What a noisy gibbon can teach comms pros…

What is it like to be Head of Comms for a zoo? Emma Edwards recently took up the post of Head of Communications for the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Here she describes some of the challenges of the post – and tells us what we could all learn from a gibbon. She’s pictured with a lowland gorilla called Ziggy. Over to you Emma…

If Dr Dolittle had a job title, I like to think it would probably be “Head of Communications”.

As Head of Communications at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the charity behind London Zoo, I often feel that pulling all the comms together seamlessly is no easier a task than striking up conversation with one of our animals.

Managing every communication channel right through from animal displays to corporate publications and zoo signage is a tall order. Throw in a couple of giraffes, a bunch of press-savvy penguins and a very noisy gibbon, and even Dr Dolittle would have his work cut out.

Most people know the Society for its leading consumer brand – London Zoo, but we also run Whipsnade Zoo, the Institute of Zoology and conservation programmes in more than 50 countries.

Operating in a bubble
It’s a diverse and unique organisation, operating almost entirely within an in-house “bubble”. We have our own carpenters, plumbers, electricians, caterers, and even our own zoo pub, probably making us one of the most self-sufficient organisations in London. And with so many internal functions keeping the Society operating and progressing its mission, the key driver among staff tends to be absolute passion for their specialisms.

This vibrant, thriving organisation is full to the brim with people driven by zeal for what they do that sometimes borders on obsession. It’s a heady environment, and it’s easy to find yourself being ricocheted from one vehement conviction to another.

Everybody believes so strongly in what they’re doing that their approach to comms sometimes lacks a clear objective beyond “people NEED to know”, and rationalising that as part of the bigger picture of stakeholder communications can be tricky.

The challenge of managing such a diverse portfolio of communication functions, especially with so many worthy objectives, is identifying the common thread that runs through them, and strengthening it so that our comms start to look and feel more organised.

Creating an exhibition from channels
Comms channels are like pieces of art hanging in a gallery. Every piece is different but no matter the shape or size, they hang with the midpoint at eye level. A good curator will not only ensure the pieces are hung correctly, they will identify the theme that turns a room of pictures into an exhibition.

There are challenges, of course. There is reluctance to accept the value of channels outside of traditional media. The website is too often treated as a wasteground where content can be dumped, like an old mattress. Leaflets and signs are produced by non-comms staff with enthusiasm and conviction, but not enough consideration for their audience.

And all these new challenges have got me thinking about that noisy gibbon I mentioned earlier.

For those who work at London Zoo, the start of every working day is marked by the spectacular sound of Jimmy the gibbon’s morning song. Jimmy’s whooping call rings loud and clear across the zoo and beyond into Regent’s Park. I’m awake, he tells us, and this is my territory.

The thing about Jimmy’s territorial song is that it does everything that good communications should do. It is consistent, it is clear, and we can all hear it. We know what he’s communicating, and we know why. He uses the channel most appropriate to him, rather than insisting on a press release about his territorial claim.

It seems we could all learn something from Jimmy the gibbon, and if we do we’ll be on the right track to turning our communications from a cacophony, into a beautiful clear song to which everybody wants to listen.

If I can manage that, I think even Dr Dolittle will probably be impressed.

Thank you for sharing an insight into your role Emma, sounds like we could all learn a lot from Jimmy!  If you have any comments, feel free to leave them below. You can follow Emma on Twitter @MrsEddy21. Do you have an idea for a guest article for my blog? If so, check out my guidelines and get in touch to let me know. Thanks for stopping by, Rachel.


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