Simon Brooks is Director of Communications and Marketing at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the world’s oldest, and the UK’s leading, defence and security think tank. Previously he has held roles at Lockheed Martin, communications agency MSLGroup and Network Rail.
The war in Ukraine has meant an unprecedented level of attention for RUSI. First and foremost, we’re always mindful of the terrible impact the war has had on people of Ukraine, but from a communications perspective, it’s meant an unprecedented interest in RUSI’s work. In the month after Russia initially invaded in February, more than 20,000 media articles quoted our researchers and RUSI insight into what was happening – more than a typical year’s interest, in one month.
Communications is about applying common sense. The skills you need to be successful in communications are the same in whatever sector you work. It is an ability to think strategically and be very clear about what an organisation is looking to achieve, and then being structured and ordered about achieving that. A lot of the time, it’s actually just about the application of common sense: meet the audience where they are and with what they need.
Expertise can be a trap. Sometimes, a specialist, whether they’re a railway engineer, an aircraft manufacturer or a researcher with a paper, can be too immersed in what they do and not able to see the wood for the trees. As communicators, we have to help experts clarify and simplify what they do, and make it accessible for others as well.
Be interested and be interesting. One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was from an old boss at MSLGroup. It was to always be interested and be interesting. Be interested: in your client, the product, the people you work with. And be interesting yourself: have something to say, have an opinion, and be lively to be around – make others want to seek out your company and your counsel.
Be proactive about your career. Don’t wait for others to make things happen for you. You’re the one that needs to go out and make the running. Expose yourself to different environments and different experiences. Ultimately, if you want to progress, if you ever feel unfulfilled, if you’re not in the right place, you need to go out and make something happen for yourself.
Follow your instincts. I had an amazing time at Network Rail, a wonderful experience, great work, but I probably did one job too many there. I knew it was time for a different challenge, but as that had been the only place I had been to date, it was a little bit daunting to take that next step. Listen to your gut instinct, and be ready to make a move when you feel the time’s right.
Get more from your agency. Don’t just bring them into the last minute and say, ‘Design me something’, or ‘Send out a press release’. You’ll get far more from them if you are able to bring them in early. Also, clients can be unwilling to expose the help they’re getting from an agency to other people within the organisation. They feel the need to present everything as their own work. Hopefully you are in an environment where you are trusted and actually people would value you more for saying, ‘I don’t know everything. I’ve got somebody else who knows even more about this than me.’
You need to be able to compartmentalise. I can spend all day worrying about work, but at some point you have to switch it off and put it in a box. When you’re working from home, that line’s a little more blurry, but you do need to be able, over the course of a couple of hours, to switch off, and then be able to go again the next day.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.