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This month I’ve been working with a cool organisation to recruit an outstanding social media and communications professional.

It has made me think hard about which qualities are most desirable in a social media manager or communications employee of any kind.

Also, various conversations I’ve had, as I spend time with lots of talented teams across the public sector, have led me to notice: the excellent ones are those who fight their fear.

There are four reasons I think bravery is the number one factor that marks out the good digital communicator from the splendid one.

Heroism in fighting sign-off

I’ve worked for and with enough government agencies to know that communications people often have a ‘mare getting their work approved. There are still many places (in the public AND private sector) that make expert, experienced communicators seek permission before they send tweets. Apparently, 22 people had to sign off on Mitt Romney’s campaign tweets.

The thing that kills me about this is that, sometimes, these signer-offers are not even good communicators*. They don’t understand modern internet use and social media lingo and they don’t get the big change in how we consume media today.

And to have any meaningful engagement with your organisation’s communities, you need to be able to share, comment on and respond to their content: opinions, blogs, photos. It’s SOCIAL media, you can’t just talk about yourself all the time. But other people and what they’ll say usually isn’t in your communication plan.

So you have to take some initiative and make the case to your bosses that you need freedom and trust to talk to stakeholders – without hand-holding from managers. You need to show the value this will add to your communications goals and how it fits with your organisation’s vision.

I recently worked with a client to put a case together and we called it ‘dynamic engagement responsibility”. (Sometimes, bosses like a fancy label, they think it sounds more credible.)

We showed leaders in that organisation that freedom to converse with citizens in a natural, timely way was the job of communicators with good judgement. We argued that when a crisis communications situation erupts on social media, power to act quickly on behalf of your organisation is vital.

It’s easier to carry on getting stuff signed-off. The ballsy people work to take responsibility.

Confidence in your judgement so good stuff gets done

Anyone who’s worked in communications knows you need skills in persuasion to get anything done.

  • Leaders need to be convinced that sometimes being open about your organisation’s weaknesses is better than covering stuff up.
  • Journalists need to be bargained with so you have time to get that vital information before you send a statement.
  • Citizens need to be charmed and cajoled into getting involved with your projects.

To do this requires likeability. The unsubtle, the rude or the timid – they don’t excel at this.

I need to know people on my team will have the skills to get the best out of the people we work with.

There’s no degree in this.

So how can I tell they’re a ‘good personality’? Well, evidence that someone’s personality is engaging and knowing they exercise good judgement in their online presence – that makes me excited for their potential. Which leads me on to….

Courage to bridge the personal/professional divide

As part of a recruitment process this month, one candidate I analysed made a great point in her job application, describing her personal online profile. She said that she considered having both a professional and personal account but decided to have one single online presence, using her own name, to talk about both work and life.

She is showing employers and potential clients that she has opinions and interests and is able to portray these appropriately and in a professional manner.


It takes guts to be up front and show personality online.

Perhaps people won’t take you seriously. Maybe you’ll inadvertently offend someone you work with.

All of us who bring more of ourselves to our online identity take that risk every day. But we get by! I salute us.

The resilience to take real feedback on the chin

Even faceless corporate social media accounts have real people behind them, and, on a bad day, we can allow ourselves to be hurt by criticism.

When I worked in local government, I was used to the privacy of one-to-ones and all the performance management stuff I did with my managers. But not much has been more useful than the public feedback I got from residents on social media.

Residents would never let me away with jargon, the kind I’d unwittingly slipped in because I’d become accustomed to councilese. It was nonsense and I learned to write more clearly.

When I made videos, people would comment not on just poor sound quality but also how to improve it next time. One blogger gave me great feedback on presentation skills so we could improve our budget consultation every time.

There’s no point pretending to be perfect, or feeling like a failure because people’s responses aren’t 100% gushing.

However, not everything has been constructive. That’s why it’s brave to put yourself out there. The odd mean spirited or personal comment is worth the learning from the better comments.

So there.

Obviously there are other skills to look for, but when I’m looking at a group of talented and bright communicators – it’s the brave ones that I see making change happen and doing the best job.

How and why are some people brave?  Well, I think that’s down to a sense of purpose.  But’s that’s a post for another day.

*I’m aware of the irony in this sentence.