Building a pr team that works

Chapter 7 of #FuturePRoof is contributed by Ross Wigham who writes about building a successful team that gels together and performs well.

Find us on Twitter at @WeArePRoofed where we’ll be releasing a new chapter every day.


You’ll learn:

·         The principles of building a resilient and agile team that is focused on a collective vision

·         The importance of adding skills outside of traditional competencies and how to avoid group-think

·         How to secure appropriate resource when the team needs to scale

Building a successful team that gels together and performs well is an intrinsically difficult task, whether that’s in the Premier League, the NHS, the agency or the office.             

Over the years I’ve helped to build and manage teams both big and small and the take home message should be that it’s never easy – just ask any England football manager from the past 40 years.

Building a team is difficult enough but in the modern world of frontline communications, the pressure is increased even further when staff on the coal face can often be dealing with life or death crisis situations (for in house public sector teams) or hugely competitive reputational issues for clients.

My time in the public and private sectors during both turbulent economic times and an era of massive change has taught me that there’s no right or wrong way of doing it, but there are some key principles that can help along the way. The first of which is simple authenticity. This sounds like something from Disney but I’m afraid you can’t really fool people into thinking that you’re something you’re not.

Decide on your own style, approach and values then stick to them consistently.

Leadership & vision

Communications teams up and down the country are feeling the twin pressures of increased demand and heightened expectations, sometimes because of the voracious, modern media landscape but often because of reduced resources, merged teams and the endless vortex of restructures that threaten to collapse in on themselves.

By now your bulls**t detectors must be tingling because terms like leadership and vision have become part of the lexicon of hackneyed and breathless middle-management claptrap. But remove the veneer of management-speak and you see how important they become to you and your team.

It’s vital that you are able to decide what’s important, plot how you will work and understand exactly where you are adding value to your organisation.

Increasingly that means deciding exactly what the comms priorities are for the year and then sticking to them (The Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ President’s report & the Government Communication Service communications plan are great examples of this).

This process will enable you to properly assess and display how you are providing a rich return on investment through solid analytics and regular reporting. When it comes to doing all this with your team, remember that leadership and management are both very necessary but different traits.


Too often comms and PR can rush straight to tactics. It’s a fast moving world, we need results yesterday and it’s easy to just send a tweet right? (How many conversations have you had with bosses or clients that start like that?)

These three words - objectives, strategy, tactics - should be at the heart of all your thinking so that your team is properly focused and can have the most impact.

Equally it’s vital that your whole team is also focused on outcomes and delivery.

Remember "Strategy without action is only a daydream, but action without strategy is a nightmare" or as Winston Churchill said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

A key part of your team objectives should be ensuring everybody knows what the priorities are and how they are contributing to the delivery of them.

As a leader you also need to PR the PR team and make sure the organisation is acutely aware of its successes.

A changing world and a changing team

Someone once told me that the only people who love change are babies with dirty nappies and even then it’s often a messy process.

We’ve been living through a period of huge change in the past ten years with a revolution in the way we communicate corporately and as a society. At the same time we’ve experienced a major global recession and a fundamental shift in the roles and responsibilities of corporate communicators. This has had a knock on effect on how teams work and in my time I’ve seen teams becoming far more integrated and of course much smaller.

Sometimes this has meant integrating people from outside the usual areas of experience into the communications team which presents challenges for the whole group to deal with. This requires a much stronger focus on skills, development and CPD than ever before, so that while some in the team can lead on specific areas everybody needs a wider general level of ability.

Hierarchies are also flattening which provides more opportunity for greater individual responsibility and responsiveness but also means less support and fewer prospects for promotion. Overall though, from an output perspective, this is generally a good thing for the workplace.

Building resilience

Another awful buzzword I’m afraid but increasing resilience is increasingly important in modern life. If you get the chance to take any professional training or coaching in this area I would urge you to go for it.

What does it mean? Like anything it’s what you make of it but I’ve found my teams and I have always benefitted in having strategies to help you cope when things don’t go as planned and to help prevent some of the thinking distortions we can all fall into. Google calls it failing fast and failing forward.

In the corporate world resilience (or bouncebackability as football managers know it) is quickly becoming the most important trait. It’s much easier said than done, but the ability to pick yourself up and go at it again, is something we’re all having to get better at as numbers and budgets fall while demand grows. I believe that it’s even more pertinent to comms teams at the heart of organisations because – and I say this with love - people in our line of work often seem to have the thinnest skins imaginable.

In an existential sense Franz Kafka teaches us that work needs to be more than the workday horror of simply turning up and getting a salary as part of the machine. On some level people need to enjoy it regardless of how difficult or pressurised things get. How you reward people and create an atmosphere that inspires and motives will largely determine the success of the team.

Having said that Kafka also wrote “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself, “ so what do I know.

Use technology and be the ‘reality check’

It’s a given that technology and the explosion of PR tools has helped the industry flourish in the past decade, moving us back towards the truer, original meaning of public relations, as opposed to just a broker for traditional media access.

It’s amazing how a single new tool can change your approach so try new things, many of them for free with loads of tips in blogs or publications like #PRstack [1].

At the same time some of the older skills are coming to the fore, our role as intelligence gatherers and as the conscience of the organisation are vital in the social media age. It’s never easy but being the ‘buster of bad ideas’ is also an ability that comes from working with the media over many years.


One of the most difficult decisions, especially in the current climate is deciding when you need to take on more people. It’s a tough balancing act that needs to reflect the workload, but also the costs and time attached to upscaling.  However, whatever the financial realities if you spread yourself too thinly you will be guaranteed to fail.

There are now lots of innovative ways of filling these gaps and using paid internships at a large local authority was one of the best decisions I ever made.

One of the biggest mistakes of recruiting tends be a confirmation bias towards ‘people like us’. That often leads to a ‘group think’ scenario where there are no divergent opinions, few new ideas and poor decision making. You can read about how dangerous that is by looking at the CIA in the early 1960s.

You need a mix of skills, experience, opinions, ages and world views if you want your PR team to be truly successful.


Ross Wigham is head of communications and marketing for Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust. He has previously managed communications as well as other teams at one of the country’s biggest local authorities. In 2012 he was named ‘Public sector communicator of the year’ at the UK Public Sector Communications Awards and ‘Professional Communicator of the year’ at the Golden Hedgehogs. Ross is also an experienced journalist and blogger, having spent a decade in London working for top trade publications as well as producing content for firms such as Sony, HSBC and Business Link.

Twitter: @rosswigham