Becoming an Advocate for Your Audience
Episode #051: Jay Kern, Senior Communications Manager at Roche
October 25, 2021
Keeping up with emails, Slack notifications, texts, etc. is overwhelming. That’s why it’s so important to be an advocate for your audience so you can provide them with the content they truly need.
In this episode, we chat with Jay Kern, Senior Communications Manager at Roche. Jay is an innovative communications professional with more than 20 years of experience. Prior to his current role, Jay held marketing leadership roles at John Wiley and Sons.
We’re talking about treating internal communications like a nurture track, how to solicit feedback from employees, how to meet your audience where they’re at, and so much more.
Stephanie's Strong Opinions
- Instead of asking your audience to come to you, meet them where they’re at.
- Treat your internal communications strategy like a nurture track. Not everyone wants to read a 10-page whitepaper.
- Surveys and video views only tell one side of the story. In order to truly understand your audience, you’ll have to dig deeper.
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Stephanie Cox: Welcome to Real Marketers where we hear from marketers who move fast, ask forgiveness, not permission, obsess about driving results and are filled to the brim with crazy ideas and the guts to implement them. This is not a fireside chat and there’s absolutely no bullshit allowed here. And I’m your host Stephanie Cox. I have more than 15 years of marketing experience, and I’ve pretty much done about everything in my career. I believe speed is better than perfection. I use the Oxford comma. I love Coca- Cola, have exceptionally high standards and surround myself with people who get shit done. On this show, my guests and I will push boundaries and share the real truths about marketing and empower you to become a real marketer. So, first question, tell me something about yourself that few people know.
Jay Kern: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a hardball question to start out with. I’m, I’m pretty much an open book, but surprisingly, very few people know that I was a collegiate athlete. I wrestled in college shortly in Division 1. I apparently don’t give off the athlete vibe as a professional these days. But loved wrestling in high school and was a state place winner in Indiana and went on to school to pursue that for a while. And just love sports in general, but have always felt like that was a big part of me that people don’t know about and drives a lot of my competitiveness.
Stephanie Cox: I was going to say what… how do you see that driving you in your current career?
Jay Kern: I think as a communicator, ultimately sometimes it’s you against world. Sometimes it’s an individual sport; you have a lot of competing priorities. You have to have that drive to get things done, that ambition, that passion. I find a lot of similarities between sports in general and especially although wrestling is a team sport it’s very individualized. And sometimes it’s on you to succeed, to move things forward. And sometimes it’s a matter of will. And I think with communication sometimes there’s just so many stakeholders and so many layers especially in large corporations that sometimes you have to will your way to get some projects across the finish line at times. Especially when they’re the big, hairy, audacious goals that you have of your own that you know will make things better, but you don’t necessarily have the buy- in and support enterprise wide on.
Stephanie Cox: I assume that’s something that you probably deal with a lot. You mentioned your profession. You’re a communicator. And one of the things, and one of the reasons I want to have you on the show is it’s hard to really communicate to employees or externally these days, given all the noise that exist. Especially in the last 18 months where it feels like you have to constantly communicate and tell people what’s going on when it can change so rapidly. How do you think about really starting to figure out what a communication strategy should look like?
Jay Kern: Yeah. I don’t know that this is necessarily revolutionary, but I always start with the audience and particularly on employee communications. It is easy to get wrapped around the axle and you have so many different leaders and stakeholders that they have a message to deliver. And as a communicator you feel like you have to serve all of those messages and decide what’s important based upon who the leader is or where they rank in the organization. And I think when you back away and kind of look at things from the perspective of your audiences and you are the advocate for the audiences. And whether it’s developing communication strategy or delivering a communication or figuring out what channel you’re going to deliver through, or even create new channels, I think it’s just something we always have to kind of get back to and not lose sight of. Because as a communicator, you are that advocate. Working in a large organization like I do, we have people that sit behind desks in the office or used to sit in the office every day. Are out at some of our customers are based in the field. And then those that work on our warehouse manufacturing facilities. There’s a lot of different personas there and they ingest content in several different ways. And we need to make sure that we’re looking out for them.
Stephanie Cox: Do you find that’s one of the hardest things is you mentioned, and I think it’s a really great point that often times people overlook, is that people digest content in different ways. Do you find that to be hard to explain maybe to the broader group that you’re working with to try and help communicate their message that not everyone wants to watch a video, not everyone wants to read it, not everyone wants a four- page summary? How do you help people figure out the best way to communicate to others?
Jay Kern: Yeah. It is a constant education and selling point of a communicator. Whether it be a leader or a marketer, I think my approach has always been ask them to put themselves in those shoes as a consumer themselves. Would you want to watch that four- minute video if you were an employee? Would you want to read that 10- page white paper? Usually the answer is no. There may be people certainly that are very interested in the topic and there’s a way to deliver communications where it’s a funnel approach and we can tease information and go to deeper dives and help particularly with marketers to still deliver that deeper level of communication to people that want it. But building a strategy, building a nurture campaign, whether it be external audiences or internal. We do a lot of nurture. We do a lot of teaser campaigns with our employees, because there are some very scientific people in our organization they want that 10- page white paper. But not everybody does. And the goal is to reach the widest possible audience. And, and so I think a lot of that is I just always challenge whoever my stakeholders are to sit in the shoes of the viewer, of the reader, of the listener and how do they want to consume that? And I also challenge them in terms of channel management. While a marketer who sits in the office may ingest all of their content through email or IM, is that the right way to go? They have a company phone; it’s easy for them to access content. What other ways? Where do we go to reach that employee that doesn’t have access to a computer? Instead of asking them to come to us, we have to go to where they’re at. Employee Facebook pages are a great example of that. So building those channels and making sure that people are looking at things as a consumer, air quotes, is really important for me to get stakeholders to understand.
Stephanie Cox: I love what you just said about nurture tracks and campaigns. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone think about their internal communications that way. It’s really smart though. Can you tell me more about how you think about like teasers to employees or nurturing them to get them to really understand the message you’re trying to communicate?
Jay Kern: Yeah. There’s a couple different ways and maybe the best way to talk about it is to give an example. I think everybody was day one employee at some point in their job and you get your orientation and you get kind of the data dump of here’s all of the 17 million things you need to know and sign up for benefits and all this stuff on day one. And we had had our HR team approach us and want to talk to us about building a website. We want to give all this information to them. As soon as they get out, we automatically send this link to them as soon as they get out of orientation. And we said this is great eight, it’s all great information, but isn’t it a little overwhelming? And do they really need to know that information right now? That was more of a drip campaign where we said on day one let’s start. Let’s take some of expertise that we’ve built in engaging with our customers on drip and nurture campaigns and say, we’re going to do a 10- week email drip. So we load the customers who are the employees into this campaign on day one. And truly it is the basics of here’s the map to campus on day one. And then maybe it’s day 10 here’s what you need to do from a benefits perspective. And on day 20 we talk about our fitness facility and give them an overview of that. And it allows them to truly digest the content in bite- size chunks. I think that was really positively received by not only our HR team, but, I think many of our new employees because when we gave that to them all at once, it was just in one ear and out the other. It was just overwhelming to them. But I also think when we talk about nurture campaigns, we talk about getting our audiences interested in things at a very high level, we believe strongly in our employees having a high business acumen, understanding our… we have a tie to patients; it’s our purpose. Do we know what patients need next? And so that that education is really important, but it doesn’t always look the same, again, every employee. So we may start at very high level explaining the science like you would explain it to your neighbor. Very layman’s terms. And then we would have some throughout that campaign, whether it be a video or a patient story, we would drive down deeper, drill down deeper and get maybe some more scientific stories from medical professionals or for our medical and scientific affairs team and allow people to become more educated as they wish at their own pace through ongoing communications in that manner.
Stephanie Cox: So in the last 18 months, I know you’ve had to communicate a lot to employees with information constantly changing around COVID. What has been the biggest challenge for you on getting information to the team when they’re also, especially early on, so overwhelmed with just the information they’re getting from the news in general? How have you thought about making sure you have the right information about health and safety being shared to your team members in a timely way? Has there been anything different that you’ve done?
Jay Kern: Yeah, I think the start of the pandemic for probably most communicators would say it really forced us all to kind of cut back to the core basics. All of these plans and communication strategies that probably were super important to us in January and February 2020, completely were irrelevant in March. And so getting back to those things like employee safety, and just kind of core baseline communicating in efficient manner, and in an effective manner was really important. So for one, it’s 80/ 20 rule. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It was certainly substance over style. Whereas, before we were very high production communications organization and it kind of got in our way in terms of delivery and timely communication. That went out the window. And I think that was really helpful for us and I think we’ve adopted that. I look 20 months ahead and people are like,” Yeah, we didn’t need all of that anyway,” which is super helpful. But I think more importantly it was how did we… we wanted to make the employees feel like their employer understood what they were going through, had their back. Willingness to have two- way communication. So, early on, yes, absolutely, we had a lot of outbound communications. But quickly we realized about a week and a half in that we needed to start having regular two- way engagement. And we quickly adopted kind of these weekly and then biweekly town halls. Not a lot of substance to delivery of content, but more of just taking questions. We used some technology to allow people to text in their questions and creating resources through those questions to allow people, whether it be FAQs or additional information, but it really guided a lot of where we needed to focus our efforts based upon some of the questions. And we had two very different employee bases. As a provider of COVID testing, we had essential employees on campus the entire time that were delivering these critical tasks and we were all rallying around that. We had support personnel that were installing instruments and servicing instruments and hospitals. We were trying to make sure that they were safe. That they had the proper PPE, they knew how to order it. But then on the same time we were also very concerned about these people that were faced with all of a sudden their children were at home. They’re trying to work. They felt overwhelmed. They were scared. Some of them felt guilty.” Is it okay that I have my children working with me?” And so delivering those messages, modeling the way through our leadership, both in a visual and written way, I think it was really important for us to make sure that we over- communicated. But it wasn’t, again, wasn’t in an overproduced way.
Stephanie Cox: I love that. And I think that was probably well received from your team as well. Would you agree?
Jay Kern: Definitely. I think that there was a sense of pride and a sense of people… we were all in this together. And not only communicating regularly, but communicating that we didn’t have all the answers. We didn’t know if we were coming back. It’s funny to look back. It’s interesting really to look back at it now, but, we thought, well, we’d be back in 30 days, 45 days. It was going to be Easter. And then it became longer and longer. Showing the employee base that the leadership was working through the challenges as this went from a short- term issue to a longer- term issue that we didn’t have the answers, but we understood where their challenges were. I think it went so far to the employee base to know that they were part of an organization that really cared about them.
Stephanie Cox: Speaking of that, how do you solicit feedback around communications? Is that something that’s very formal for your organization? Is it more ad hoc? How do you think about figuring out if how you’re communicating is working for various groups?
Jay Kern: Yeah, that’s the million- dollar question as an internal communicator. Maybe the measurement piece for one. And probably every interview I’ve ever had, that question has been asked. And so we try to leverage technologies that allow us to understand engagement as best we can. And whether that be video views or email marketing tools, we try to create in the tools that we create engagement opportunities where people can comment, like, share so we can measure those items as well. But that doesn’t tell truly the full story. And we’re very much a speak- up culture. We believe in having an interactive component to every town hall that we have and creating opportunities where people can ask questions in person, or they can ask questions anonymously. They can provide feedback in that way and making it very easy to do, and acceptable to do. We also do that for even the stories that go out in our weekly newsletter allow commenting and sharing. And so we do get feedback on those things. And sometimes you can look at that feedback and see trend lines. There’s certainly some op opportunities where, especially during COVID, that feedback was invaluable on things that we didn’t even think about. Every day it was a new issue. It was like, wow, we never really considered that. But I think it’s allowing or creating channels, creating opportunities, whether it be even simple as just surveys, I just think it’s invaluable to make sure that you have a pulse on your audience. And I would just add to that as we talk about being the advocate for your audiences, we get caught up in surveys. That’s great, but remembering that that’s only one part of your audience, the people that sit behind the desk. How are we getting feedback from those people that are in the field working in our hospitals, or in our manufacturing facilities? And so we have to get creative about the ways that we’re listening to those feedback, either through standup meetings or otherwise. And transparently that’s a constant struggle that we have with an organization of over 11,000 people in the US. But we have to as communicators make sure that we’re getting a full picture of that feedback.
Stephanie Cox: So as you think about, you mentioned large organization and it’s global, how do you think about the differences between communicating to US- based employees versus employees maybe in EMEA? Are there nuances to that that you have to really think about not just on the tone that you have, but as well as the tactics that you use?
Jay Kern: Yeah. It is very different. And I’m learning that in this role very quickly. We are a pretty decentralized organization, so within our specific regions we communicate independently and we have our own communication team for the US. I would even argue within the US we have nine different locations and how we communicate in the Bay Area in California, it’s very different than how we communicate in Indianapolis or New Jersey. But, I think in terms of the language, certainly differences from EMEA to the US. And we’ve actually kind of are in the process of adopting a model where we’re localizing communications from our headquarters in Europe, making sure that they have the right messaging. I think a couple tidbits is certainly US I’m a proponent of shorter form communications. When I look at some of our communications that come from global, they’re longer in nature. We’re a little more creative in terms of the channels that we use in the US. Certainly bigger users of text messaging for urgent type messages in the US so there’s some channel differences as well. And I think it’s important to not assume that one size fits all. We talked about the different employee personas, but I think you make an excellent point. From EMEA to Asia, to the US, it’s very different. And, I think knowing that and understanding that and that’s a stakeholder management for me now reporting into a global organization of having to do some education on that. I think it’s been very well received, but it’s been an education even to me, and I’ve worked for a global company for going on eight years now. So, it’s a constant learning curve.
Stephanie Cox: One of the things that you said earlier that I’d love to go back to is around Facebook for employee communications. What are you doing there and how are you thinking about that channel?
Jay Kern: Let’s see. We started that maybe a couple years after I was at Roche. We had very limited channels at the time. We kind of had an internal… not to get too much into the technical SharePoint internet site that was only accessible through a firewall and couldn’t be accessed on people’s personal devices. We had what we affectionately call potty posters that were at our restrooms. We really didn’t have a lot of digital signage. But we had a very engaged campus and we had strong desirous communicators to tie some of these activities and events across our campus and really engage with our audience in a different way. And at that time it was every channel that we used was a one way, top down communication. There was no bottom up engagement. There was no cross sharing of information. And so we started out, it was a bit of a battle as you can imagine to create a social page, but we created an employee Facebook page for our campus. And it was really meant to kind of, it was non- product related, non- business related starting out. It was more about our diversity inclusion initiatives. It was activity on campus, philanthropic efforts. And it was an opportunity for employees who were very passionate about some of these philanthropic efforts or diversity and inclusion activities they were part of for them to share content, for them to post photos. But, then it quickly grew. I was responsible for our meetings in Congress’ team and we started leveraging that. There’s a small contingent of people that go to our conventions; it’s marketers and sales people. We always hear about them, the people that are in our warehouse or the people that work in our call center. But they’re never able to go and see what that’s looks like. So we started doing live broadcasts from some of our largest trade shows or from our sales meeting where we post photos and we engage and really tie that connectedness to our employees no matter where you sit. We’re all part of the same organization, and we’re all driving toward the same thing regardless if you’re in a customer- facing position or not. And then during COVID, ultimately, we had some essential employees out in the field doing some heroic work early on and continue to do work that we’re in hospitals installing equipment during the lockdowns, getting people up and running on the COVID testing. And we shared some of those stories. We would do video chats and we would share those through our employee Facebook page. And huge sense of pride, I think, and camaraderie and respect for those employees to understand what they were doing and what they were seeing out there. I think it’s an incredible tool. Finding out what it is to be used for, like any channel opportunity is there and people see it and they want to put every piece of content in that and make all of the channels kind of a very shotgun approach. That’s certainly not how Facebook employee pages should be used, but I think there is a huge opportunity for them to help increase engagement across a large employee base.
Stephanie Cox: That’s really cool. I love how you’ve been thinking about this. When you come into an internal comms role, and I know you recently changed… you’re at the same company. You’re still at Roche but you recently changed roles and what you’re over. How do you think about evaluating what is currently being done from a comms perspective and figuring out this works, we should move forward with this, or this needs some improvement, this is a sticking point? How do you evaluate that and know where to focus on when in your role, there’s always stuff to do. And so sometimes I can imagine it’s hard to be able to find the time to take a step back and think about strategically what’s the best way to do it. So how do you balance that and figure out how to move forward?
Jay Kern: Yeah. It is a million- dollar question and anyone that’s been through a transformation or restructure or reorganization across the time, it is hard. Because you have legacy functions, legacy perceptions of how your organization should operate. And yet you’re coming in and being asked and being charged to reinvent in many ways how to commute with, whether it be employees or whatever. And I’m right in the middle of that right now. We had responsible for seven different locations across the US and they all had individual communicators that were at those sites and did things in very different ways, and communication showed up in very different ways. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t anything. It just was different. And so, one of the charges for me was figuring out what makes sense where to do we need to align. I try not to approach things from a consistency only standpoint. Consistency for the sake of consistency is not really a value. So, is there a value in consistency? Is there a value in keeping things more individualized? But, I think you have to keep the trains moving, one. You have to continue to deliver that day- to- day communications that’s been provided before. But, I’ve always found it’s having conversations with the stakeholders, having conversations with other communicators. We’ve recently put together kind of the small squad of communicators that have been living this for several years. And truly if we were to take a blank canvas, how would we approach this differently? What are we trying to accomplish as communicators instead of how are we going to reassign tasks? It’s what does good look like at the end of the day? And then kind of build backward from there. What do we need to deliver on that? Whether it be resources, whether it be channels, whether it be tools. And then what things do we need to jettison from this in order to be successful? That’s the toughest part as a communicator, because you’d like to… it’s easy to say or somebody to come down and say, hey, we don’t do that, we’re not communications. But that’s not the solution always. You have to figure out how to… the communication still needs to be done, but does it need to be performed by communications? Are we an extra set of hands or are we a strategic partner who’s providing additional value? And if we’re not a strategic partner providing additional value, and we’re just doing it as an extra set of hands, we need to help figure out where does that fit? Whether it’s training the IT team to do their own communications, or it’s helping them to develop tools, or it’s coaching our diversity and inclusion teams to communicate on their own and giving them the resources and the training available. I think that’s still the role of communications. It’s not, it doesn’t necessarily mean we always have to do everything. But we do need to be that that source, that resource to these other groups to enable them to communicate effectively as well, and that frees up resources and opportunities for us to do things that are truly going to drive greater impact.
Stephanie Cox: So thinking about just communications in general, if you had to give someone one to two things that you would say are must do’s, what would those be?
Jay Kern: Yeah. I think that going back to my earlier comment about audiences, you must know who your audience is in order to be able to be their advocate. You truly need to understand what their, how they consume content and make sure that you’re able to be their advocate. And understand what they need and understand that it’s not a one size fits all approach. So, I think getting out understanding. In some groups it’s easier than others. I’m in a unique situation, but I think a lot of communicators are as well. There’s a lot of companies that have field and local employees and in this COVID environment, time zones. Nobody works in the same city any anymore. Even understanding that, we’ve had challenges in sending text messages and being able to ensure that we’re not sending them at 5: 00 AM Pacific time. So even those small things. Understanding where your audience is and delivering communications that respect where they are.
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