Keep it simple, be relevant and get noticed: Q&A with Corporate Communications Expert, Erwin Zijlstra

ArchPoint welcomes Erwin Zijlstra to its growing international team. With experience in strategic planning, internal communications and public and media relations, Erwin helps leaders create a strategic vision, drive transformation and change, improve brand positioning and increase employee engagement.

lstra to its growing international team. With experience in strategic planning, internal communications and public and media relations, Erwin helps leaders create a strategic vision, drive transformation and change, improve brand positioning and increase employee engagement.

His experience in both consumer and B2B domains comes from organizations like Unisys Corporation, Avery Dennison and T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom.

Erwin is a native Dutch and ‘near-native English’, writer and speaker. He received his bachelor’s degree from Academy of Journalism in The Netherlands.

Tell me a little bit about your career. What events have shaped where you are today?

After graduation from the Academy of Journalism, I started working as a consultant for Dutch PR-firms, serving large clients like Dell and Motorola. Hereafter, I decided to broaden my scope and joined Unisys, a global IT company as a Country Communications Director. My role there expanded from PR to corporate and marketing communications. I also became a member of the Dutch Country Management Team. That, more than anything else, has made a significant impact on my approach to my profession and development of my career. During my time at Unisys, I developed a clear vision on how organizational strategy and reputation are intertwined and how day-to-day board decisions and communications affect the success of both. When I joined Avery Dennison Europe and later T-Mobile Netherlands, my experiences culminated to continually emphasize the importance of communications on the company’s reputation, successful (OGSM) strategy roll out and change management efforts.

What do you find interesting in corporate communications?

Communications is a behavioral science. The thing with people is that behavior, employee or customer, is predominantly driven by emotions. How they act or react depends on how they perceive reality. And this is heavily influenced by cultural background, earlier experiences, interests and other people’s opinions. Any board member will recognize frustrating situations where a decision or strategy looked perfect on paper, but it simply didn’t materialize. The ‘people’ factor is often underestimated or overlooked. And this is where corporate communications play an important role. In our role we deal with all the company’s stakeholders: customers, employees, media, politicians and citizens. It’s the same key messages, but each requiring a different approach. This involves an extreme external focus, playing devil’s advocate in the board, while having an in-depth understanding of the business and its long-term interests. But it is also a tactical job, where a CEO speech, crisis or PR initiative can have a significant effect on events and change the course of an organization within 24 hours. 

How can leaders encourage effective organizational communication?

Lead by example. On average leaders don’t spend enough time communicating and engaging with staff and customers. People look at leadership and follow their example. It’s important leaders are visible and approachable and able to explain the company’s direction, successes and decisions in clear language. I always advise boards to have a stronger presence on social, for both internal and external purposes. A great example is John Legere of T-Mobile USA, who’s the ultimate brand ambassador and cheerleader for his company. He personally carries the company’s challenger strategy through social media and traditional media and engages this way to both internal and external audiences. The second advice is more cultural driven and is about encouraging people to speak up and give feedback to create a ‘friendly opposition’. Companies are too afraid of criticism, while I believe embracing it defines strong brands and leaders.       

“Overly simplified: If strategy is about defining what you want to achieve as an organization, communications is key to provide clarity and engages your audiences to get you there in the fastest and best way possible. “

What role does communications play in achieving business goals?

Communications plays at all levels of an organization from company positioning to reputation management and employee engagement. Overly simplified: If strategy is about defining what you want to achieve as an organization, communications is key to provide clarity and engages your audiences to get you there in the fastest and best way possible.

A strategic plan is a framework of datapoints and assumptions by which the organization bases their future decisions. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation, internal politics, debates on priorities and can create misalignment. Besides, no plan survives the battlefield. You always encounter challenges and opportunities you hadn’t considered earlier. Inevitably execution is always the biggest challenge in any strategy. Employee and customer engagement and communications helps you to overcome internal and external resistance. More importantly it also provides you possibilities of unfiltered feedback and concerns, so ‘misassumptions’ can be adjusted in time. This allows the organization to be agile and make better decisions for the business which in the end affects your brand, employee performance, sales and ultimately your bottom line. Finally, creating company pride, acknowledging and sharing successes is about communication, and often overlooked in the board room. 

Do you think technology helps or hinders communication in organizations?

It’s a blessing. But digital communication tools have the same benefits and challenges internally as it does outside organizations. It allows employees to build their own communities to share information and collaborate. It’s faster, more creative, real time and personal. But groups may also disappear in their own bubble, making them unreachable for overarching important ‘corporate’ messages.

What mistakes do you see leaders making most frequently with regard to communication?

I have two pieces of advice. First, great leaders have an inspiring and compelling story about where they are heading the company or department and communicate their personal involvement in this. The second advice is about making your decisions consistent with what you communicate. ‘Communications’ is often associated with making a speech, posting an article, video or sending an email; ‘the packaging’ so to speak. But 70 percent of your reputation is made up by the actual decisions you make on a daily basis. Employees and customers have a perfect radar to spot if you’re inconsistent. On the other hand, if your customers or employees trust you, they will take a leap of faith and go the extra mile or buy that premium product. I’ve seen too often a reputation, which has been carefully built and heavily invested in, wasted because of one bad decision.

What is the biggest difference you see between European and American companies?

I have worked for American, Dutch and German companies, but also managed operations over 18 European countries. I don’t think you can make that comparison so easily. The difference between the individual European countries are sometimes bigger than between European and US-based companies. Look at the challenges Air France and KLM had. Many of them based on the differences in business culture. Dutch are more focused on the deal while Italians put emphasis on the relationship and Germans on structure. That’s why you need to be very cultural aware in Europe. On the whole, I believe US-based companies tend to be a bit more opportunity driven, think bigger, take more risks and make quicker decisions. While Europeans tend to go for a more for step-by-step approach, focusing on consensus. Neither is good or bad; it’s just a different approach fitting more in their approach to society.

What is your mantra?

“Keep it simple, be relevant and get noticed.”

Keeping it simple means excluding all nuances and details that don’t lead to the intended response from your audience. To be relevant you constantly have to ask yourself the question: why would they care? And getting noticed is about being unambiguous, raising the attention, creating relevant associations and emotional responses and building strong memory structures. It’s both an art and science.

For more information on Erwin, check out his bio or email him today.

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