Frans Middendorff (ING): From curious correspondent to corporate content chief

In the second of our ‘Expert Talk’ series, we meet Frans Middendorff, head of content at ING Group. He talks about his former days as a reporter in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, and explains how ING’s corporate communications department is helping to make ING a brand people love.

ING Group’s 54,000 employees provide retail and wholesale banking services to customers in over 40 countries. Its head office is in Amsterdam, where we catch up with Frans Middendorff.

Frans, how did you end up in corporate communications?

My first job was as an account manager at Achmea, one of the largest Dutch insurers. I was responsible for the investment policy of institutional investors such as pension funds. One of my tasks was to explain to the directors of those pension funds what was happening in the financial markets, and how they could best respond to this.

I noticed that I really liked telling these stories, and I thought I could do that for a larger audience. I had several friends in journalism and I listened regularly to Dutch business radio station BNR. I also thought it would be more exciting to work in journalism, as the dynamics of a daily news broadcast really appealed to me. In 2000 I was able to start as a reporter at that same BNR, and in 2002 I moved to business TV channel RTLZ.

Later, you even worked as a correspondent in Hong Kong?

After three years at RTLZ, my partner was offered a job in Hong Kong. Working as a correspondent over there interested me, as China was becoming an increasingly important source of news stories, including for Dutch media. RTL already had a permanent correspondent in Beijing, but she was happy for some extra help. And I could write stories for Dutch print media from there, too.

As a freelance correspondent I had to find, create and sell stories. I had to build my own team with a cameraman and a fixer – someone who could show me the way and translate, for example when I did street interviews. It was fun and very educational to work in a completely new environment. On behalf of a large media company I was able to interview people that I would otherwise never have spoken to. I got to know the culture and the country in a very incisive way. That was very special.

Why did you return to the corporate world in 2009, as a press officer at ING?

It’s difficult to make a career in journalism. By that I don’t mean it’s hard to earn money, but to develop yourself and broaden your opportunities. All you could do after finishing a story was to start a new one. I wanted to work with a longer horizon than just my next story. I saw more possibilities in the corporate world, where you can work more strategically.

Looking back, my innate curiosity has been an important motivator throughout my various roles. It has always led me to new opportunities. My love of language was also important, although I did not study languages but law and later on did a full-time MBA in Seattle, just before I started at ING.

Was it a big change to move from journalism to corporate communications?

For a journalist, working as a press officer, which was the first job I landed when I started at ING, feels like a natural transition to the communication profession. You continue to use your old network a lot: I kept in touch with the same buddies from journalism. Being on the ‘dark side’, as journalists call it, was never a problem. I never felt less trusted by journalists after having joined the company. One of the most important starting points for ING within corporate communications is transparency: we always have a very open and positive relationship with journalists. I could never have been successful as a press officer in a company that doesn’t have the same open attitude towards the media.

Being a press officer was a great way to get to know ING. As a spokesman in such a large organisation you have access to all parts of the bank to get answers to journalists’ questions. Sometimes you also need to adopt a journalistic way of working to find the answers.

Since 2015 you’ve been head of content at ING. How does that differ from your previous job as press officer?

The content team is one of five teams within corporate communications. It produces most of the content sent out by ING Group, the listed parent company of all banks and business units of ING worldwide.

The content team was established three years ago when we put internal and external communications together. All content creators came together in one group, which was a good move to increase efficiency. Writers now focus on their topics across all channels. It can be the annual report, for instance, speeches of board members, or the stories on our global intranet aiming at our 54,000 colleagues worldwide. But we are also responsible for all content on our corporate website

The content team consists of 12 colleagues from various countries such as the Netherlands, the US, Australia, South Africa and Romania. They all excel at expressing our stories vividly in words and images, always staying true to our clear and easy ING tone of voice. One of the team members is our translation manager, who oversees translations of the most important content aimed at ING employees in nine different languages.

The content team is one of ING’s five communications teams. What are the other four?

The media relations team consists of spokespeople or press officers who communicate with one special and very important target group, the media. The strategic advice team advises the various board members on their communication, from large communication plans around change projects to speaking engagements at conferences.

Our channels team makes sure we have state-of-the-art media channels, not only in a technical sense but also in terms of design and features. Finally, we have a specific team that is responsible for ING’s branding. In total, more than 70 people work at ING’s corporate communications department in Amsterdam.

How do these five teams work together?

We have identified a number of themes that we want to communicate about, such as innovation or customer experience. People from across the five disciplines are designated to work on those themes and they meet regularly to develop and execute communication strategies. We are looking into how we can further improve collaboration by adopting Agile as a working method.

The content team meets weekly to keep each other updated on the stories they’re writing, discussing angles to take or headlines. Besides that, some stories come in from other departments within ING. In our content group, we distribute the inbox of story ideas, and we edit and proofread each other’s stories. Together we safeguard ING’s tone of voice: clear, easy, to the point and no-nonsense.

What would you consider to be your biggest success at ING?

On behalf of ING, I’m proud of how we profile our CEO Ralph Hamers internally and externally, and more specifically when we announce our quarterly results. Our quarterly results video is the epitome of our strategy to be as no-nonsense and clear as possible.

In these videos, Ralph discusses the highlights of the past quarter in 90 seconds. He looks directly into the camera – it’s not an old-fashioned corporate video – and talks very openly with some amusing remarks here and there. He doesn’t focus on our profit, but on what we’ve done that quarter for our customers. All corporate communications disciplines come together for these quarterly videos: together we create the idea and work it out.

And what is your biggest challenge as head of content at ING?

Our bank, like others, saw a lot of trust lost during the financial crisis. In recent years we’ve worked step by step on restoring that trust. Crucial was the new strategy launched by ING when appointing Ralph Hamers as CEO: ING is there to help customers move forward, whether they are companies or private individuals. It’s our job to make that purpose come to life with all kinds of stories and examples on our corporate website and through many other channels. Slowly but surely you see ING’s image changing for the better.

Ralph is nowadays sometimes even called ‘the Steve Jobs of banking’ and gets asked to speak in many countries about his vision on the future of banking. While of course there’s a big difference between Apple and ING, it’s a sign we’ve managed to regain trust and are on our way to becoming a brand people love. All of us at the corporate communications department are proud to be part of that journey.

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