IC interview: There’s no ‘normal days’ in internal comms

Why there's no 'normal days' in internal comms

October 22, 2015

No two days are ever the same when you work in internal comms, says award-winner Jenny Burns.

Jenny, who works as Group Internal Communications, Brand and Social Media Director at RSA and was named PRWeek’s Internal Communications Personality of the Decade, shares her career highs and lows.

How long have you been in your current IC role?
I’ve worked in communications for about 20 years. I’ve been in my current role since last summer, but have worked at RSA for four years. Previous to this job, I ran communications for the UK region of the business and moved over to Group last year to take on this role.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love that there’s no such thing as a ‘normal day’. I could be helping our CEO with strategy and communications one day, and be involved in organising an event on the next. It’s the variety that’s kept me in this career for so long.

… And least?
The down side of the role is that every quarter you have to do financial results announcements. I challenge that by looking at how we communicate the results each time so this doesn’t become mundane for me, my team, or the audience that we’re communicating to.

How did you get into internal communications?
Completely by accident! I started my career in WHSmith stores on their management programme, and one day someone said I’d be quite good at communications. I took the plunge and started working as a Store Communications Manager.
I was responsible for making sure that all Branch Managers knew everything about stock and when new products were arriving. It was a fantastic role that I really enjoyed and I still refer back to it now.

What’s been the proudest moment of your IC career so far?
It has to be winning Personality of the Decade from PRWeek.
PRWeek searched for viable candidates and a panel of industry experts decided on the final four who were shortlisted. It then went to a public vote. I was so proud to be nominated, but to actually win was amazing.

And the worst moment?
It’s probably dealing with a crisis, but I do love a crisis – I think you have to when you work in communications because you’re at the forefront of the business and have an integral role. On the other hand, crises can be quite traumatic, like when we were dealing with the London bombings.
I was working at Barclays, based in Canary Wharf, and making sure our people were safe across our 40 London locations.
It was really stressful for me personally but then I also had to turn my attention to 80,000 employees and ensure that they were all safe too.

What are the benefits of good internal communications?
People know what their role is in delivering the business strategy and they’re motivated and engaged enough to operate at their absolute best for customers.
To cut it at a senior level, a communicator needs to be commercial and understand the numbers, but they also need to understand how to motivate and lead people in order to achieve those numbers.

Jenny Burns
Jenny Burns

How has the world of IC changed since you started working in it?
Massively! When I started in my first role 20 years ago, we didn’t even have intranets. At WHSmith, we were spending nearly £500,000 a year on sending paper communications around the business.
The seniority of people working in internal comms has also changed.
Back then it was largely considered to be an extension of HR; now it’s a discipline, a function and a profession that operates in its own right.

How important do you think the social media boom has been to IC and what do you see as the advantages and disadvantages?
I’m a huge advocate of social technology. Top-down messaging from the CEO doesn’t cut it anymore because people want to have multi-way conversations.
As channels like Yammer take hold, hierarchies and geographic boundaries are broken down and it becomes a level playing field; managers and an apprentice have an equal voice in a business.
If they choose to make use of it, that is: you can’t mandate the use of internal social media, and employees now choose how they receive information they deem relevant to them.
The downside is that you’re not in control of the message anymore.
Technology gives you the visibility to tap into what’s happening at the coffee machine or the water cooler.
Data protection issues also need looking at and, as most of our people tend to use Yammer on their personal devices via the app, the lines begin to blur between internal and external channels. These are questions we need to work through.

What would be your advice to anybody wanting to start a career in internal communications?
Experiment! We’re at an exciting turning point in internal comms and we’re going to have to redefine our purpose soon.
Coming up with ways to use technology creatively will be important, too.
If something doesn’t work, move on quickly and try something else; don’t get so caught up in your own ‘baby’ that you can’t call it ugly!

Quick fire:

* When I was growing up, I wanted to… work in a bank. I think I liked money, which sounds really shallow and materialistic, but it’s true!

* My very first job was… in a fruit shop lugging around sacks of potatoes when I was 15.

* I couldn’t live without… my iPhone.

* If I won the lottery tomorrow… I would emigrate to Barbados and open a bar on the beach. I’m a secret beach bum!