Sheena Ireland, Director of Specialists in Communications, founded her company based on the belief that we all have a unique offering that can’t be replicated by others. She believes that our communications efforts should reflect our distinctive qualities and not just replicate others or follow a trend. With a background in the Federal Public Service and the not for profit sector, Sheena has expertise advising Cabinet Ministers, high profile CEOs and industry forums in strategic communications, media management, social media marketing and government relations. She has adopted Oscar Wilde’s famous quote ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’ as her personal motto.
What is the best way to engage Ministers and Government Departments as stakeholders?
Build a relationship. Give ministers and departments examples of stories, facts and figures that relate to their area of work. Help them understand the industry or community they are developing policy and programs for.
Offer informal and formal briefings, invite them to events and send them email updates. Be sure to make every update relevant and informative. You want to be known as a good source of knowledge, not an annoying spammer.
If you’re holding an event and you want to engage ministers, consider holding the event in Parliament House during a sitting week. Make it as easy for ministers to attend as possible. And make sure you consult someone who knows the ins and outs of arranging events in Parliament House. Then you don’t end up with last-minute panics when you can’t get items into Parliament House or you have security restrictions.
With Government departments, find out the area and people who work on matters affecting your industry and make sure you are engaging directly with the people you need to, not simply through an ‘info’ email address. Public servants are there to help you. Don’t simply demand information from them. Have a conversation and express your appreciation for their time. Like you, they are really busy. Trust me, I was a public servant for a long time and despite assertions that people simply sit around, they don’t. They work hard and they care about you, so show some care for them.
Too many people forget to engage the Government on a regular basis.
Building a relationship based on information sharing can help you when a policy matter that affects your business or industry comes out. Having a relationship can mean you are able to pick up the phone and express your concerns to a Minister’s office or Government department. Also, don’t be too shy to send a positive note acknowledging their great work in providing benefit to your industry when things go your way.
Most of the time, your relationship with ministers will be through advisors. Be sure to know which advisor is responsible for the industry you are in.
While engaging Ministers will depend on your industry and the work you do. Some of the advice I give industry bodies and charities is to remember to engage more than simply the Minister responsible for your industry. In a hung parliament, independent senators and MPs can hold the deciding votes for a piece of legislation. It is important they understand your issues, and how these are relevant to your target MPs and senators. Keep an open dialogue with them and help them understand why your issues matter.
As we have seen for some years now, ministers rotate more frequently than they used to.
So, while you must get the Minister(s) responsible for your area of work up to speed on your issues, you can’t solely focus on them. Because with ministerial reshuffles being a normal occurrence, you could be briefing a new minister sooner than you think. If you’ve spent some time getting your messages out to the range of parliamentarians, it increases the likelihood that you’ll get a head start on briefing the next Minister.
It’s also important to invest time in knowing and building relationships with relevant backbenchers. See what committees they are on and what ‘friends of’ groups they are part of. If the committee or group is relevant to you, do your research on the MP and reach out. Engage them by letting them know how an issue affects their constituency, or how you help their constituency. Find an emotional connection.
If you’re looking for Government grants and support, find the best hubs to approach for information. Business.gov.au is a great hub of information and the staff behind it are passionate about helping businesses connect with programs they could gain benefit from. So never be afraid to approach them. The Government can help in so many ways.
You lead communications around government proposals that impacted the automotive industry. What is your advice on engaging with businesses and communities to manage large-scale change?
Trust and information is key. In my experience, I’ve often come from the side of big business or Government, and as a society we tend to have trust issues. We latch on to the story of the neighbour down the street, and distrust the big companies. Why? Because we feel a much more personal connection to the neighbour down the street.
Big businesses and governments need to adopt a story telling approach to help them connect with their audience and build trust through examples and utilising third-party spokespeople, including members of the community who understand their products and services and can vouch for them.
With large-scale change, it’s important that big business, governments and industries get to know their audience and make a comprehensive strategy to reach them. In my opinion, this must include face-to-face elements, where possible. Not just social media posts and a newspaper article. Big business, governments and industries all, generally, have customer service points, be it shop fronts, at events, or through community appearances. The communications strategy needs to extend through to these community touch-points.
To make this effective, internal communications in these businesses, governments and industries is vital. Often people neglect passing messages to all staff, but equipping all staff to be spokespeople, to represent the change and to reassure people about it, is a powerful communications method. Then, of course, every other communications activity, from social media to advertising needs to be consistent. Brand recognition, and consistent and clear messaging all help people understand the change.
What is your advice for people wanting to transition from a job to starting their own business?
Just do it! I waited a while and after a false start working part time while trying to build my business I realised the only way to grow my business was to put 100 per cent focus into it. Once I did, I grew by 300 per cent in three months. Side hustles are great for some, but my focus is to grow a successful communications agency. And I couldn’t do that with a part-time focus.
My other piece of advice is talk to people. Listen to them and learn from their lessons. While their way may not work for you, trying as many ways as possible helps you fine tune the best processes for your business. Networking events are great ways to connect with other business owners and share lessons.
As Editor of The Local Look Magazine in Canberra, what are some Canberra gems you have discovered?
Oh, there are so many. I started The Local Look because I was so impressed by the talent in Canberra and I wanted a platform for small business owners to tell their story and connect with the local community. Since I started, I have been privileged to tell the story of fashion designers, a wood worker, candle makers and even a local company that makes amazing boxing gloves for women (Red Corner Boxing).
Zilpah Tart, a local designer, continuously amazes me. She uses photographs from around Canberra. Then she puts the photos on fabric, in an abstract way, and creates beautiful dresses, scarves and skirts. For sustainable fashion, Pure Pod is leading the way. And we are lucky enough to have a world-class couture designer in Canberra, Rockstars and Royalty who makes custom dresses to fit the look, size and shape people want.
What has been your greatest challenge?
In business, it’s been making boundaries. Taking time out for myself and being okay with declining ‘pick your brain’ coffee chats until I have time for them, instead of scheduling them in times when I’m working to deadlines on paid projects. I started making an effort to read more last year. A great book I read recently that helped me with this challenge was Stand Out by Alison Hill. A must read for business owners who suffer overwhelm (I think most of us get that!)
In my personal life, I recently told a story I hadn’t put public before. I beat an eating disorder and poor self-esteem in my twenties. I’m glad that by telling the story I have helped others. The feedback through social media and emails, from people I know and don’t know has been very humbling, and has helped reinforce the power of storytelling.
What are you most proud of?
My family, my friends and my wonderful clients who all embrace their uniqueness and use it inspire me.
Also, starting a business and giving it all I’ve got. I’m proud of ensuring my values are instilled in my business, and my mission and vision are about helping others as much as they are about my own passions.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Leadership is about inspiring others and equipping them to be the best they can be. It’s about getting in the trenches when you need to, but also allowing people to make mistakes and learn from them. The same way you will no doubt have forged your path to leadership.
Future leaders need resilience and this can be one of the hardest things to build. It takes constant work, facing your fears, and speaking up with confidence. Know that you can speak up. I’d love to say this will always be free of judgement, but it’s likely it won’t be. But know that when someone judges you and unfairly tears you down or speaks over you, the problem is with them, not you. Don’t let them steal your confidence. Use their behaviour to motivate you to continue to speak up.
Don’t speak over others and don’t tear others down. Listening is a great skill. I know I have times where I have to stop myself from speaking while others are. My excitement about an idea or discussion can get the better of me. I always work to combat this as I place a very high importance on listening as a vital part of leadership and communication.
And support forums such as Femeconomy who are giving female leaders a platform to tell their story and give their advice. We need to support each other and I thank Femeconomy for helping with this!
You are the female economy. Whether you are a female consumer, business owner or a woman in the workforce, you can create gender equality by choosing female led brands.
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