Telum Talks To… Jack Smith, Deputy Head of Marketing and Communications, Department for International Trade
Telum spoke with comms specialist and former journalist Jack Smith from the Department for International Trade on how he uses his journalist experience in his day-to-day work and the comms strategies he utilises to build the relationship between Mainland China and the UK.
You've had multiple editorial roles including Lifestyle Magazine, Time Out Beijing and NewsChina. What attracted you to move into comms?
Communications is the common thread that has run through every full- and part-time or freelance job I’ve held, from the TV industry to PR and marketing to my current role. One thing I’ve found, even in major organisations, is that the role of communications and comms professionals, isn’t broadly understood and the value we add often overlooked. Yet effective communications are central to how organisations operate - from internal events and important announcements to external PR and marketing. It’s such a diverse field filled with talented and determined people that there’s never a dull moment and my particular skillset and creative energies are a good fit.
What skills did you learn as a journalist that are proving useful in your comms career?
Understanding of your audience and how to connect with them is essential. Especially in a comms role as you’re working on behalf of diverse audiences which makes it even more important to craft messages with care and deliver them by the optimal channels, without prevaricating. Another skill I’ve learned is to speak up when you know something isn’t going to work - this comes with age and experience but is essential when managing limited time and resource as well as the goodwill of others. A comms campaign that flops not only wastes your team’s energy and time, but it can also be harmful to your organisation. Thus, you need to do everything you can to ensure you only embark on projects that will deliver the results you want.
Being an ex-journalist and having in-house comms experience, how do you maintain and build your relationships with journalists?
It’s great to know what journalists want. Generally, journalists who engage with major organisations want simple, clear and consistent messages, neatly packaged to make their lives as easy as possible. They are incredibly busy people working to very tight deadlines and so handing them a 150-page pack of dense technical information and demanding they publish tomorrow is insulting. There’s a delicate balance to strike between being useful to media whilst also ensuring your stakeholders are getting the right coverage. Personal interactions including building trust, familiarity and respect with journalists are a big part of that. Display knowledge of their work, validate their diligence and draw a hard line when you need to and you’ll find navigating media relationships much easier.
Having previously covered different topics from LGBT to innovation, what's your take on the current media industry in Mainland China?
I have witnessed first-hand some incredible investigative journalism in my time both working for and working with Chinese media outlets. Too often the China media landscape is portrayed as monolithic, with every publication and outlet just a cog in the propaganda machine. I’ve not found this to be the case. Journalists everywhere have to contend with editorial, geopolitics and market forces. Navigating through all these competing forces is a core skill good media professional acquire and it’s as essential in China as anywhere else. It’s humbling to see that, despite everything that works against them, those stories still emerge.
Tell us a little bit about the work you’ve been doing on the relationship between the UK and Mainland China?
When bilateral relationships face challenges, it’s easy to get swept up in the noise and ignore what we all, deep down, known to be true. We have a lot more in common than divides us. Trade and investment are a microcosm of the broad scope of people-to-people relationships which underpin the UK-China relationship and continue to keep it strong and resilient even when things might be challenging at a higher level. In my new role, I want to zero in on why and how the UK and China work so well together in so many areas, from combating climate change to developing cutting-edge manufacturing technology and tell the human stories at the heart of them.
And finally, what is the one skill you’d like to develop?
I want to get better at delegating in a way that will allow others to develop their skills and enjoy their work more. There’s always a temptation to hog the best projects for yourself, but by involving your team more deeply in the kind of activities that allow them to shine, you don’t only deliver a better product on a much bigger scale (which is the impact diversity has on any workplace) - you bring everyone along with you to share the glory!