As a marketing and communications professional with more years under my belt than I care to admit, I know how important communication is.
Effective marketing is built on good communication – to put it simply, my ability to connect with the people I’m trying to reach is the key to my success.
However, in advance of spending a day shadowing the Environmental Health (EH) team at Winchester City Council, I would never have predicted a) how frequently communication would appear as a recurring theme and b) how important it is within the skillset of an EH professional.
To provide some context, I’m new to the role of Head of Marketing and Communications at CIEH and one of my first questions to my new colleagues was ‘How can I learn more about the profession?’ I’ve built up a strong set of skills in marketing and communications over the years in various roles in different sectors, but without a good understanding of the challenges the people I’m trying to market to face, I’ll never be working to my full potential. One recommendation was to spend a day shadowing an EH team, so I quickly set about making that happen.
Winchester and its surrounding area poses a number of challenges from an environmental health perspective, and certainly keeps the team incredibly busy. The city itself is a bustling place full of people, restaurants, bars, arts venues and much more – all of which add to the daily task list of the team. It’s also an ancient city steeped in history, but with that comes an unsurprisingly old physical infrastructure which poses its own challenges. To spell it out – rats are going to be a theme here. In addition, the city is surrounded by countryside and water meadows. A number of festivals are held in the countryside, bringing in more people to the area and associated issues such as noise.
I spent a fascinating day with members of the EH team who demonstrated the multi-faceted nature of the profession. Aside from the technical skills they have to gain in order to be able to put themselves into any situation and work out what the environmental health priorities are and how to manage them (and as per the reasons stated above Winchester certainly poses them with many challenges in that regard) they also must possess strong communication, and sometimes mediation, skills. Let me elaborate.
Our first job of the day was to visit neighbouring residential properties where building work in one had allegedly triggered a rise in the local rat population due to a rather large pile of rubble and other detritus that had been left in the back garden providing harbourage. The Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner that I was accompanying prepped me as we arrived that there was likely to be more to this than met the eye, and that once he’d taken a mental temperature check on the situation he would likely need to employ his mediation skills to get to an end result that both parties were happy with. The end result we needed was fewer rats – and yes, fewer is correct as the water meadows nearby (which are a rat’s preferred home environment) would mean they would always be around. But the building rubble was providing them with a nice dry place to shelter and subsequently bringing them a little too close to homes and gardens.
My host employed his communication skills to ascertain that the building work had been going on for a while and was causing some disruption – meaning emotions were a little higher than usual between the neighbours. Through gentle questioning and proferring of advice, he was also able to discover that the neighbour who had made the call to Environmental Health had lost a friend to a disease carried by rats meaning his sensitivities to the situation were even more heightened. This knowledge was key – this wasn’t just a situation of one neighbour dobbing in another because he’d had enough of his disruptive building work. There was much more to it, which materialised through the human aspect that my host brought into the situation by gently digging below the surface. The end result was that the neighbour undertaking the building work was persuaded that yes, rats would always be nearby, but by clearing his garden he could help alleviate the situation.
I saw the same sensitivity and skills employed later in the day when I accompanied one of the council’s Health Protection Managers on a food hygiene check on a city centre restaurant. Clearly discretion was key here and he went out of his way to ensure that the Restaurant Manager felt comfortable with the process rather than intimidated. He explained everything clearly (using a lowered tone throughout to ensure customers weren’t aware of the checks happening) and constantly offered reassurances about the nature of the questions being asked. My takeaway from that visit was that the process is a necessary one that a restaurant manager probably doesn’t relish, but managing it in a gently, supportive and always professional way made it less about ‘oh goodness, the inspectors are here’ and more about ‘how can we learn from this visit and improve our processes even more.’ The end result was a positive one – the restaurant maintained their 5* rating.
To bring this back to my original point and to link it to my own skillset, putting the ‘user’ at the heart of marketing activity is always key. Activity needs to be tailored to their needs and requirements in order to resonate with them, and ultimately to be successful. In the same way, EHPs clearly need to have skills around communication, but also to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the people they encounter when dealing with environmental health issues and to empathise in order to come up with solutions that work for all parties involved. This possibly isn’t something they realise when they first start out in their careers and takes time and investment on their part to develop, but clearly the rewards are there to be reaped.
I’m really grateful for my time with the Winchester team and found it invaluable. I’m hoping to get out with them again - maybe even take in a festival or two and perhaps swap rats for a bit of noise management next time around!