“Mission-driven” communications specialist Rosella Chibambo has more than eight years of experience as a strategist, project manager and content creator – and she is definitely a future comms leader to watch. In this member profile, Rosella reflects on the importance of building relationships, her outlook on digital communications today, and what it’s like to start a new comms gig amid a global pandemic.
1.What’s your connection to IABC Ottawa?
I joined through my previous employer. I attended the 2019 World Conference in Vancouver and have checked out a couple local events, including an awesome panel on government relations that was very relevant to the work I do.
2. You recently changed jobs – how was the onboarding experience given the current reality of remote work? Any advice for people who want a change but are nervous about taking the plunge in this unusual and uncertain time?
I have noticed a number of people in my social and professional circles making career changes throughout the pandemic. In a way, this new mode of living and working seems to have set the stage for other big life changes and decisions. I was super lucky making the transition to Genome Canada. The corporate culture is so warm and welcoming—even in this virtual environment. Colleagues from across the organization welcomed me virtually, even before my first day logging on. Genome Canada also makes a point to welcome new hires on social media, which generated some fun buzz in my network. Sure, this new work from home reality means missing out on those informal opportunities to suss out social dynamics and chat casually about work. But what made it work, for me, was being super intentional about reaching out to people and inviting them for virtual coffees. I had to bring my social networking skills to the job.
3. What does a typical workday look like for you?
The short answer: Teams, email, Twitter, Zoom, email, coffee! My days are quite full. Because I am still relatively new to the organization and haven’t had the opportunity to meet many colleagues in person, a big focus of mine is building relationships, listening in on different meetings, and generally getting a better sense of the work we’re doing. My position is actually new – I was brought on to build out a fresh digital comms strategy – so I’m working with staff across the organization and our networks to ensure the strategy is informed by and implemented with their perspectives and feedback.
4. In your experience, what are the key ingredients to digital communications today? Any tools or trends that you’re thinking about, lately?
Ottawa comms leader Caroline Kealey often talks about being “tactic-agnostic.” I love that term. It’s easy to get excited about new platforms or storytelling tools, but when I’m planning something on digital, I try to remind myself that it’s all about the message and the audience. It helps to be experimental, but also thoughtful about where resources and time are being allocated. Building out a great digital comms strategy is really about the storytellers you have at your disposal and finding ways for them to carry your message authentically. Not everyone’s a TikTok star, you know?
In all seriousness, one of the real keys to impactful digital storytelling is looking beyond your corporate accounts and mobilizing the leadership and expertise of individuals. Nothing beats that. Often, the best messengers an organization has aren’t even in comms. Like a kick-ass researcher who can translate enthusiasm about a project and the big questions that drive their work. I’m really interested in meaningfully engaging people outside of the formal communications team in the storytelling we do on digital – either by supporting their social media accounts, or building a storytelling pipeline to help them feed expertise and ideas into our content calendar. This is particularly important at a science organization, where we absolutely need subject matter experts to ensure we are communicating accurately.
In the COVID-19 context, people are really overwhelmed by information and screens – me included. Much of my thinking recently has been about getting back to basics. I’m asking: what is the simplest, most effective tool to get a message across? For example, for an advocacy initiative, might a Twitter DM, or a short LinkedIn blog from the right person end up being more effective than a full-scale video campaign? Could a short Zoom chat between a researcher and a funder/decision maker have a more lasting impression than a digital ad buy? It’s refreshing to see simplicity. Knowing that there is only so much time and limited resources available, I’m also exploring how to simplify production of social media graphics and templates without sacrificing quality (building a suite of templates into Canva has saved me, and I’m sure, many others). I’m interested to learn how other communicators are streamlining their efforts.
5. How do you approach measuring communications success?
I think about measurement in two ways. First: We’re slowly emerging from our singular focus on numbers (e.g. social media vanity metrics). In my world, we’re trying to connect with decision makers; we’re not selling products or converting customers. So we need different ways to capture online engagements and interactions with key people. It’s not just how often people engage but what they’re saying. For me, it’s way more exciting to see someone mirror our messaging in one tweet, than a ton of impressions from people who are not our core audience. Understanding how people are engaging with our messaging and what it means to them is so important, but it’s also so much harder to track those qualitative indicators of success. Second: It’s important to get super clear on the impact you’re measuring. Within the digital comms sphere, people tend to put numbers against things that are not necessarily comms-driven outcomes. We have to be a bit more realistic about our goals and what we can achieve through digital platforms, especially in the non-profit space.
6. You have notable experience working with non-profit organizations that bring multiple members or entities together under one ecosystem. What are the nuances to working in this kind of environment and meeting complex stakeholder needs?
The challenge is we’re all working in our own contexts, but there are a lot of areas for common ground. The most important thing for comms professionals is focusing on where we have those common interests and goals. It comes back to relationship building. The people at other organizations in our network are busy. One-way message sharing isn’t going to cut it, and to get the best out of collaborations, we need to understand the day-to-day challenges of our counterparts at other organizations. In my experience, building a community of practice, where we have forums to commiserate over shared challenges and share new ideas, is a really great way to build that culture of collaboration and information sharing you need to work effectively across an association or network.
7. What is your most improved skill – something you’ve had to work at in your career?
I can be fairly shy before I get to know people – and I’m right on the cusp of introverted and extroverted – so I have had to be really intentional about building relationships with colleagues, partners, and other professionals. Authentic relationships and finding common ground with people are so foundational to communications success. My journalism background helps break through the shyness: just ask a lot of questions!
8. Favourite social media platform?
Twitter. It’s where I consume the vast majority of my news, connect with my local community on a variety of issues, and learn what other communicators are doing.
9. Do you have a mentor or someone whose career path inspires you?
I’ve had several great mentors in my career. A couple years ago I worked with an amazing comms leader, Janis Hass. She taught me the importance of building strong, genuine relationships and how they pay dividends for communicators in terms of our ability to get a really good read on what people are thinking and how to translate messaging to a broader audience. I’m currently working on a team led by two public affairs/communications pros, Pari Johnston and Nicola Katz (the through line in my career is mentorship by amazing women leaders). This is actually my second experience working on a team led by Pari, who has taught me a lot about how powerful it can be when professional communicators are at the table for policy and strategy discussions.
10. You have contributed your skills to a couple non-profit Boards. What would you say to someone who is interested in joining a Board but not sure how to go about it?
It has been extremely fulfilling to bring my strategic comms skills to small (but mighty!) organizations doing amazing work with limited resources. An engaged and effective Board can make a huge difference, and my involvement has allowed me to maintain connections with community and social justice work I’m passionate about. I would absolutely encourage anyone to pursue a Board position, because strategic comms expertise is very much needed across the non-profit sector. If you’re early or mid career, working on a Board in a comms capacity offers terrific exposure to comms strategy, planning, crisis communications, media relations, and more. You can gain a lot of experience early in your career doing things you may not get a chance to do in your regular job. And you have valuable skills to bring to the table.
11. Top three words your friends and family would use to describe you?
Curious. Shrewd. Funny.