An interview with:
Emma Law – Marketing and communications expert
Head of Corporate Communications – Sellafield Ltd
In your current or previous position as a marketer, what experience do you have in communication and explaining a complex business, subject, product or service?
EL: We manage the Sellafield Nuclear Site which is regarded as the most complex nuclear site in Europe, if not in the world.
We are cleaning up buildings that date back to the start of the UK’s nuclear industry. We rightly have high levels of security in place, so part of our challenge is communicating the progress we are making in buildings that people may never have seen and where they can’t go and see that progress for themselves. We also use technologies that can be difficult to get your head around. We deal in money that is quite substantial figures. Plus, we are a very highly regulated industry with a wide range of stakeholders. Everything that we do is about taking the really difficult and complex to understand – either because it’s science based or our inability to be able to take people in to show them – and make it engaging, understandable and accessible for our stakeholders.
Can you give an example of a project where you have successfully communicated a complex subject in a simple way to your primary audience? Tell us about the approach you took and your successes?
EL: The one that immediately springs to mind, is a document called the Sellafield Plan. It was back in 2011 and we had a plan for how we would clean up the site, the milestones that we would reach and in what order. What had become really clear was that previous communications weren’t giving stakeholders (both internal and external) the context by which to understand whether or not that data was good or bad.
We set about telling the Sellafield story through the Plan, so rather than just say “we have this building and we are going to empty by 2056 and it’s going to cost us ‘X’ amount of money”, we went back to basics and first of all explained what that building was, why it was important, what value did it add prior to becoming a liability and something that had to be cleaned up.
We started by providing context to the work that we do, rather than just telling isolated stories, really going back to why is this important, why should our audience care and how can we engage with them more on an emotional level as well as a factual and scientific level?
Everything that we do is about taking the really difficult and complex to understand and make it engaging, understandable and accessible for our stakeholders.
When working in a particularly complex industry, how have you gained insight to your audience’s knowledge and understanding of your business, subject, product or service? What approach have you found most effective?
EL: We do a number of things, but by far the most effective was for example when producing that Sellafield Plan, we really collaborated closely with stakeholders. We brought them in much, much earlier than we would have and really built the Plan in collaboration with them.
By testing with stakeholders, we said “We think this is the story we are going to tell, we think it’s at the right pitch, what do you think? Does it give you the information you need?” and really let them influence it. They said, “We really get it, but it would be simpler as a graph or I’m finding it really difficult as I can’t picture that building?” OK, so we will put photographs in. We brought them in much earlier and built the product WITH them rather than building it and then unleashing it on them.
Again, when thinking about working in a particularly complex industry, how have you tailored communications to multiple stakeholders? How did you tackle this, what techniques did you apply and what did you find most effective?
EL: Audience insight is such an important part of what we do, it’s really tempting to go straight into the solution and what would look best, or what best use of technology or innovation, but we like to start everything with audience insight.
First we think about what do our stakeholders currently understand, that’s both internal and external? That can range from survey data that we have or just asking them for feedback from previous engagement with them. How do they like to receive information? What other documents do they read? How do they like to gather information and then tailoring it to them? So hopefully we never publish mass communications that ‘hope’ to meet everybody’s needs but actually end up meeting none.
Communications is ALWAYS most effective when it’s written with the audience in mind rather than just what does the business hope to achieve.
How have you measured the success of your communications? What measurement methods have you found most effective?
EL: There are two for me. The first is the outcome. It’s very easy to measure things by outtakes, ie. how many people have read the document or visited the website, but it’s going back and testing with those people. Although the whole world is very interested in Sellafield, there are very small groups of stakeholders that can influence and impact on our work, so it’s having the relationships with those people so that we can go back and ask what do they understand, test their understanding, as well as looking for messages being played back to us in other forums. How are our stakeholders now talking about us, have we moved ‘the needle’ with them?
The second is the impact on our communication. I know when things have been successful when I see other people using them on our behalf. The Sellafield Plan example, we have an independent stakeholder run a scrutiny group that looks at operations, what we are doing at Sellafield, are we doing everything we should have, when we said we would? It’s called the West Cumbria Site Stakeholder Group and after we published the Plan, they took it on themselves to restructure the way they report on Sellafield around the structure of our Plan because it made such sense to them.
It’s the impact of the communication as well as the understanding that comes from it.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a fellow marketer working in a complex industry?
EL: There are two things. Put the audience first. Don’t broadcast, don’t sell, what does the audience need to understand or need to know to make their lives better, to improve their understanding and how can we give them the information in that format. Then, to collaborate. The lines are blurring more and more between organisations and stakeholders so talk to people earlier, listen to them and act on what they tell you.
Is there anything else that you want to share on this subject?
EL: Of the projects we have developed recently, the one I would pull out is the work that we have done on a Sellafield quarterly magazine. It’s aimed at external stakeholders and again, it’s all based on the principles and examples I have mentioned and is all about making Sellafield accessible, by telling the stories behind the stories. What is the context in which we are operating? Who are the people behind the stories? How can we take people inside ‘the fence’ but make it understandable and on the reader’s terms? We’ve found that although it was published for an external audience, it’s landed really well with our internal audience because every article has been written on the basis that no one knows anything, so this is the first time they have come into contact with the business. That’s something that we are looking at across all of our communications, don’t presume any prior knowledge.
Thanks Emma. It’s great to talk to you and hear your thoughts and experiences of making complex simple.