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Canberra communication professionals series: Melanie Gibbons

9 Jun 2020

For the last six months, Melanie Gibbons has been profiling Canberra communication professionals on her blog. We turned the tables on her and asked her to answer her own questions.

Tell us about your role.

I started Elm Communications two years ago (this week!) after leaving the public service. Elm is a strategic communications consultancy working primarily with government clients. I have been lucky enough to work with large and small government agencies on some really interesting projects like Machinery of Government changes, organ donation, providing support for entrepreneurs and reducing Australia’s waste.

Before starting Elm, I was the manager of the communications team at a small government agency, the Clean Energy Regulator. We were a full-service communications team looking after all of the internal and external communications, digital and stakeholder engagement for the agency.

People are always fascinated about why I left the public service (I often get asked if I took a redundancy, I didn’t). I loved my job and my team, but I had been in the role for over seven years and needed a new challenge. I just couldn’t picture doing the same role in a different government department without my team, so I decided to go it alone. I haven’t regretted my decision yet.

What does a normal day look like?

I don’t really have a “normal day” anymore. I guess that’s the benefit and challenge of working for myself. One day I will be working in a client’s office. The next I’ll be at home working from my office writing a comms plan or content. Other days I’ll be on the lounge watching Netflix while doing some business admin.

Before COVID, I would always dedicate one day a week out of the house doing business development, mentoring or other catch-ups – I drink a lot of coffee on those days. I miss going to cafés and meeting people, it was such a big part of my life.

Can you tell us about one of your career highlights?

The work we did to get the Clean Energy Regulator up and running remains my number one career highlight. I started in late October 2011, and we opened the doors on 2 April 2012. We were merging several teams from other departments and agencies, while also delivering new functions for the government.

My small team worked very hard to hit some pretty big goals in just five months. We built a website and an intranet, created a brand, reviewed and rebranded all communications products and online content, started internal communications to get staff ready to onboard, developed an agency communications strategy and built policies and procedures for our BAU services.

We wanted to be ready to hit the ground running on day one. We wanted to have a strong brand presence and clearly articulate our vision to our clients and staff. The to do list felt endless, but when that website launched at midnight on 2 April, I have never been prouder.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? How did you overcome it?

Working in climate change for over a decade there were a lot of challenges. Managing a team of 20 had a lot of challenges. But by far, the biggest challenge I have faced is starting my own business. All of a sudden, I was on my own without the safety net of a team. I had no one to bounce ideas off or rely on to deliver specific skills. It was all on me. I had to manage a lot of self-doubts and get used to a new way of working where people didn’t need my attention all of the time.

It took time to believe in myself and my abilities – I had to find a new level of self-confidence. I think this is something many communications professionals face, we don’t always believe in ourselves, and that can sometimes mean we don’t ‘promote’ ourselves very well. To get clients (and make money) I needed to get over that quickly.

I also needed to develop a whole new range of skills like accounting, marketing, website development. Skills that previously I would have relied on others to deliver, but now it was on me. I spent a lot of time reading and researching to make sure I understood what I needed to know to run a small business. It is amazing what you can learn through a few YouTube videos and by seeking out others that are willing to share their knowledge.

What changes do you think will occur in communications over the next decade?

I think the way we communicate is going to change in ways we can’t even predict. When I went to university in the early 2000s, I learnt how to fax a media release to journalists. Now regional papers are closing every day, and we are relying heavily on social media to communicate to the public. I don’t think any of us that have been working in communications would have expected these dramatic changes in our craft. Visual communications is now just as important as written communications. We now need to master video and infographics, as much as being good writers.

If the recent pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is the value and the power of communications. I hope that leads to a change in the next decade of how our profession is perceived and valued in every organisation. I hope leaders see that they need us to help craft their message and be a conduit to the audience. I want to see our profession develop into a well-respected and necessary discipline, where people ask why we don’t have more of them, not why are we spending so much on communications.

What is your favourite book or podcast?

My favourite book at the moment is Permission To Screw Up by Kristen Hadeed. Read it! It made me reflect on the type of leader that I was. It showed me I was scared to fail and had little tolerance for mistakes because of how they would be perceived in the organisation. If I had my time over again, I think this book would change how I led and my tolerance for risk.

As an accidental facilitator, I am still learning skills in this space, so I religiously listen to the First Time Facilitator Podcast. It has great tips and tools for anyone running meetings or workshops.

Who has been the most influential person in your career? Why?

My boss at the Clean Energy, Chris Ramsden. People might be surprised that the Chief Financial Officer could influence the career of a communications professional, but he helped me figure out this was what I wanted to do and cleared the path to let me do it.

Many years ago, Chris encouraged me to apply for a promotion where I would be heading up both communications and human resources. After going through the interview process, Chris called me into his office. He said that I had done well, and the job was mine but only if I wanted it. From his perspective, it was clear I just wasn’t that interested. For me, that was an epiphany – it was true I just wanted to do comms, I didn’t want to be a public service executive.

Over the next few years, Chris supported me to figure out what I needed to do to lead in my profession. He encouraged me to take study leave so that I could complete my Masters in Strategic Communications, join an industry association, attend conferences and then supported me to leave and start my own business.

Who would have guessed an accountant was the person that helped me to work out that what I wanted to be when I grew up was a communications professional.

If you could share one tip with other communications professionals, what would it be?

I write a lot about my experience in communications and try to share with other professionals because I believe we can all learn a lot from each other. There are two things that I strongly believe can change how we operate and how we are received as communications professionals:

  1. If you want to be respected in your organisation, then you have to tell the organisation why they should value your advice and input. If you don’t demonstrate the value you are creating through measuring what you do and sharing the results with the Executive and broader staff, how will they ever know how great you really are!
  2. We work in customer service, regardless of if you are in a consultancy or working inhouse in a corporate area. We are here to provide a service to the organisation. That means that if you don’t provide great customer service business areas will not come to you. They will not engage you early, and they may not engage you at all. A few months ago I wrote about how communications professionals have to go above and beyond if they want to be seen as a critical service provider, you can’t just provide bare basics if you want to lead communications in your organisation.

Melanie Gibbons is a passionate communication professional who believes quality communication can provide immeasurable value to any organisation. She has over fifteen years’ experience across government, not-for-profit and the private sector in Australia and the United Kingdom. An active member of the communication profession in Canberra, Melanie is passionate about helping other professionals improve their craft and demonstrate the value of communication to government. She owns Elm Communications

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