Heartfelt words of wisdom

An interview with Alyson

An interview with:

Alyson Russell–Stevenson – Marketing and communications expert


Head of Marketing and Engagement – Scottish Enterprise
Head of Communications and Marketing – Neogen
Head of Communications and Marketing – HSL Mobile
Communications Director – BAE Systems


Government, Communications, Defence, Nuclear

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?

AR-S: The most complex subject matter to convey was when I was Head of Communications for BAE Systems, in the submarine industry. I had the task of communicating about the Astute class submarines, which are the largest, most powerful fleet of attack submarines ever built. As exciting and complex as they are, obviously it’s quite a challenging discussion to have and your stakeholder group are so diverse, it’s a demanding task to get the messaging right for everyone, quite a challenging task.

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?

AR-S: There are seven submarines in the Astute class and at the time, we had already put out the first in class submarine which was ‘Astute’ and I was now tasked with making the second launch just as exciting and memorable as the first one. I worked with Forepoint and we decided to do something a little bit different and headline grabbing. We took billboards and we primarily wanted the community and the staff to be at the centre. We thought let’s make ‘Ambush’, which is number two, all about every person that help build her, the community and everyone else around and about.

So we actually took over all the billboards in Barrow. We took over the bus shelters, roundabouts and train station, basically anywhere you could put a poster where the community or the staff would gather. We came up with three simple designs working with those guys. – we had a light bulb, a submarine and a heart. What we did is create a really strong typographical image using quotes and phrases from the people that had helped build, or put together the submarines. They were inspirational quotes from somebody that may have been working on it for more than 20 years, or designed it, or even the guy in the community that was making the sandwiches for the engineers and workers that came in each day. Each of the images were filled with words that made them feel really proud and described why the submarine was so important to them, to the community and to the UK.

It was really successful, especially the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) side. Local charities and the council members got involved, they were so impressed with seeing the posters going up. There was a feeling of pride, people gathered to find their own quotes and the schools were really into it as well. The roundabouts in Barrow were used, and each of the small and medium sized business across the area sponsored a roundabout. The kids from the local schools had competitions and designed the layout and the flowers, all designed in different marine landscapes. It actually became a real community project, which was lovely.

The BBC was also involved, we started getting into discussions and worked with them to produce a BBC documentary called: “How to Build a Nuclear Submarine” which got 4 million viewers. This resulted in a real surge of applications, from apprentices and engineers interested in working for the Submarines business.

We really tried to use plain English, that’s really key in these things. Making it simple. keeping the language simple and the concept simple. We spoke about the 18,000 sausages that the guys would eat on patrol, the 4,200 Weetabix they would have over the period for their breakfast, the 1 million components in the build and the 7,000 plus design drawings. We tried to create something interesting for everyone, so what they were listening to and speaking about became realistic. We picked out the guys who knew their subject matter the best – the right people. We had welders talking about how they do 24/7 welding and engineers talking about the complex component and drawings. Rear Admiral Lister gave a wonderful quote where he described stages of the build as being like a 7,000 tonne Swiss watch and more complex than a space shuttle.

I genuinely believe you don’t have to tailor anything, just get the right message in the first place and keep it simple.

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?

AR-S: Get people to enjoy what you are saying! If somebody sees or hears something and there is a storytelling way of doing it, they enjoy it and remember it. They remember really cool facts and figures and the clever little snippets. Joking aside, if you can talk about sausages, or there being so much cabling and pipework on board that it can stretch from Dundee to Glasgow, people remember this. Make it engaging and simple, don’t try to be too clever, take it back to basics. Think of nursery rhymes. When was the last time someone actually told you one? I bet you remember every one. That’s a beautiful illustration of keeping it simple.

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?

AR-S: This may be controversial, but I genuinely believe there is no such thing as tailoring to an audience. The engineers that work on a project, or the guys that work on a nuclear project, everyone has a job during the day. They all go home at night and look at the same newspapers, TVs and have discussions with friends and family. I honestly believe you should start your communications from the inside out and always give the same message. We spoke about a submarine strategy, for example, and narrowed it right down to three characters. Basically, we had the number 7, an ampersand and the number 4. That resonated right across the business as it meant that we were all here to build 7 Astute submarines and the 4 Successor class and that every person in the business had their part to play. The guy on the shop floor could discuss it, so could the top brass at the Ministry of Defence and everyone knew what they were there to do, and why they were there to do it.

I genuinely believe you don’t have to tailor anything, just get the right message in the first place and keep it simple.

How have you measured the success of your communications? What measurement methods have you found most effective?

AR-S: I am a big believer in face-to-face, there’s nothing better than going in and speaking to somebody as they can hear the passion when you are talking about a subject. I also think it depends on who and how many people you are talking to. BAE Systems have 120,000 people, I obviously can’t do a face to face, but what I can do is take it digital. I can go on all the latest channels and put out my tweets, blogs, videos and thoughts, in my own way and in my own language.

Making it authentic means that it will be measured appropriately and you can measure success. In relation to the documentary I mentioned, yes it had 4 million viewers, but the success here was that the impact it had on engineering graduates, who are normally really difficult to attract. We actually managed to get three times as many applying for jobs that year. I think that in itself is the real measure of the success of that project. We also managed to get the ‘7&4’ funding from the Strategic Defence Review, given each submarine costs a circa of £1.37 billion, that was no mean feat. I would say that’s a real measure of success.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a fellow marketer working in a complex industry?

AR-S: I have two. I always say to people never react, always respond. In a crisis, issue, or anything that you have to pull together, yes you may have to do it quickly, but never react or over react to it. Take a few minutes thinking time to respond.

I’ve now been doing communications for 25 years, so my second one is: have fun. I think when you have fun doing things it comes across in the challenge and it comes across in the solution. It makes it engaging for the people that are looking at it – be it a serious subject, such as nuclear or submarines, or defence, it doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and interesting and memorable.

Passion comes in waves and you can feel it coming across, harness it.

Thanks Alyson. It’s great to talk to you and hear your thoughts and experiences of making complex simple.

View the Ambush project that Alyson talks about