Janine Langlotz is Head of Digital Communications Strategies in Corporate Communications at Bayer AG. In addition to “Digital Strategy 2021”, she is in charge of key strategic projects such as the encouragement of employee participation in social media, chatbot developments and the internal digital community management with about 60 countries. Continuing our series of interviews entitled #COMRebels, we spoke with the communications expert about today’s opportunities and challenges in corporate communications, about the trends of the next few years, and why courage and willingness to experiment are becoming increasingly important, even though it may mean running up against a wall from time to time.
The corporate brand is declining in importance in communications, the distribution of information and dialog with target groups is more and more in the hands of employees who themselves address their recipients via their social media accounts. Are you encouraging this development at Bayer?
From the perspective of digital communications, I can confirm that brand communication is handled more and more by employees, and we welcome and encourage this at Bayer. This also means, however, that corporate communications should accompany employees as they communicate. We must make the company’s standpoint on certain topics very clear. For instance, we have noticed since acquiring Monsanto that our employees are being confronted with a growing number of questions and are also being queried about critical topics. We describe internally what the company’s positions on these topics are, what our colleagues can say about them, and how they can avoid the pitfalls they might stumble into when communicating on social media. We operate a central point of contact to help employees in answering questions and take over the queries in the corporate channels as soon as they go beyond what individual employees can handle. The aim here is by no means to control the employees, but rather to encourage them and stand by them with advice and support. “Enabling through empowerment,” as it has been so succinctly put, long ago replaced the traditional knee-jerk reflexes for control of corporate communications. So we permit the loss of control, but offer support when needed.
Are you speaking about the loss of control by the central communications department?
Oh, well, the term “central communications department” sounds like something from the last century. Yes, there is a corporate position at Bayer that is the starting point for the guidance of certain topics. Right. Ultimately, however, we communicators are surrendering our sovereignty (if we ever really had anything like that) over information dissemination to employees and are content even if the message no longer corresponds one-to-one with what we have written in the press release. This means as well that a cultural transformation must take place – in the communications department itself, to start with. Employees should have a distinct sense: “Something is happening here, I am allowed to talk to the outside world, to initiate discussions, and if something goes wrong, the company will stand behind me.”
Does this mean you are specifically encouraging employees to become active players in brand communication? How exactly does that work?
First of all, we focus our attention on providing convincing arguments. We try to use various formats to communicate these arguments to employees, e.g., with short Q&As, an employee app, and curated social media posts. Bit by bit, we supply small content packages. Then we have to observe how our colleagues use them and what feedback they give us – and, of course, we have to adapt to their behavior and their preferences. We receive highly positive responses to messages that do not have too much “corporate bias.” Even pre-worded posts should attempt to transport a high degree of authenticity. Employees are more than just a catalyst to gain greater force on social media; they also have the credibility to reach networks that the corporate brand and its channels would never reach.
But it is also a question of quality. We put our faith in high-quality content, not quantity! All too often, there is a tendency to “spew out” senseless posts on social media because we put ourselves under pressure to maintain a high frequency rate. We must teach our channel managers and engaged employees to ask themselves who their target group is and how they can best reach this group. The question is not simply a matter of “How can I produce my 5 tweets a day?”
Do you specifically build up influencers who set a good example for others?
We do that, although we prefer to avoid the word influencer. For one, we concentrate on developing the skills of colleagues in senior management who already have a personal affinity with social media and on helping them with the ongoing evolvement of their personal brand. For another, we specifically look for experts in the company and support them from the very beginning as they establish their social media activities. Colleagues are often highly interested in making contact with the outside world, but are afraid of being attacked or even triggering a firestorm. Our message to them: “Just start, trust yourself, we are here for you!”
I believe that a lot happens because of the role models in the company. I have to have someone who offers me a guiding light. This person should also be positioned as such internally, i.e., allowed to have a say. I’m not saying that this has to be the CEO’s job; it can also be someone, for example, who stands for innovation, research, or marketing.
If everyone can and should communicate with everyone else: What role will the central corporate communications department have to play in the future?
There is certainly still a long way to go until everyone who wants to be a communicator will have reached that point. But even then, corporate communications will have a reason for its existence. It will continue to take care of the corporate channels, but will also devote more and more of its work to the development of guidelines and signposts. It will no longer be a matter of rigidly declaring who may say and do what. It will be much more a matter of outlining the communications framework in which we operate, but then motivating the employees to have a field day, to be creative, and to develop their own networks.
As part of our “Company ReBuilding approach,” we recommend to our clients that they establish a new role: that of the com agent. That means leaving behind the centralized crossover function and forming a pool of communications experts who are assigned for a specific term to a project, a team, or a topic. A temporary role that is appropriate for agile work in the company. Can you imagine this role at Bayer?
We are already practicing an approach that is similar to this. At Bayer, we call it Business Partnering. We have communicators who are located in HR, Corporate Innovation, or the IT department and who support communication activities in these areas – within the company as well as to the outside. The success here is dependent on the competence portfolio of the individual business partner and how he or she interprets his or her role. I also believe that our business partners are at this time not yet able to play the full keyboard of the digital portfolio. The dominant mindset here is often one of “Let’s write an intranet article and be done with it.” We must work together to motivate ourselves on the teams to strike out on new paths, to exploit the social intranet opportunities, and return to finding more in-house solutions.
What skills will communicators need in the future?
First of all, communicators need to be really curious and enjoy experimentation. They need the desire to try out new channels, new formats, new possibilities for dissemination. Never before have new channels and formats popped up so rapidly. We will not understand their significance unless we try them out. I have no intention of speaking about an Instagram TV here, but every communicator should, for instance, set up his or her own Instagram account, try out Instagram stories, and get a sense of just how fast communication takes place today. This is the only way to find out whether you need to “catch up” somewhere.
It is also becoming more and more important to awaken the interest in data and to promote the ability to read them. I am convinced that communication will no longer be over at the moment I disseminate content; it will just be getting started because this is when the dialog begins. It was an enormous step for us when we started answering people out in the world. I also believe that 40% of a social media strategy comes from content strategy and 60% comes from a clever community management concept. How do I address my target group? How do I initiate interaction? How do I become a subject of conversation even where no one is talking about me? If I am to answer these questions, I must utilize the right listening tools, be able to read data, and take what I learn from this seriously. This will change communications work in all its aspects, including media relations.
It also means losing my fear that others will horn in on my territory. We should learn to share and trust even more than we do today. The communications department is not always the central point of contact for all media stakeholders that steers everything by itself. Communication is most successful when we bring together colleagues from various divisions in one place where they can discuss topics with each other and examine these topics from various perspectives. I believe this is the change in mindset that must take place. We must be prepared to learn from one another across all departmental and hierarchical boundaries and share our experience with one another. Corporate communications can steer this process.
So move away from the producing function and toward a counseling function of the communicator?
Yes and no. I think it is sad when communicators are no longer able to write copy themselves, cannot work with Photoshop, and cannot edit any videos. I would say – especially in internal communications – that self-made videos or a small graphic I have created can contribute to faster and more human communication. But if I have never done that, I cannot produce something like this on the spur of the moment.
So it is important that we take over what we can do ourselves that will also reduce the production costs for content. And at the same time, build up communications knowledge in the organization, e.g., in the form of tutorials or style guides. I think we need a mix of the two.
Information stays with us permanently only when cast in stories that touch us. Is story-telling a major topic of the day for you?
I cannot communicate everything through stories. And the significance of this topic undoubtedly varies from one company to the next. For us, it is important to anticipate the questions from our target groups. Our clientele is looking for help content. The more voice commands can be used, the more users ask concrete questions. So I have to offer content that answers precisely these questions – i.e., gives tips and offers assistance. At the same time, we must also keep an eye on the topics controlled by our competition and where gaps that we can exploit appear. Discovering, for example, that somewhere in the USA there is a small micro-blog treating a specific topic, but does not present it well. Why don’t we put together an informational graphic or a small tutorial on the subject? We must regularly “crank up” Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, listen, look, and find out where we can put our own special spin on topics.
A few days ago, we ask the people in a conference what the first app they opened every morning was. Guess what their answer was...
Hmm, perhaps the weather app?
Not at all! It’s Instagram. 80% of the people sitting at the table said, “The first thing I do in the morning is look at the pictures on Instagram. That puts me in a good mood.” If this is a representative result, shouldn’t we focus much more intensely on Instagram and not just post here as a second thought? In any case, it is a fact: We should observe, understand, and respond flexibly at all times to people’s behavior and needs.
Agile working in flat hierarchies demands cultural changes, and not only in communication; above all, however, it requires an awful lot of trust in the company. How is this change being mastered at Bayer?
This is a very important point. Working really agilely, quickly, and flexibly and responding to what is going on in the world – that is a rocky road and cannot be realized simply by pressing a button. The larger the company, the longer the journey. When someone complains about others having a poor mindset or that something is preventing him or her from taking action, I agree with Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” What is important here is building up a network of people who are also keen to have a new culture. The larger this group, the more power the initial impulse will radiate.
What digital trends and developments must communicators be prepared to face in the next 3 to 5 years?
We have to bridge the gap between fast and automated mass communication and “high-quality” guiding formats in which we will generously invest our resources. I believe we will become ever more diversified in our devices and the situations in which we use them, and ultimately our small communications teams will probably no longer be able to control the flood of content we must publish. So we are driven to become efficient. This can be accomplished with the aid of chatbots and automated content generation, for instance. The systems are becoming increasingly intelligent and can spit out texts that are becoming better and better; perhaps, at the end of the day, I as the communicator will simply read through them, and the post/press release/intranet news will go out on its own.
But solutions like this only serve to remain visible on the many different channels. I must at the same time think about this: What are my 3 or 4 primary topics and primary formats to which I as the communicator give my complete devotion – and a little more of the budget so that high-quality content is created? If I am to be able to do that, I will also need intelligent tools/AI. We all need a better database! The larger the company, the more databases I have as a rule. One in Marketing, one in HR, one in Innovation, and so forth. The more data and, with them, functions I bring together, the smarter the AI is in the end. A chatbot is only as clever as the data that it accesses. And here we are back on the subject of culture; this initially has less to do with “digital” and more with bringing people together and getting them to collaborate across departmental boundaries.
What does this digital transformation mean for you personally?
Incredible potential! We can accomplish an incredible amount if we bring the right people together. The people who are keen to change something: young people and seniors, digital sophisticates and those who are not quite so digitally oriented ... This is an exciting journey that I personally want to continue without any doubt, even if not everything turns out the way I want right away. Patience and positive energy pay for themselves in the end.
Thank you very much, Janine, for these fascinating insights. In conclusion, we would like to have a tip from you: What two apps does the communicator of today absolutely require for his or her work and why?
Twitter and a news curator of his or her choice, e.g., Flipboard.
Thank you. We wish you all the best on your (digital) journey.
The Interview was conducted by Ingrid Blessing; Thank You!