• Written by Mark Charmer
    19 July 2014

At Akvo the role of the PR and communications function is to ensure everyone across the organisation feels able to describe Akvo to our audiences. When I say that, I mean each individual has the the knowledge, the methods, the confidence and the tools at hand to tell the story – they are skilled communicators.

Akvo was unusual as a tech startup because the communications function has been integral ever since our conception back in late 2006, and it’s always been seeking to take a progressive approach. We weren’t bolted on later. A decision I made very early on was that I wasn’t going to have a big comms team. Instead, I wanted Akvo to be a big team that was good at comms. The core comms team would comprise of skilled people who get on well with everyone, and would support the development of a strong organisation-wide communications culture and capability. This is helped greatly by modern IT. It’s now very easy for people to watch what’s going on elsewhere in the organisation. I started my career in the early ’90s, standing by a fax machine, faxing press releases to journalists. Now I can often just post things online, tweet it, share it a few other ways and many of the people I need to see something will see it, and share it with others. Or I can work with people around the world to create a new web page, or a poster, or something, like a flash. It’s like magic now. It really is.

I also think a truly modern 2014-era organisation should be able to work within its own skills base and limits – it should not rely on external “agencies” who are hired briefly and then let go. That leads to a really weak core and a narrative and brand that just doesn’t hang together. For example, maybe you use films or animation to tell your story – well you need those film-makers or animators to be embedded at least part of the time in your team and they need to be around for the journey, or ready and willing to come back for another stint. At Akvo I’ve always felt it was important that we created things that we were capable of doing ourselves – perhaps outside our comfort zone, but certainly things we could do ourselves. Sometimes that means we don’t do certain things. But I think that’s ok.

Ask people about Akvo and they’ll often talk about our communications – they’ll say it’s always stood out compared to others in the space we work in. That makes me very happy. We embraced Twitter really early on for example – it’s not a boast, just a fact. We brought a lot onto the web earlier than others. And we’ve tried through language to be more direct, clear and energetic than the typical international development organisation. Crucially we’ve always attributed content to real people. The Akvo blog is all by individuals around the organisation, we pool people’s Flickr sets, and the Akvo staff twitter list is alive with individual contributions – we don’t really have a “corporate” twitter handle. @akvo exists, sure, but it’s very low volume. We want people to follow real people, get to know them and what they do, what they like, and see how they interact with others inside and outside Akvo. It works really well – I really love the Akvo staff Twitter list. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, so alive with things happening right around the world – it makes me really proud, every day.

For me, as a co-founder who also is still directing the comms function day to day, I sometimes feel that the spirit of invention that created the methods and style that we have now isn’t understood by as many people in the organisation as I thought. I guess that’s understandable. People are drawn to something that they want to expand, yet also preserve, whereas I feel that we created it but we need to keep re-creating it, reinventing what Akvo is.

Where the balance lies is our challenge right now. So I’m really excited about the theme of Akvo Comms Week! 2014, which starts on Monday – “Riding the Tech Rollercoaster”.

Working in a tech firm can be a crazy ride. You’re ahead of the curve, you’re bringing people with you for the ride, things are changing all the time, new people, new products, new ideas. How can communications help people handle the experience, and enjoy and express their work? How do we retain a vivid and open sense of adventure and excitement in our work every day, while dealing with all the pressures that come from working with partners, delivering products and managing a global organisation?

The current agenda for Akvo Comms Week! 2014 can be found here, or see below.


Photo by Dirk-Jan Kraan, via Flickr. Follow Mark Charmer on Twitter @charmermark. Updated on 22/07/2014 with link to latest agenda.

Co-founder and communications director.