Q&A with Fiona Forbes, Icon’s Director of Communications and PR
As Icon’s Director of Communications and Public Relations, Fiona Forbes provides leadership and expert advice on stakeholder communications and behaviour change campaigns. She has extensive experience with government and corporate clients, with a strong background in health and higher education.
She shares her thoughts on the power of communications and a brave new world in the wake of COVID-19.
What drew you to communications?
I’ve had a number of careers in my life, but communication skills have been a common thread throughout - I know how to tell a story.
One of my early jobs was working with the National Health Service in the UK, creating internal communications to support a pilot program of the first ever electronic health records. My job involved working with the clinical staff, showing them the benefits of this new technology and teaching them how to use it. These people were visiting patients' homes and carrying paper files and suddenly we were telling them to upload patient information into an electronic file, which was a pretty radical change at the time, with the Internet only just beginning.
I loved that job. It opened up my eyes to change management and how you truly engage people - you can’t just give them new technology and tell them to use it, you have to ensure they understand the benefits and you also have to manage barriers to change.
The easiest way to build a connection with people is to find some common ground: really, you just have to be interested in people. Understanding what makes people tick is a fundamental part of stakeholder engagement.
What is the biggest organisational lesson you’ve learned through your career?
It’s vital I continuously seek to improve, both myself and the place I’m working. I’ve always been passionate about culture and leadership. I call out bad decision-making and unfairness and it’s safe to say that I’ve been a bit of an agitator in the past, because I tend to challenge the status quo: I want to know why we do things the way we do and whether we’ve thought about a different way.
I like to be challenged and to learn new things, so across the last 30 years I’ve worked in a lot of different environments, both in-house and at agencies. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and now I can draw together all of my experience into an amazing knowledge base of how organisations work.
What drew you to Icon?
Throughout my career I’ve often worked in the health industry, and I’ve always enjoyed the purposeful nature of that work. One of my early jobs was working with the local health service in Western Sydney during the AIDS epidemic. I was working to build awareness and promote safe sex - I felt like I was making a positive impact on the world.
So at the start of 2021, I’d been freelancing for a year and had decided I wanted to get back to those purposeful roots. Icon’s focus on purpose and social impact aligned perfectly with that desire. When I started, I was blown away by the expertise, both within Icon Reputation but also the other arms of Icon Agency, which provide fantastic support in marketing, branding, creative and digital communications.
The other aspect that has really clicked for me while working at Icon is the cultural dedication to creating work-life balance and openness to implementing new programs to support employee health. Balance has become more important to me throughout my career: I work very hard, but if I don’t have my foundations right, I won’t be able to function at my optimal level.
Joining Icon has been an opportunity to lead and develop a team. I want to ensure my team understands that it’s really important to have balance in your life.
What are the headline ways that COVID has affected communications? And what can we expect as the world begins to open up again?
Initially, most people thought that COVID would end and normal would return, but now it’s clear that we’re never going back to 2019. So now organisations are trying to determine what their reconfigured world looks like and that will be different for every organisation. It’ll change how they talk to their customers and more importantly how they talk to their people.
Looking back at 2019, I think many of us were sleepwalking - we went through our daily routines, but we didn’t fully engage with the world at large.COVID has made people reconsider what truly matters to them, and we’ve seen a reckoning in many areas like gender equality and climate.
The new generation is also more vocal about what they expect from organisations - not just the organisations they work for, but any organisation they interact with or give money to. With the evolution of the Internet, it’s impossible to fully cover up damaging stories. It’s no longer enough to say the right thing - organisations need to be authentic and walk the talk.
Ultimately, I don’t think a lot has changed in how we deliver PR, or the channels we use, but COVID has had a huge impact on people. When people change - when their priorities change and what they care about change - that has to change the way we as PRs connect with them.