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Mental health – some things you can’t put a spin on

11/05/2021
After the year we’ve all endured and as a parent and small business owner, Sam Howard adds her voice in support of mental health awareness.Sam Howard Mental Health Blog

Running the agency and being a lone parent are usually quite enough to be going on with. But aiming for all the plates spinning all of the time is normally OK. It’s the life I’ve chosen and I make a point of rewarding the tough times with the good: Normally we enjoy lots of family travel; yummy dinners with friends; hikes out into the countryside with the hounds etc. So I can usually ride out the storms.

But when thinly-stretched is your base point and then you swap out your reward system  for grief, fear, restrictions and isolation – I guess it’s no surprise that I have sometimes felt completely overwhelmed. Add to that a very ‘tentative’ year for business and ‘bleak’ would just about sum me up for much of 2021.

Also having to bear witness to the carnage this era has wreaked in our children’s lives is extraordinarily painful. An observant parent once noted, “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” Effectively keeping me tethered somewhere between despondent and extremely anxious.

I have no magic cure, no top five tips, no slick way of linking this back to our services.

I’m lucky to be old enough to have had my first jab which was huge. And for me, things started to get better when after a winter of all work and no play, I  swapped the laptop for a shovel and headed off into the garden for a couple of weeks to give my brain a bit of a break and to get some perspective.

Looking forward to looking forward

In the short term, I hope that as we all come out of this and are able to reclaim our personal reward system, we can look forward to better times and our mental resilience and stability will be returned to us.

But in the longer term I hope we have learned some collective empathy. Having weathered the menopause, I am no stranger to anxiety and panic attacks. Even though it was only a few years ago, the general consensus at the time was that all I need do was, ‘just get a grip’. With so many of us now more personally acquainted with the debilitations of poor mental health, I hope there will now be a much deeper well of consideration for those in our care. Whether they be colleagues, family or friends who are suffering, let us hope this collective experience, enables us to give them the comfort, patience and support they deserve.

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Counting our Blessings: #5 An ‘un-des’ res

21/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam has counted five of them. In her last four posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B, with a distinct aversion for organising events and for being part of a team that understands life sometimes comes first. Here’s her final reason to be grateful:

The ‘Un-des res’

Hearing on the radio every day of the challenges so many people were faced with trying to work from home, in homes that were not set up for it, and full of people that were not supposed to be there in working hours, i.e. the rest of the family – I am so grateful never to have succumbed to the mantra location, location, location.

People look a bit sorry for me when I confess to where I live, which is in a deeply unfashionable part of London, on the wrong side of the North Circular, in a distinctly average suburban semi. Not for us warehouse living or the joys of open plan, indeed not one wall has ever been knocked through. In the immediate environs, there are no funky shops, no gastro pubs and no organic anything at all, although we’re spoilt for choice with fried chicken shops.

But for that rather ego-wounding trade-off, what we do have, is what this year became the new must have, was… SPACE.

Space enough to have a large and comfortable office with a door I can open when I go to work and shut behind me when I finish. And it has lovely old French windows that open up to a garden, a long unwieldy shady tangle of a garden that I’m never fully on top of, but it kept me sane and tan just trying. We even have a huge lake at the bottom of the road – no really! It was one of London’s best kept secrets, but not so much now.

And if you do have to share a home office with anyone, at least I get to share mine with Dill and Basil.

With Elli happily locked down at St Andrews for the autumn was I ever grateful to have the companionship of Dill the little labrador and new recruit five month old Basil, a bulldog/poodle or boodle if you will, and a total charmer like a little furry Hugh Grant. Together they get me out of the house every day, and watching them play is better than any water cooler moment I can ever recall.

Actually I could go on, but I’ll stop at five. To share the love and celebrate our good fortune we’re donating a day’s fee to the team’s chosen charities: The Trussell Trust, providers of food banks across the UK, Shelter, supporting the homeless, and Street Paws, looking after the animals of the homeless.

As this century comes of age, we sincerely hope it starts to behave itself with albeit an enlightened return to the old normal (even if it’s not that different for us) as soon as possible.

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Counting our Blessings: #4 A trouble shared

18/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last three posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B with a distinct aversion for organising events. Here’s blessing number four; the final one will follow in a few days.

A trouble shared

Maybe it’s because we have no office and that tends to keep the politics of it at bay, but one of the most significant things about our team is that we really do get on and we really do like each other.

So, as each of us inevitably had to duck out to deal with the maelstrom of COVID chaos and life events that came our way – sick loved ones, vulnerable parents, isolated relatives, trying to get food delivered, home schooling, doomed pet rescues, house moves, and even a new baby – the rest of the team stepped up and stepped in to keep the all the plates spinning. In fact the agency even experienced a growth spurt at this time.

Knowing there was instant financial support for anyone who needed it, and weekly Zoom lunches where all talk of work was banned but you could bring your knitting, helped us to stay connected in mind and spirit.

We even managed to volunteer our time to give a Career Ready mentee a content-rich one month virtual internship, which everyone enjoyed and we hope will help with her application to study media at university. Go Asah!

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Counting our Blessings: #3 An uneventful calendar

16/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last two posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B. Here’s blessing number three; the final two will follow in over the next few days.

An uneventful calendar

20 years ago with a three month-old baby, I was tasked with organising one of the biggest user group meetings in the fintech industry. 500 bankers, 200 staff, 12 partners and a five day event in Hotel Arts in Barcelona, just me with zero back-up or support.

Every single aspect of making the conference happen was my responsibility, from the big things like promoting the event and getting people to come in the first place to liaising with all the partners to the planning,  to the entertainment and the blasted buses; from tasting the menus and deciding how much coffee and wine to order to the onsite logisticslike getting up at 5am every morning to put the notepads on the seats in the break-out sessions. to being the last person on the bus every night trying to round up 500 bankers partying all over Barcelona…

Hand on heart I can tell you it was the worst project I have ever undertaken by a country MILE and while ultimately it was a success, the stress levels were horrendous and the trauma went deep.

I swore off events for the rest of my career and as an agency my anathema continued and I’ve steered us clear of them. Sure, we can provide PR and AR outreach support for our clients at events like Sibos, but it is not core for us, it’s just part of the wider PR remit.

Now, when you see the greats like Julie Ross and Profit & Loss with their brilliant global event programme having to close their doors at this time, I can only salute them for thei amazing skill set. It seeems  these things happen for a reason and there but for the grace of SunGard…

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Counting our blessings: #2 B2B is the place to be

13/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last post she gave thanks that we have been a virtual communications agency from the start. Here’s blessing number two: the rest will follow over the next few days.

B2B is the place to be (vindication at last)

I’ve given many university lectures in PR over the years and I’ve always rhapsodised about B2B to a room of glassy-eyed students whose minds are made up already and can’t see past the bright lights of B2C. In a class of 70 you might get one student who goes, oh B2B might be cool, tell me more… they usually become our interns.

And who could blame them. Like most people I know I fell into B2B. For it has none of the glamour, accessibility or hype of B2C.

Let’s face it, producing and launching an industry white paper is never going to get us on the red carpet at the Cannes Lions Awards… No-one is queuing up to make AbDrab, a comedy series based on the hilarious adventures of a couple of slightly studious B2B PR ladies.

Of course the year has had its ups and downs but they do not appear to be related to the pandemic. It seems working only in hard-core B2B tech and fintech has given us a level of protection from the catastrophic impact COVID has had on so many sectors, all connected to B2C.

And for that we are truly grateful and can only wish our industry as a whole a speedy recovery.

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Counting our Blessings: #1 Virtual from the start

09/12/2020

As we emerge pale and wan from English lockdown 2.0 we look to put the year far, far behind us. But ‘tis the season to count our blessings, and although we’ve endured our sadnesses and setbacks, Sam can count at least five of them.

Here’s blessing number one; the rest will follow in a series of posts over the next few days.

Virtual from the start

No new normal here – we have always been a virtual office.

Having run PR functions for many years, when I set up The Comms Crowd in 2012, it was a no brainer to dispense with the hassle of a central office. Minimal overheads meant better customer rates, and I’d attract and retain a more experienced and talented team if they had the freedom to work the hours that best suited their lives.

We’re blessed as we’ve had all this time to perfect how we work together as a team and get past the rookie working from home mistakes: (think pjs, flaky IT, uncomfortable chairs and FaceTime burnout).

So when COVID hijacked 2020 there were no disruptions to our services, no calamities, it was business as normal for us.

Of course, the knock-on effect of being entirely virtual from the get-go was that I had very little appetite for anything else virtual, so I was the permanent no-show at the virtual choir, the virtual pub quiz and the virtual Tai Chi class…not sure anyone missed me.

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Counting our Blessings: #4 A trouble shared

08/12/2020

‘Tis the season to count our blessings and Sam can count at least five of them. In her last three posts she gave thanks that we have been virtual from the start and entirely focused on B2B with a distinct aversion for organising events. Here’s blessing number four; the final one will follow in a few days.

A trouble shared

Maybe it’s because we have no office and that tends to keep the politics of it at bay, but one of the most significant things about our team is that we really do get on and we really do like each other.

So, as each of us inevitably had to duck out to deal with the maelstrom of COVID chaos and life events that came our way – sick loved ones, vulnerable parents, isolated relatives, trying to get food delivered, home schooling, doomed pet rescues, house moves, and even a new baby – the rest of the team stepped up and stepped in to keep the all the plates spinning. In fact the agency even experienced a growth spurt at this time.

Knowing there was instant financial support for anyone who needed it, and weekly Zoom lunches where all talk of work was banned but you could bring your knitting, helped us to stay connected in mind and spirit.

We even managed to volunteer our time to give a Career Ready mentee a content-rich one month virtual internship, which everyone enjoyed and we hope will help with her application to study media at university. Go Asah!

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Profiling Sam Howard, Career Ready mentor and founder of The Comms Crowd

24/08/2020

Asah Adolphe joined us for the month of July 2020 as an intern, and many of the team were involved in giving her some experience of different aspects of our work. Sandra Vogel, head of tech content and working journalist, volunteered to guide Asah through conducting and writing up an interview. This involves several different skills, including researching your subject, working out interview questions that will get you the results you think you need, and crafting an article out of what you learn. Below you can read the result – Asah’s interview with our founder Sam Howard.

It has been eight years since Sam Howard started The Comms Crowd, and it has never been more of a success than it is today. She discloses all in this interview from her favourite procrastination habits to her greatest career achievements and even admits how it was never her initial career plan to work in PR.

Earlier on in Sam’s professional journey she did not consider that PR would be her future career path and even resented the suggestion when her boss recommended it to her. Nevertheless, we can now understand that the software CEO had the right idea as his encouragement led her into the right direction, as she is now the head of a thriving comms agency.

As the creator of a ‘new breed of communications agency’, Sam’s main responsibilities are to ensure that the company is healthy, financially balanced and that that their clients are happy as she emphasises, ‘good enough is never ever good enough.’ Her determined mindset filtrated through every response she made to the questions I asked and accentuated why not only the company but her professional career has been such a triumph.

When asked about the key to developing an efficient team she explained that it is vital that each member is articulate, maintains a technical understanding and exhibits an interest in their role as this all contributes to the smooth sailing of the business. After all, an enthusiastic team builds the foundation for a successful, prosperous organisation.

In any professional field every individual is guaranteed to face hurdles and experience failure, Sam even acknowledged that to fail ‘is how you learn to become better at what you do’ and I could not agree more. When I queried the award-winning writer on the topic of failure, she confessed that she had failed on numerous occasions, which is understandable when you have twenty plus years’ experience in B2B tech PR. She recalled one ‘unpleasant’ experience which happened to be when she was relatively new to the industry and was approached with a new role in the city that she was not prepared for at that point in her career. She expressed it was an honour to be chosen for the job, so she completely ignored the skill level it actually required and ended up ‘leaping in’ and being devastatingly inadequate. Although, she added that headhunting is common in the industry, so it is all too tempting to take a role that you are not yet qualified to do.

It is fair to say that failure can open the door to many successes, Sam’s professional experiences reinforce this as she has accomplished a lot within her time in the industry. However, her greatest achievement she claimed was her having the incentive to start the Comms Crowd. In 2012 traditional work environments made it mandatory for employees to work in offices for long hours, and even getting a 4-day week or working one day a week from home was still frowned upon. Sam decided to go against this model entirely and set up a fully virtual agency with no office at all (and none of the overheads so no extortionate agency rates). Now in the midst of a pandemic, the model is finally recognised as the way to go, but Sam has been making it a success as she has ‘pulled-off’ managing a dynamic, efficient, and professional team that operates from various locations across the country.

The determination and passion that built this tech comms agency stemmed from Sam’s desire to collaborate and work with people she respected. She recognised from early on that it was unfair of the PR industry to have impractical expectations of its mainly female work force, therefore her aim was to embrace these expectations and create a flexible supportive environment, as she stresses that ‘your personal life and your children and your family and your dogs are as important as work and anyone who acts as if they’re not is kidding themselves.’ Clearly, staying true to these values is what stimulates and inspires her drive.

Sam was certainly not reluctant in shedding some light on the challenges she has come across in her career. She revealed, that when working in PR ‘it is vital to learn how to adapt as every client is unique and getting it spot-on with a client can always be tricky’. However, this does not seem to deter Sam and her team from reaching their goal and ultimately impressing their clients. In her view the most rewarding element in her role is witnessing her team blossom and seeing how her team manages to have such a positive impact on their clients.

The Chief Storytelling Officer went on to describe her typical day, and I have to admit it is very productive considering she works from home but it happens to be a routine that she has evolved over the eight years of running The Crowd. Intriguingly she gets to pick her own working hours which begins at 1pm in the afternoon until 7:30pm in the evening and she clarified that between those hours ‘she is in deep concentration.’ However, she promptly starts her day at 8:30am when most people are commuting to work so she can get an early start on her domestic tasks, then she goes outdoors to take her dogs for a walk and after that she would normally get in some exercise, such as Pilates swimming or cycling; as a result of COVID-19 her exercise routine has undergone some changes, unfortunately as we have all experienced this pandemic has affected our lives in many ways. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Sam as her routine remains proactive.

Maintaining a productive and successful work-life along with a satisfying balanced personal life can be stressful, especially when being the executive of a company, but Sam has the perfect yet quirky coping mechanism that helps her which she shares as ‘very calming.’ *Drum roll* it is…creating spreadsheets! Yes! colourful, bright, multicoloured spreadsheets is what relaxes her from a demanding day at work. After all, everyone needs a stress reliever.

I realised prior to conducting this interview that Sam is very ardent and committed in encouraging the next generation of talent. I asked her for any advice she could offer any young person considering a career in the field of PR or the media industry in general. She responded that individuals that wished to undertake a career path into Media and PR must have a ‘strong work ethic’ along with determination and an understanding that the industry is fast paced, she also stated that the person must take into consideration their skills and mindset; as the industry ‘ is competitive and changes like the landscape’. This interview with Sam Howard has been enlightening and informative with a hue of humour. Sam has shared inner and concise mental abilities it takes to be successful in the Media and PR world. She has shown us what it takes to be a part of the industry and the positive yet resilient, tenacious attitude one must have to succeed.

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The ninth year – thought it was tough at the time

18/03/2020

Sam Howard looks back on the ninth year of The Crowd

So when I first drafted this blog it was along the lines: last 12 months have seen our clients weathering a second year of political faffing, and we saw a fair amount of  short-termism and turmoil. But on the upside it did give us the opportunity to assess our strengths and tap into them while developing new services designed to deliver hard returns to the client’s bottom line in such uncertain times. And round about December I was thinking, everything is looking calmer now, we’re in great shape and all set for a steady 2020!

Er yeah about that…

For sure, our remote business model means we are no strangers to the joys of self-isolation and virtual collaboration is not a novely for us but a way of life. But for the industry as a whole, with global travel cancelled and social distancing restrictions wreaking havoc with every family, every community, and every business, let alone the marketing plan… I’m already looking back on those halcyon Brexit days with nothing but a warm nostalgia.

Here’s our year in numbers as more words fail me.

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Getting our own house in order

01/01/2020

Founder Sam Howard reflects on how it’s easy to forget to talk the talk when you’re so busy walking that walk.

Getting our own house in order blogSimply put, our role at The Comms Crowd is to help companies best articulate what they do, how they help their customers, and why they do it better than their competitors. Once we have that position defined, that’s what we roll out in varying engaging formats across the most appropriate comms channels for their target audiences: website, content, PR, social media, etc. We have all built our careers focused on this and only this, so we have become really rather good at it, and as a result we have enjoyed eight years of strong and steady growth.

But then we made the CLASSIC MISTAKE:

We were so busy looking after our clients we fell behind on our own positioning and comms  – fairly embarrassing for a comms agency!

Just like the firms we work with, our strengths have evolved over the years, which means our competitive advantage has shifted, and as a result, the type of clients we work with.

In the early days we sported the start-up vibe of, ‘we are small, agile and affordable’ and of course we were, and still are. However, over time we attracted and retained some of the best independent talent in the industry and developed a deep pool of sector knowledge, as well as a wider skill set. And, as a consequence, we have enjoyed working with a much wider range of companies, so alongside our first loves, the start ups, we find ourselves increasingly working with larger firms too.

Yet our website did not reflect this evolution at all… nor our blog content… nor our social feeds.

Having identified the problem, there have been a few long weeks at the keyboard as we overhauled everything from the ground up. Now, our website and all our social content clearly articulate our core value and how we are best able to help our clients.  We have created the space to demonstrate our fintech and tech/cyber experience and our comms expertise, and made sure we have lots of lovely client stories to go with.

So now we are all set! Bring it on 2020, we’re ready for ya!

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