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“AI is helping us to enhance our work in all sorts of ways, but it’s absolutely no replacement for comms professionals.”

In this edition of UC Voices, we speak with Stephen Donaldson, Senior Internal Communications Manager at Digital at BT Group. After 15 years in the business, he’s developed a deep connection with the teams he works with and an inherent sense of their needs.

In this interview we explore the comms team’s role in accelerating organisational culture, how the team are evolving to support hybrid working and how they’re experimenting with AI to enhance their comms.

Let’s start with a topic that’s top of mind for lots of businesses at the moment, to return to the office or not. Digital at BT Group is firmly in the hybrid working camp, how are you meeting the demands of a distributed audience?

A few years ago, it was ok for us to deliver a face-to-face intervention where people who didn’t happen to be in the office on that day would have simply missed out.It didn’t happen all that often anyway because the default position for most people was to be in the same place. Hybrid working challenges us to dial up the inclusivity of the comms interventions we deliver. Now we have to consider how we include everyone, no matter where they are, and rightly so.

Digital at BT Group is based across a few key hubs so when it comes to our monthly all hands, we’ve hit the road. In rotating around our key sites, we offer everyone the opportunity for an in-person experience and we’re balancing this out by designing the format of these broadcasts to, first and foremost, meet the needs of the remote audience.

In practice this looks like making our monthly all hands feel as much like TV as we can. We aim for short, pacy segments with plenty of variety and, most importantly, we try to make them entertaining. It’s totally possible to talk about the mechanics of a business in an entertaining way and doing so offers an engaging experience for our audience who aren’t getting the in person experience that month.

You’re always trying to keep up with the latest tech. Can you tell us a bit about your favourite comms enhancing tools you’re using right now?

As with lots of comms teams, our capacity is often squeezed and the businesses we support have big demands, so we’re always looking for ways to maximise the service we offer.

We’ve been experimenting with AI for a while now (always responsibly of course!). It doesn’t replace great copywriting though, everything still very much has human hands on it. And getting to grips with it now is allowing us to develop our prompt engineering skills, which is setting us up well for the future. AI tools don't seem to be very good at naming things though,I wouldn’t recommend them for that!

We regularly use Adobe’s audio enhancement tool for improving the audio of teams or phone recordings, it dramatically improves sound and makes low-cost production seem much more professional at the click of a button.

We’re also increasingly investing in Canva to support people across the comms team to create visually appealing content no matter their level of design skill. Through collaboration with our brand and production teams we’re developing a suite of pre-approved templates that can be used across the business to make our content look and feel cohesive. We’re also using it to make and present slides, and because it’s cloud based, we can be updating content live if we’re still making final tweaks late in the day (not that that ever happens of course!).

We still love Mural for team collaboration, and we always use Mentimeter for live sentiment tracking or audience feedback during events.

When I reflect on our use of AI tools, I’m seeing the real power of them when used together as part of a workflow, and critically, in the hands of super capable people.

A lot of effort’s gone into articulating the aspirational culture for Digital at BT Group, hasn’t it? What role do the comms team play in championing and accelerating the culture you’re aiming for?

One of the things I love about working at Digital at BT Group is that we constantly challenge ourselves about the culture we’re creating. We’re always considering how the decisions we make will impact our culture now and in the future.

I’ve always thought that comms folk occupy a unique position in organisations; there aren’t many other roles that get the macro view that we do or that get the opportunity to influence such a range of employee experience levers. It helps that the internal comms team have the luxury of being valued here which I appreciate isn’t always the case!

In terms of championing and accelerating the culture that we’re aiming for, we always try to be proactive. We don’t sit waiting for stories, proof points or requests to come to us - we’re out looking for them all the time.

It’s also important to us to go beyond just doing comms. I don’t see our job as simply communicating information, if we can positively influence a process, an employee experience milestone or a decision then we’ll happily take that step away from pure comms and towards engagement.

And what about strategy. What’s the role of the comms team when it comes to keeping everyone aligned around the organisation’s north star goal?

For me it’s about telling a simple and consistent story and repeating it as often as possible. That’s not to say we churn out the same content on repeat but, when it comes to keeping people aligned around our strategy it’s vital that we don’t just mention it once and never again. We also need to push our leaders to make the strategy relevant to their teams and to put effort into regularly refreshing the stories they tell to bring it to life.

I find this difficult, but we have to resist the urge to move on from talking about our strategy, it’s our north star so it has to be front of mind almost all of the time. If we think our audience might be getting tired of hearing about it, it’s on us to reinvigorate and refresh how we’re talking about it and not simply let it fall by the wayside.

If you could master one skill, what would it be?

Songwriting. I’ve tried for years to write a good song and still not succeeded. I don’t need an album’s worth, I’ll be happy with one good one. And before you say it, I’ve tried ChatGPT and it’s one of the things it’s not good at!

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career?

I’ve come to realise that this advice isn’t actually true but when a senior leader told me “the best years of your career are between the ages of 30 and 40 so you’ve got to make the most of them” it was just the wakeup call I needed at the time. I found it so motivating to be told ‘you’ve got these ten years to do something meaningful with’.

The piece of advice that I try to live by now I’m the other side of those ten years is “be yourself as much as you can”. I’m not sure that would have been that useful to me early on in my career when I didn’t know myself so well, but it works for me now.

I guess when I reflect on those two pieces of advice, I realise it’s not necessarily the content of what someone says to you but the timeliness of it that has the biggest impact.  

Looking ahead to the next few months, what do you think are the biggest challenges that comms pros have got on their hands?

We’ve definitely not settled into the swing of hybrid working yet, I think there’s still more challenges to come there.

How we talk about and influence the use of AI. From how we manage the safe use of it, to the societal impact and how we navigate policy and regulation. Crafting the narrative around it, especially for a tech company, is essential. It’s a fascinating journey to be on though, I feel lucky to be seeing it take shape from inside a company like BT Group.

The job market is tough and I think will continue to be so. We’ve got a role to play in ensuring the experience people get once they’ve joined us is the same as they’ve been sold during the recruitment process, otherwise we just won’t get the most out of the people we invest in. Greater collaboration between internal comms and culture, HR, attraction and external comms teams will pay dividends when it comes to making sure new joiners don’t feel they’ve been sold an experience that ends up being totally different to the reality.

And finally, to end on a high, crisis management. We’ve learned a lot from our experience over the last few years, especially for big companies, that learning has to translate into process and capability. There’s definitely enough going on in the world to warrant hedging your bets and being ready.