This week we chat with Sally Branson, Media Affairs Specialist with the US Embassy (US Consulate Melbourne, Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania). Sally is a connector from the country who admires her communication hero for her considered and timely communication including Post-It notes.
What’s your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?
I am a connector. I love seeing people connect, gain something positive out of their relationship and enjoy their commonalities.
Tell us about your typical day in communications?
I start by trying not to sneak a look at Twitter as my alarm goes off. I really try to balance the information flow… sometimes I do this well, sometimes not so well. I start work early and get straight into an analysis of issues in my regions of Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania – and of any US Australian connections. Embassies employ people like me to be the local knowledge, so I come up with a local context to assist in understanding news and public events.
My day is varied. It can include issues management, connecting with the media community, arranging public events for the Ambassador and Consul General, advising senior US officials, arranging community relations, and arranging US Navy Ship Visits. Some days I am in the office and others I am out and about travelling with the Ambassador or the CG. This job is perfect for my personality – issues rich and lots of daily variety. I often joke I went into this business for the long lunches – but it is very rare to find one of these in my day. I tell myself the other rewards make up for it…
When did you first know you wanted to work in communications?
Apart from a few early years when I wanted to run a South American country, I’ve always known communications was my pathway. Going to a school of 20 little country kids, I was always known as the storyteller and the bossy one. I was also the only one ever sent outside for talking too much. I come from a family of storytellers and community connectors.
Who’s your communication hero/mentor?
I’ve been blessed to work with many amazing people. I like to think I have taken lessons from each person I have worked with – even if the working relationship was a challenging one.
I have a long term mentor Hayley – she works in education and community development in a rural area. No matter what she does, she recognises the importance of thoughtful interaction. Each and every communication she makes is considered and timely. Even down to the post-it notes.
A “mentoring” experience I enjoyed was the Australian Rural Leadership Program. I spent two years studying with a group of 28 people from the extremes of rural and regional interest. The lessons I learnt about communications from an agronomist, a CSIRO scientist, a Doctor of Marine Science, an aboriginal community worker and a manager of an abattoir are ones that influence me each day I work. During a presentation I remember once thinking “as if I can learn from someone with two PhD’s in science…” and then shocked when he did it a) better and b) in a new way than I had. I was witnessing something new to me; who knew? It was humbling, and reminded me to always respect and surround myself with people with different skills, values, ideas and methods than mine.
Which tools can’t you live without?
My iPhone and my BlackBerry – balanced with my page-to-a-day moleskine diary and my highlighters to colour coordinate the diary. I love being able to paste notes and images on the page – and turn pages over.
What are the biggest challenges in your role?
Balancing the intricacies of working as a foreign national for another country’s government.
Managing turnaround time – the realities of time difference, of diplomatic process and of protocol . No, I can’t just ring the President and get a quote for you. As much as I really, really, really want to.
Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on?
My most rewarding work was managing the restructure of drought support funding during the last drought in NSW. Through my communication consultancy, I worked as a relationship broker between communities and funding bodies. My task was to find and implement the best way to get money into rural communities when they needed it the most. It was a period fraught with emotion and anxiety – families and communities were under such pressure to be able to even put food on the table, and they needed a better way to be looked after. It took a lot of negotiation and values based communication with farmers at their kitchen tables – with politicians and senior government officials. I am really proud that we were able to find a better way to help, and so pleased when it finally bloody well rained.
Which campaign do you most admire?
I’m not just saying this because he is my boss – but the strategic campaigning by Barak Obama and his team in the lead up to the election and during it. The use of social media, grass roots campaigning, the connection and the sense of newness and hopefulness. We all know that our children will be studying this campaign for years to come. I remember working really busily on our election reporting and election events when it was all happening – and even knowing then that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the campaign – because work was so busy. It was so busy because even 1000s of kms away, Obama was making such an impression!
What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?
Accessibility – everyone and everything is accessible through the internet and the speed of our communications with each other. In addition to this, there are so many players in every game, and so much information to be disseminated it behooves us all to be critical and discerning as to how and where we get our information from. As communication professionals, we also have a responsibility in this environment to step up.
If you had to cut/keep something in your communication budget, what would it be?
For me the US Senate/Congress control my budget – however my most valued pot of money in this role is the one that lets me get on a ‘plane and travel to my regions of responsibility. I love my email, but there are times when a working relationship has to be built face to face.
What quality do you look for in your communication team members?
Respect for each individual skill sets, a sense of humour and perspective – and in this role – an understanding of the word “service” in the public service.
What’s your favourite brand?
The brand I most admire is LiveSTRONG. I have recently had the good fortune to work with LiveSTRONG’s top team and Mark Higgins from planet CSE. It gave me a new found respect for a brand I already knew to be pretty awesome. It’s not just about Lance and the yellow wrist band – the brand is multi faceted. I admire the way that values, service and community is intrinsic to their every day operation. I didn’t want the project to end. I had a project crush…and then brought a new bike I was so carried away by how wonderful they/it all was. I think I may have even accidentally committed to a “fun” ride….
What book/blog do you think every communicator should read?
I think the important thing is to keep reading without being overloaded by information. I adore Twitter, because I follow a lot of people who I admire or find interesting, and who keep delivering links to amazing articles. It’s as if they say “Sally would love to read about the death of the media release – let me send her a link” this means I am exposed to lots of good and interesting stuff – which I can self select. Do I want to read that serious foreign policy article this morning, or will I read about how to make a pink flamingo cocktail?
I advise people looking into social media connection to follow Mashable and to find those in their field who do it well, and then follow them.
For a hard copy – I loved Sally Hogshead “Radical Careering”. Get it -it’s fun.
What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?
That it isn’t “just” communications. I love high heels and lippy as much as the next person, I often heard that communications was the thing for clever young girls to do that didn’t interfere too much with their social life. I heard that communications wasn’t a serious career. (You know, I “just” did an arts degree, I “just” work in Comms). I struggled for a long time to reconcile this with my sense of working within a context of values or service. I didn’t have enough professional role models at this time. Now I know more than anything that we are the glue that keeps the whole thing together. If we’re doing it right – everyone else feels like they are doing it right.
Finish this sentence: Communication is… connection.