Nick says: “I still fall back on the skills I gained at the beginning of my career as a journalist to grasp the complexity of different scenarios and translate that for a wider audience.”
I have the confidence to challenge authority figures
For their report ‘Beyond Communications: A CEO perspective of reputation leadership’, VMAGROUP spoke to 40 CEOs about what they value in a communications director. Andrew says there was an overwhelming consensus that they want someone who has the confidence and knowledge to challenge them.
“It can be daunting to challenge someone in authority,” says Andrew. “But it’s your job to make sure they’re making the right decisions – and to tell them when they could be going wrong.”
Nick adds: “A lot of senior people think they have a full grasp of what the communications role is about but remember that you’re the expert. Don’t be afraid to fight your corner – it’s what you are being paid for.”
I get business
Andrew says: “We berate political leaders for being out of touch with real business and issues – the same goes for communication leaders. It helps if you’re business-minded and financially savvy, so you can understand the wider impact of your decisions.”
I work well with people
Nick says: “As a communicator, you are a conduit who needs to engage with others to get input so you can produce an output. Just as journalists rely on their contact book, corporate communicators need a strong network of key company stakeholders to keep them well informed.”
I am still learning
“The biggest mistake a corporate communicator can make is to neglect their professional development,” says Nick. “You need to remind yourself there’s a wider world outside your organisation, and keep an eye on the latest trends and technology, or risk being left behind.”
Andrew agrees, quoting figures from VMAGROUP’s 2017 ‘Inside Insight’ survey of internal communication professionals. “Nearly half of respondents don’t invest more than an hour a week in their own professional development,” he says. “Additionally, 66 per cent haven’t been on a relevant training course in the last 12 months.”
I think strategically
For Andrew, it’s all about ‘gravitas’. He says: “At a junior level, you can get away with just doing the job, but a senior communicator needs to have a strategic mind-set to make it work.”
In a similar vein, Nick says you need to have that appreciation of the organisation’s strategy, but also have your own. “You need to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to get there,” he says. “Although, of course you’ll need to remain flexible. What was working 18 months ago may not make sense now.”
We all know it by now: measurement is key to internal communication success. And as a communications director, data can be your best friend. Nick says: “Of course you need to trust your own judgement, which is based on personal experience and expertise, but it will only get you so far…ultimately it’s still just opinion. Use measurement and data to back you up.”
I am resilient
One of the killer traits for Andrew is resilience. “We meet a lot of communication professionals who face the same challenges, but the ones who get to the top are those who push through difficult times. Don’t automatically give up when the going gets tough and leave for another job or company – be courageous and develop the resilience to deal with tricky situations.”