Eleanor Ashton is Assistant Director, strategic communication and regional delivery team, Inland Rail at the Department of Infrastructure. El is one of the most passionate people I have ever met. She is passionate about climate change, politics, hiking, communications, and life. I love catching up with El because our conversations are always so wide-ranging and thought-provoking. Simply, she is one of the smartest people I know. She is a deep and considerate thinker who has used theory to compliment her strong communications instinct to support a wide range of organisations.
When did you start in this role?
I have been at the Department of Infrastructure since December 2019.
What did you do before you this role?
Contested, complex and technically difficult public issues bring me joy, so I’ve always gravitated to government and other public institutions.
Over the past two decades, I’ve worked in another five Australian Government departments, a state government, a capital city council, universities and the not-for-profit sector.
For more than half of that time, I was in environmental issues – climate change, renewables, energy efficiency, water and waste. It was my first love and having specialised for so long. I thought I would stay forever. But I’ve since realised my interest lies in any system-wide shift which equips us to cope with the challenges ahead. And that’s how stints in ethics and organisational culture, digital transformation, public service reform, and now a major new freight rail line is just as satisfying.
In my last job, I learnt the average Australian public servant has worked in one department. It surprised me, and I’d be interested in people’s reflections on whether that pans out in our communications teams?
What does a normal day look like for you?
Eat, sleep, rave, repeat.
I check the public policy conversation on traditional and social media, look at our shared inbox for what’s on the horizon, then write, edit, liaise and plan.
Our team serves and sits with one particular project, which is a significant investment for the government, so our days are full and changeable.
Can you tell us about one of your career highlights?
Working with the British Foreign Service. There were so many highlights in that role—the access to information and experience from all over the world. The ability to provide insights to Australia at a time there was a huge appetite for climate policy options. The chance to experience expert level public diplomacy, and to see and learn about our politics up-close yet from a distance.
That role sparked a new direction for how I work. It taught me:
- the power of questions which make no assumptions and set no expectation for the answer
- how our language, phrasing and tactics so often put a bell on the very issues we seek to manage
- how influence sits at the heart of communication, is rarely acknowledged yet is often what we hope to achieve
- what happens when building relationships, having exploratory conversations or helping people for no clear outcome is acknowledged as core work.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
I’m in it now. The last five years has been a storm of personal and professional challenges — chronic illness, grief in different forms, and workplaces full of passionate and talented people doing their best to manage a multitude of views about purpose, process and pressures.
Combined with my own programming, I have developed an anxiety about speaking up in front of others.
I haven’t overcome it yet, but ‘Be brave’ has been a watchword and a practice in recent years. And I’ve got myself help with old habits and ways of thinking.
What changes do you think will occur in communications over the next decade?
To apply for my undergraduate degree, I submitted a short essay about current communications trends. In 1998, those were identified as channel fragmentation and the convergence of digital information across devices.
Those big tactical challenges haven’t gone away, have they? Instead, they’ve evolved into an even broader range of channels, voices, audience expectations, and ways to participate.
There is any number of ways to embrace the challenges we face — digital capability and solutions, a smorgasbord of information and channels, user-focussed practices, clarifying purpose and the values and principles from which we work, acknowledging the broader systems we’re in and working with neuro and social science disciplines to better measure and effect change.
Each of those things are valuable and necessary for our profession. And each has been present in some form or another since I started studying communications 21 years ago.
But there are other changes which strike me as important for the longevity and value of our craft. They are:
- In a world where we better understand the importance of authenticity and trust, how do we pull back from over-managing our communications and spokespeople? How do we respond to the evidence that people find connection and build trust through quirks, imperfections, vulnerability and humanity? The public institutions we work for are in a form of decline, and our profession has played a part.
- How do we apply the evidence base behind our work? In government communications, it’s not always comfortable to present the evidence for a piece of advice when compromise will inevitably restrict how closely it can be followed. But we should ask for and welcome that practice in every activity. Because we now know how eyes track down a page, the readability level people need to understand and engage and the way our brains feel about-faces in images.
Science has taught us about cognitive bias and the ingredients that make up influence or deliver a sense of safety. In service to the people and working with public money, government departments have a responsibility to wield that knowledge for the public good.
As a final point on the evidence for what we do. Our profession is wonderful at communicating on behalf of others, but not so good at advocating for our craft. The Edelman trust barometer has measured global trust in public institutions for 20 years. Where is our equivalent? I have been thinking about research on the role of communications in successes and failures by major public institutions. There is plenty of information out there but has anyone found it aggregated? The public evaluation of what we do should be more than a dump of documents in a Royal Commission and public conversations about social media gone wrong.
- How do we rebalance the role of emotion in government communications? Neuroscience tells us there is rational and emotional persuasion, and the latter is by far the most effective. As far back as Aristotle, we’ve understood there is a triumvirate in logic, ethics and emotion. But our daily practice trades more in rationale such as economic benefits and due process than it does in feelings. Working with emotion is powerful. And with power comes great responsibility. But I wonder how we can create the ethical framework and responsible practices to rebalance its use in the communication of important public information.
Who inspires you? Why?
In the work context, my inspiration doesn’t come from specific people. It comes from daily practices I admire, the ways people bring their humanity to work and evidence or ideas.
For example, I hugely admire curiosity and collaboration as two practices which fundamentally change the effectiveness of a team.
I’ve often been inspired by colleagues sharing a passion for something, lending their time to others, admitting to hard things, staying brave and kind, and doggedly pursuing their organisation becoming the thing it says it wants to be.
As an example of the evidence that inspires me, here are three ideas from psychology which have been on my mind lately:
- Self-determination theory — where motivation increases with a sense of competence, autonomy or relating to people
- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — which extended from our basic needs to social belonging, and self-esteem and development, with the final addition of pursuing a greater good.
- The SCARF model — where status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are recognised as five sources of threat and reward
What is your favourite book?
I adore storytelling, so for the purposes of this audience, I’m going to say Death, Sex and Money and Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell.
Who has been the most influential person in your career? Why?
Robert Hawker. He gave me my third ever job in the communications and marketing unit of what was then the UK’s largest university. On the day I started, he was off sick for a week, forcing a youngster with a comparatively broad Aussie accent to step up in a new environment dominated by very authoritative British researchers.
Robert was methodical, gentle and non-judgemental. He approached everything as an opportunity to teach or learn and always explained his decisions on style and substance. In just 18 months, I learnt a hell of a lot. As well as having meaningful work that sustained several years of adventure and travel, segued to friendship and wise counsel, and even welcomed me into his family.
There is one other team which set the benchmark for each I have worked in since. When I started in the Australian public service, I was working in renewables and energy efficiency during the time of the Home Insulation Program. That team was wall-to-wall high performers, and I have always felt lucky to be surrounded by talented, experienced and thoughtful advisers who delivered right down to the detail. No matter how difficult that environment got, that group stayed kind and never stopped striving.
A bit more about…
Eleanor is an accomplished communications specialist and systems thinker with over 17 years’ experience. For a decade, she has translated complex and technical information working in city, state, federal and international governments. Eleanor is an all-rounder in internal and external communications, media, events and marketing. Her strengths are in building relationships, influencing, positioning and issues management. When she isn’t working, she is on a walk, climbing a hill or considering the best vantage point for capturing a sunrise or sunset. Learn more about Eleanor at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eleanorashton/