Joe Lees (GSK): 200 stories, 200 contributors, 1 company-wide newsletter – every 2 weeks

Pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has consolidated all its newsletters into one targeted and tailored email, sent to staff worldwide twice a month. Joe Lees, channel manager in the communications and government affairs department, tells us about this highly ambitious project.

Joe, how did you end up in corporate communications?

After doing a degree in media production and technology, I got a job as staff writer on technology magazine PC Plus. From there I went to B2B distributor Computers Unlimited, working first as a copywriter for catalogues and later as a production manager. That was initially all about print, but I later became immersed in digital design as I coordinated a weekly email update.

After that I moved to an agency, where I ran a team of designers and developers and managed internal communications projects for clients including GlaxoSmithKline. After seven years, GSK invited me to move in-house and in 2016 I became a channel manager in the communications and government affairs department at GSK. My role is to be a business partner to the internal comms team, making sure people in the department get the most out of the communications channels we have.

How was it moving from agency to client side?

In a way it wasn’t a huge challenge because I already knew GSK well, but it immediately became clear to me that even as an agency embedded in the company, there are things you can’t fully grasp. For example, I hadn’t completely understood how core GSK’s values are to everything the company does. Understanding that was like someone turning on a light in a dark room.

I found the move in-house rewarding because I could now implement and influence outcomes more. I have more of a voice to say we should go in a certain direction; more of a hand on the steering wheel. But I do think an agency background is valuable: it helps you bring an external view and question stuff more. I’m constantly asking if things meet the objectives they need to meet.

It’s a huge amount of work: we have a team of around seven people working pretty much constantly on this

Tell us about GSK’s all-company newsletters.

Every two weeks, we send out an e-mailed newsletter using Poppulo software to all GSK employees. We have around 200 contributors to the newsletter – a broad range of people who are either full-time communicators or are based on one of our sites with comms as part of their responsibilities.

Every issue of the newsletter contains an average of around 200 articles, but we carefully segment by countries, departments and disciplines so that each reader sees no more than seven to 10 articles in their tailored newsletter. Each item is around 100 words and includes a call to action and link to a fuller story on an intranet page.

It’s a huge amount of work: we have a team of around seven people working pretty much constantly on this, including a dedicated editor-in-chief. We’re never not producing an issue: as soon as we finish one, we start on the next.

Why did GSK move to a unified newsletter?

Around 2015, our then-CEO Andrew Witty had a meeting with country managers at which they said there was too much email, too much noise that it was hard to cut through. The Consumer Healthcare division led the charge on this in 2016, gaining the backing of our head of employee engagement for a plan to reduce noise and increase engagement. They trialled Newsweaver (now Poppulo) for a newsletter and gradually moved to roll out a global unified newsletter for their division.

We then went a level further to implement this company-wide. Instead of a plethora of newsletters – I think there were around 40 at that time, some of them as big as 50 stories per issue – we wanted to put the most important news front and centre in a mailing that had a consistent look and feel and tone of voice.

This meant axing dozens of smaller internal newsletters. Was it hard to persuade people to give them up?

It was definitely interesting to get people to change their existing process and adopt ours, decommissioning their own newsletter in the process and losing their own look and feel. Having the head of employee engagement spearhead this did help us overcome any resistance. That said, most contributors were willing to give this a try.

With 200 contributors based in different timezones and speaking different languages, simply coordinating them is the biggest challenge we have

How does the process work?

Before anyone becomes a contributor and gets access to our Poppulo account, we give them a special onboarding session to train them on our editorial process, editorial guidelines, tone of voice, and so on. We do these sessions every fortnight.

Every two weeks we have Editorial Board meetings, held the day after we send out the newsletter. At these meetings, we review how the last issue went, and plan the global and business news content for the next issue. This accounts for around half of the articles: the other half is local news contributed by the local units either in English or their own language.

What have the major challenges been?

With 200 contributors based in different timezones and speaking different languages, simply coordinating them is the biggest challenge we have. The dedicated editor role is key to making it happen.

Having a mixed-language newsletter is sub-optimal but we simply don’t have bandwith to translate 200 stories into the nine or 10 languages we need. Machine translation out of English is not good, so we’ve found a compromise. The newsletter shows readers news in their own language first, to prevent non-English speakers disregarding the whole publication.

There’s actually been an unforeseen benefit of allowing people to contribute in their own language. It’s helped us establish a strong global network of communicators who have a stake in what we are doing – connnections and relationships that will help our work in the long term.

How about measurement. How do you measure success?

I can’t emphasise enough how important measurement is. The fact the Poppulo system enables us to do very detailed measurement in customised reports was a major incentive for people to get involved in what we’re doing.

We’ve taken the metrics and fed them into an IC framework that can compare numbers for intranet engagement. This gives us a much more broad-based and granular view of engagement. We tag stories to strategic objectives so we know which kind of articles our audience likes and which they find less interesting. These valuable insights help us maximise our communication efforts.

93% of employees surveyed say the newsletter helps them understand our strategic objectives

And how has your success measured up?

I’m delighted that 93% of employees surveyed say the newsletter helps them understand our strategic objectives. When we did a special newsletter on our corporate results, 98% of respondents said they liked having their email news consolidated into one. So the overwhelming feedback has been positive.

Any advice for other companies wishing to make a similar move?

Think carefully before you take the plunge: it’s a vast amount of work. First look at your situation and ask whether this would really move the needle. Do you have so much noise that consolidation would make sense? If so, look at the size of your envisaged newsletter and ask if your organisation is big enough to merit it.

If you do decide to go down this route, solid planning is crucial. Before we launched in November 2016, we spent months planning and prototyping, and did three rehearsals over a six-week period, carefully putting together full-scale newsletters as rehearsals.

What has this project meant to you personally?

When I worked on print magazines, it was great when a 200-page issue came back from the printers: that new print smell and satisfaction of creation. This has been similarly rewarding for me. Late nights with coffee, pizza and music playing – a close-knit team, just like the agency days, overcoming challenges and getting it done, is hugely satisfying.

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.

Six reasons why you need a corporate newsroom

Information has never been harder to manage, especially for companies that need to communicate with a wide range of audiences: employees, customers, NGOs and politicians to name a few.

To cope with this, organisations can benefit from bringing the skills and practices of a newsroom into the heart of their communications. Thinking and acting like a media organisation is a growing trend among larger companies, giving rise to a new breed of corporate newsrooms.

Some of our clients, like Coca-Cola and ING, are already leading the way in this area and, as former journalists, we can see why it makes sense. We also know how it can be done and the benefits it can bring.

What is a corporate newsroom?

To avoid confusion, let’s start with clarifying what it is NOT.

  • It is not a press office
  • Not a group of spokespeople
  • Not about media relations
  • Not a news section on your website
  • Not just about pumping out content to your employees

So, what is it? We define a corporate newsroom as a central team that communicates the organisation’s strategy, using editorial standards, practices, and a journalistic mindset.

Why is a corporate newsroom needed?

  1. It tackles information overload

It’s never been harder for companies to cut through the clutter and noise of our information-saturated world. Professionalising how you tell your story, to internal and external audiences, will help you get heard. Learning tried and tested tricks from the media world, like great storytelling and human-interest angles, is key.

  1. It stops misinformation spreading

This is especially important at times of crisis. In a 24/7 information culture, news travels fast – and that means real news AND fake news. At times like this, misinformation can quickly escalate into a full-fledged crisis. A newsroom culture can ensure you get your story out – for your employees and external audiences – before they hear it anywhere else.

  1. It builds authenticity and transparency

Having a trusted and consistent voice from the company is key. A central newsroom can do this, building a sense of authenticity and transparency and helping you speak with one voice.

  1. It makes you human

One of the most common questions you hear from any journalist about a story is ‘what’s the human angle?’ News organisations know that stories about real people work best. This translates into a corporate setting too – a newsroom culture can help you humanise your organisation, helping your employees and external stakeholders see behind the corporate façade, into the heart and soul of your organisation.

  1. It boosts employee engagement

And when you do get your story out there, accurately, quickly and compellingly, you will be boosting employee engagement, which after all, is the aim of any internal comms team. PR Week recently reported a survey by the Confederation of British Industry which said that with 48% of companies say employee engagement is their key business priority for 2017, so now is the time to think of ways to turbo-charge engagement, and a newsroom approach could be one of the answers.

  1. It clarifies your company’s strategy

If you are still not persuaded about how a corporate newsroom can help, think about that other core task facing any corporate and internal comms team – communicating the company’s strategy.  It’s easier said than done and, frankly, many companies are struggling to do it effectively.

A recent survey says that 82% of CEOs think their employees understand their company’s strategy but only a third of employees agree. Clearly, in many companies, the message is fundamentally failing to get through.

These are just some of the reasons why a corporate newsroom can help you – and why they are on the rise among some of the world’s most communications-savvy companies.

Putting a newsroom structure in place need not be as hard as it sounds, and certainly need not involve new headcount or costs. In many cases, it’s simply a question of adopting a journalistic mindset, thinking more like a media organisation and applying a consistent set of editorial practices to help you tell and target your stories more effectively. We’ll talk about this more in our next blog.


Find out more in a recent webinar on how newsroom culture can boost your corporate comms in a Gorkana webinar given by Stampa directors, James Curtis and Abigail Levene:

Stampa to present webinar on corporate newsrooms in January

Multinationals are increasingly looking to manage their content flow by adopting professional editorial processes and techniques. Stampa directors James Curtis and Abigail Levene will discuss the why, what and how of ‘corporate newsrooms’ in a live webinar with Newsweaver on 25 January 2017.

James and Abigail, both former journalists, will explain the benefits, challenges and logistics of bringing the disciplines of the newsroom into the corporate setting. The webinar is organised by internal communications software company Newsweaver.

The session will be full of tips and tricks gained from Stampa’s experience in advising companies on content strategies and implementing those strategies. It will cover areas including:

  • Why multinationals need to build a newsroom, for internal and external communications
  • How to run a news-gathering operation across your company
  • How to think like a journalist and editor when handling content
  • How clear editorial roles can help resolve disagreement over content decisions
  • Journalistic tips for creating news and features that will grab and retain attention

Update 27/01/2017: Here’s a recording from the webinar, as well as a link to the PDF of the slides.