Four communication experts wove some magic last week… Business / Change / Communications / Crisis communication / Crisis Management / Employee communications / Employee engagement / Social media

by Ike Levick, IABC NSW – Vice President, and Director, Head of Internal Communications, Deloitte Australia

Last week over 50 communicators joined us for a special IABC NSW evening with four leading comms practitioners who graciously shared their perspectives and insights. The format? A series of roundtables which saw our speakers spend 20 minutes with each table. I know from experience this is an extremely rewarding but tiring process for the speakers, and I am very grateful for the memorable night our speakers gave us all.

Educate your stakeholders and seize the right moments

Starting with Vida Cheeseman, Head of Internal Communications at infrastructure specialists Ventia, I’m going to take this opportunity to reflect on what I heard and share what resonated most with me.

“They don’t always understand what we do, or where we can add value.”

This was the first comment I heard as I took my seat a few minutes into Vida’s first table discussion. And yes, of course she meant our internal stakeholders! It can be a challenge to find the right balance between being a strategic advisor, with someone who takes care of BAU. Vida mentioned one way she did achieved this was by building a compelling narrative about how Ventia’s infrastructure parts are, in fact, a core part of Australia’s very fabric. What’s not to like about that?

Another piece of advice Vida gave was about timing. You need to think about when to take opportunities to prove your mettle. For example, “When there’s a leadership change, show what you can do early, support your new leader, and communicate their vision. Communication plays an important role and we need to establish our credentials, quickly!” said Vida.

Know your business – and its individual leaders – extremely well

Our second table host was Jane Anderson, Executive GM Corporate Affairs at general insurance giant IAG. Jane spoke on the importance of forming relationships and influencing your leadership team, a topic dear to most communicators’ hearts. “Regardless of whether your leader wants your strategic advice or communication skills, before you can do either really well you must understand the business,” explained Jane.

She also enforced the importance of knowing your leaders well, and what they tend to worry about. Whether it’s financials, data, customer feedback, differing risk appetites or the brand’s reputation; find out what leaders care about and why. For example, how can you prioritise an issue in your leader’s mind by framing the problem using language that they can relate to, and will make them take notice?

The more you understand your leaders and your business, the less you will suffer from what Jane referred to as “imposter syndrome”. So, be curious! Read widely, and keep an eye on how society is changing so you can bring insights into how people – citizens, if you will – see the world, what they value and how they will likely respond to, for example, a change in your brand’s pricing.

One philosophy Jane adopts is, “Never let a crisis go to waste!”. In the general insurance industry, how you come across when the going gets tough gets noticed. In Jane’s case, she advises that you should feel pride in what you do, because it matters. It’s certainly not common sense, or anyone could do it. There is an art to managing your brand’s reputation and it relies heavily on your communication insights and advice. External benchmarking can also provide great input into the decisions that need to be made in a crisis, so leaders can appreciate the consequences better.

Be disciplined in how you build your teams and play to their strengths

Our third table host was Zoe Viellaris, Head of Public Affairs and Communications, at Australia’s largest bank, Commonwealth Bank. She slightly overwhelmed me with what’s involved in managing issues and crisis communication. Zoe started her table talk by rattling off eight HUGE issues she and her team are currently dealing with, ranging from the Royal Commission, to a Productivity Report (of 600 pages!) and the new CEO starting on 9 April.

Zoe explained how she manages this formidable workload. “We map milestones, impacts and risks in relation to each of our stakeholders – media, employees, government, regulatory, and our customers. We organise ourselves in scrum teams using an Agile methodology. For example, we have weekly scrums when each stream leader updates on activities being executed this week, as well as planned events, and any risks or blockers.” For really large issues, Zoe has learned to hand-pick team members for their skills and deploys them accordingly – crisis management, then crisis recovery or “after the storm” – so that they can hand over to next team and get a proper rest once they’ve completed their handover.

Interestingly, Corporate Affairs leads the bank’s response during a crisis, and works hand-in-hand with Marketing across customer and social channels. As well as responding to issues, the team also proactively shares good news, pitches ideas to the media and responds to some 5,500 media engagements each year (I did the maths, that averages about 23 engagements per day!).

Internally, the CBA has an efficient system to communicate about issues. Senior leaders are quickly pre-briefed and take a leader-led approach by cascading messages down the organisation. At branch level, branch managers will host huddles to get messages out and where appropriate, the new One.CBA new mobile-enabled intranet reinforces key messages. It’s an effective, streamlined system.

No matter what, Zoe said managing crises is all about getting the right information to the right person at the right time. And that comes back to what Jane said – you really need to know your organisation and its business very well!

Use data to make your customers happy

My fourth and final table host was Sally Fielke, General Manager Corporate Affairs at Sydney Airport. Sally lifted the lid on data and reminded us that Sydney Airport services thousands of travellers, employs thousands of people and has over 800 different businesses.

Sally has learned to draw on many different data points, from customer satisfaction surveys, to WIFI, online parking, social media, smart cameras, heat mapping technology and the list goes on. And it doesn’t matter where it comes from, it’s about how you use it.

“Data can be meaningless if you don’t know how to use it. It needs to have an output focus and answer questions in a meaningful way. To do this, we take a customer-centric approach and employ an ‘open data strategy’ with 46 airlines, our retailers and other partners to help make information available to travellers, empowering them to make informed decisions.”

To identify the best ways to influence a customer’s journey, Sally’s team has mapped the entire customer journey from “couch, to gate, to plane” to identify the moments that matter and where information – fuelled by data – can make a difference.

A simple but very important example is queues. Everybody hates them!  Sydney Airport can measure queue waiting times and share this information with security, so resources can be re-allocated to the busiest areas. Customers are informed of waiting times through Digital screens, so they know it could take eight minutes to get through security. This knowledge is empowering.

As Sally reminded us, customers come to the airport “to go somewhere, not to go to the airport.” Partnerships with other organisations could be in the works to further empower customers from the moment they leave their homes to the moment they take their seat on the plane. They may even go so far as to digitise sentiment, which would make for a more tailored customer experience. Watch this space!

I am very grateful to these very talented women for sharing their time with us and on behalf of the IABC NSW Board would like to thank them again for their rich perspectives.


  1. Thanks for sharing. Interesting insights into how these organisations leverage opportunities and manage risk.

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