FIVE MINUTES WITH SAM BLEAZARD
Sam Bleazard is the employee communication and engagement lead at Fortnum & Mason. Following a 20-year career in communications he decided to launch his own podcast, Comms from the Shed, during the pandemic. Bleazard talks to Communicate magazine about his experience, the impact on his career and how podcasts are shaping the future of internal comms.
What made you start Comms from the Shed?
Like a lot of things, it was born out of necessity. I’d worked in the construction sector for 6-7 years, and an opportunity came up to move to something new and exciting. That turned out to be a very different situation to the one I had envisaged, so after six months I ended up leaving that job. It felt like a lot of things had come to a screeching halt, and I found I had a lot less confidence.
Six months into the pandemic I was in a reflective moment and not sure what to do next. I started writing a series of blogs on LinkedIn as a morale booster, talking about things like screen fatigue and various comms practices. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could translate the blog into some sort of podcast looking at how people have been coping personally and professionally during the pandemic? I set up an office in my garden shed and that's how ‘Comms from the Shed’ was born.
I started listening to podcasts about how to do podcasts. I was still trying to figure out my next career step, but I was learning all this stuff in the background. When I asked Drew McMillan, BAs comms director, and Dr Kirsty Fairclough from Manchester University to talk to me, I wasn’t expecting them to say yes because I didn't have any episodes. Their willingness to get involved really gave me the drive to make it happen.
How has Comms from the Shed impacted your career?
I’ve always had diverse interests and have maintained my passion for writing and cultural pursuits, but I also wanted to learn a new skill. Even when I’ve been head of internal comms or part of a senior leadership team, it is always a good thing when people come along and challenge me. One of my previous bosses challenged me to learn DIY filmmaking which involved researching, creating, and editing content. You need to walk the walk and prove that you can also do these modern comms techniques.
Comms from the Shed is an outlet for me to pursue communications related ideas, but it’s also part of my personal brand identity. I think it’s led to lots of interesting conversations and put me in a sort of shop window on LinkedIn. It can be uncomfortable talking about yourself on occasion and our personal brand, but the podcast certainly became a conversation starter.
Regardless of your age or experience you need to be open to learn new skills and tools within communications. There is a whole range of skills involved in podcasting. I think Comms from the Shed has encouraged me to tap back into my journalism training once more. I’m a firm believer that a lot of the best comms people are great storytellers and have that journalistic impulse within them. The podcast also encouraged me to think about how content is packaged up and analysed, so now I have broader comms experience with both internal and external audiences.
How do you think podcasting could shape the future of communications?
Social media can be a brilliant tool to provide short and snappy bites of information, but it’s hard to beat areally in-depth interview that really gets under the skin of a subject. Podcasting is quite an intimate and personal channel to listen to. People that regularly tune into podcasts will usually listen from start to finish. Corporate companies are a bit slow on the uptake, but I have seen various big brands experimenting with six-to-seven-minute audio bites talking about diversity, sustainability or innovation. Audio should be used more. I’ve always been a big fan of corporate video, but I’m very aware that many people just don’t have time to absorb and watch every film you make. Fortnum & Mason have a large number of people with very fixed shift patterns for example, and accessibility to tech can be difficult. It’s all about making content accessible.
What lessons you have learnt from your 20-year career in communications?
Internal communications is an evolving career and it has changed a lot. As an internal comms professional, you get an overview of everything a company or organisation does and that puts you in a very privileged position. Leadership teams share their strategy with you and invite you to forums where they discuss the future of the business. But you also see a lot of dysfunction in the corporate world, so you are partly there to iron out that dysfunctionality. It is also important not to prejudge people, or listen to other people’s judgements before forming your own, no matter what situation you find yourself in.
It is always helpful to think about any gaps you might identify in an organisation. For example, when joining Fortnum & Mason, I could see the company's Instagram was booming but on other channels there wasn’t always the same level of engagement. I was very keen to see the faces of the people behind the business. So that became one of the basic things I wanted to change. We implemented a strategy to tell employee stories, introducing things like #facesofFortnums to LinkedIn,because it is an incredibly diverse business with over 60 different nationalities.
What communications project are you most proud of?
The things you are proud of in your career are usually either the things you look back fondly on, or the things that outlast you. When I worked at John Lewis, we did a big piece of communication on strategy and their ‘retail revolution’. I had a close relationship with the IT director who had a number of connections at Google. John Lewis has a very engaged audience, so we persuaded Google to let us use its tools and test the response. This was a really successful project and long outlived my time there.
Equally in the construction industry, we worked hard to move from a very corporate style, to one that was much more connected to the projects. Over the years we did a lot of work getting out into the field, whether it was working on training courses in partnership with HR, executive level coaching or making films about the employee experience – which we then shared on LinkedIn and YouTube. We worked hard to change the industry from a diversity point of view, being deliberate and intentional to ensure more people are represented and heard. That is something I am proud of because I think it really made a lasting impact.
Find Comms from the Shed here.