Writer’s notebook is a powerful tool

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This week in the communicator’s corner we discuss salmon sushi, moral psychology and information overload with Mark Bretherton, the Director of Media at Clean Energy Council.

Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?

Professionally I help to solve complex business problems through clear and convincing communication. Personally I’m a life-long music fan and an enthusiastic amateur across a wide range of subjects.

Tell us about your typical day in communications?

A lot of what I do is focused on the external environment, so I wake up early and get my head around the news cycle and what is in the headlines that day. If something big has broken that affects our industry then I’m off to the races. Otherwise I whip up a daily media bulletin for the Clean Energy Council’s members then get stuck into promoting something good the industry is doing, managing some looming issue, or any number of side projects related to solar, wind, hydro, batteries or new technologies.

When did you first know you wanted to work in communications?

I always wanted to be a writer. I love any writing that glows with its own heat. I remember confidently telling my first boss in some government job that I was going to become a writer. I mean, who the hell did I think I was? I ended up getting a lucky break from a friend who was working at The Courier-Mail in Brisbane. They needed an extra hand in a hurry and I wasn’t going to let an opportunity like that pass by.

Who’s your communication hero/mentor?

Seth Godin. He has a way of making marketing sound like universal truth. That’s no small feat. I love his ideas of integrating honesty and authenticity into marketing, and identifying the smallest possible group of true believers that you need so you can stay true to yourself. I like some of Simon Sinek’s ideas as well.

Which tools can’t you live without?

It’s old-fashioned these days, but I still love a notebook and a ballpoint pen. They don’t run out of battery or go out of mobile range. The writer’s notebook is still a powerful tool, and I feel connected to all the writers that have lived in the generations before me.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

Where to spend my energy. The clean energy sector has grown massively since I started. At the beginning there were half a dozen issues to manage and they bore down upon you with a force you couldn’t ignore. Over time we have grown in scale and credibility and there are innumerable priorities to manage which vary massively in complexity.

Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on?

The Clean Energy Council’s campaign to save the Renewable Energy Target (RET) under the Abbott Government was all-consuming. It was a fight we never wanted, but the future of the whole industry was at stake. In the end I had a chance to try out just about every tool, technique and weapon we had in the locker, and the comms side of the campaign worked hand-in-glove with our political advocacy strategy.

The biggest challenge was that the RET doesn’t have much public recognition outside the industry. So when we started it felt like we were the only voice speaking and that the number of people listening was tiny. But day by day it snowballed and, by the end, international publications like the Financial Times had recognised what was going on and were reporting on the implications.

Which campaign do you most admire?

When people think of salmon sushi or sashimi, they immediately think of Japan. But the Japanese used to think salmon was an unclean fish, and the only reason the two are connected is because of a long campaign by the Norwegian salmon industry. And Norwegian salmon ultimately helped sushi to become popular around the world as well. It’s a great example of a vision and persistence leading to a win-win.

What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?

Targeted digital campaigns and information overload. The ability to target your audience now is unprecedented, but many people are at the point where they don’t necessarily want to be targeted at all. So we are narrowing our focus to a smaller number of trusted voices and many people are looking for something deeper and more meaningful. The challenge is becoming one of the voices that is worth paying attention to.

If you had to cut/keep something in your communication budget, what would it be?

I’m part of a small team, so being able to bring in occasional contractors to help with surge periods is really important.

What quality do you look for in your communication team members?

Great ideas, great energy and a drive to always try and do things better.

What’s your favourite brand?

The Rolling Stones. They are more brand than band these days, but it’s amazing they have been so successful for so long. I’m also impressed by any brand that is disciplined enough to keep their strategic focus in line with what they do well, rather than giving in to the temptation to do a broad range of things badly.

What book/blog do you think every communicator should read?

I really liked The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It’s more about moral psychology than communication, but I think more people in comms should study some psych. There’s a lot in there about how people make up their minds about particular subjects and how to reach those with a different political or ideological bent to yours – and the reasons they think differently. Obviously the Cellophane blog is a great read as well!

What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?

Don’t try to do everything yourself.

Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’

…almost always imperfect, often under-rated and endlessly fascinating.

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