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Why two Students’ Union Officers ended up working in comms

Around 700 people work as an elected officer every year in Universities across the UK. It’s an unusual job that accelerates graduates or sabbaticals into a position of leadership, influence, negotiation and communication. Many ex-officers end up working in other institutions, students’ unions and political settings, and some also end up working in marketing and communications.

Myself and Brad (the comms guy) were both elected officers – both Vice President Communications and Media, and myself also working as the President. We owe a-lot of our confidence, success and life skills to these roles, but more importantly, we have continued to use the skills and knowledge from these positions into our current jobs working in Internal and Corporate communications.

We wanted to share our stories and the parallels we have found from the two roles. This was all inspired by Anna O’Sullivan’s blog back in 2013 – An alternative definition of IC. Anna is the Director, Corporate Affairs, at Pearson, but was also an Education Officer at a Students’ Union in a previous life.

Anna shared her experiences and the key parallels between IC and her elected officer role, and has kindly agreed for us to resurrect her blog ‘from gathering dust on the digital bookshelf’ and add our own experiences. (Thank you Anna).

So back in 2013, Anna wrote:

“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the parallels between student representation and the purpose of my role now in internal comms. I think there’s a lot of great tactics I used back then that can be used in IC to give us the edge when it comes to carrying out our role effectively and adding value to the business.”

She went on to say that the two key parallels between the roles were;
Listening and Representing.

1) Listening

I went out and spoke with students to understand their issues. I held regular meetings with small groups to discuss something in detail. I had an ‘open door’ policy and students could easily contact me via email or phone.

So, how many of us can truly say that listening to employees is at the core of our role now? Not just something carried out seasonally: the annual staff survey and various ‘soft’ invites for feedback (in the staff magazine for example). How can we expect to know where the gaps in understanding of the business strategy are, unless we are making listening to employees part of our everyday work. We need to make listening core to the IC function.

2) Representing back to the business

My elected officer role was to be the voice of more than 20,000 students back to the University. I was the one with the seat at the table in high-level Committee meetings or Councils; the one with the privilege of having the ear of those who made the decisions. I helped bring about change, made things better for students and spoke up when management were planning things that I didn’t think would work.

Increasingly IC has a seat at the table too. We have regular meetings with senior leadership. We’re privy to decisions being made and strategic planning. And because we have the advantage of having our finger on the pulse of employee life, we can represent employees to senior leadership. We need to focus on being the voice of the employee.

We couldn’t agree more with Anna’s observation- and we have a few more things to add to the list.

Holding yourself well in front of senior management

Brad – One of the things that I hold most dear from my time as an elected officer is how I hold and carry myself in meetings with senior managers. A lot of the role as an elected officer, is managing stakeholders at all levels, something which has been incredibly useful when transferred into my role as a Communications Manager. Being able to understand the needs and wants of senior management has allowed me to question what and how I present to make the most of the precious moments of face time you get with senior management.

Shelby – As President at the SU, I was also the key representative at the Chief Executive’s Group, and the student voice on the Board of Governors. Being being prepared for these ‘big’ meetings, understanding the narrative of the sector, and having conversations in and out of the board room, was a huge learning curve for me. However, once I got the hang of it, I built relationships with senior management, and I still have a strong rapport with our C-Suite at the University.

Having respect for those who are older and more experienced

Brad – One of the things you get used to very quickly as an elected officer is that you are probably the youngest person at the SU but also weirdly hold the most authority. (Yes, we know, it’s a very strange job) However, what it has taught us that we have to be willing to learn from those with more experience, even if they are junior to you, because they can bring a different insight that you might not have even considered. This is even more important as we are both young managers who manage people older than us. Without this experience, it would probably be difficult to not only manage staff older than us, but also understand how to earn their respect.

The bigger picture

Brad – Ultimately, any elected officer is there to support the enhancement of the education, equality and experience of every single student at their institution. Often as Comms Managers we can forget about these overarching goals because we get caught up in campaigns or tasks, however, having been a elected officer, which is a very strategic role in the institution, we are able to step back and look at how our work can affect the institution and sector as a whole.

Shelby – As officers we were exposed to so many different initiatives, messages, events and issues within the University setting, so I signed up to mailing lists, made external connections, and attended sector conferences. Now I’ve moved to comms, I am still receiving the newsletters and event invitations about the sector, and this has enabled us to keep informed and aware of the bigger picture.

Elections are basically one massive comms campaign

Brad & Shelby – Getting elected is hard. It’s waking up at 06:00 to catch the commuting students and staying in the venues until 03:00 to catch the night dwellers. Essentially, getting elected is one massive communications and marketing campaign all revolving around your personal brand. To get elected you need to consider and honestly portray with electorate:

  1. Your Story
  2. Your Vision and Strategy for the Students’ Union
  3. Your Personal Values

It’s no wonder that elected officers move into communications because they have been storytelling for so long, it just makes sense to use these skills to benefit a brand that you work for.

Are you a previous elected officer working in comms? Have you found other similarities in your roles? Let us know on Twitter @ShelbyLoasby and @BradTheCommsGuy


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