|Profile: Royal Mail's Abby Guthkelch|
|Friday, 28 September 2012 01:32|
Signed, sealed, deliver?
As head of digital comms for Royal Mail, Abby Guthkelch works with the oldest and the newest communications platforms. Jenni Marsh meets her.
When Abby Guthkelch saw the position of head of digital communications for Royal Mail advertised, she wasn’t looking to change roles. But something about the job description had her hooked. “I kept looking at it and thinking: ‘That job sounds totally unique’,” she says. “The brief was to start from scratch in terms of digital communications and to be given free reign strategically.” Despite having been with agency RE:Media as an account manager for just 11 months, she put her CV forward. “It was one of those jobs I knew I would be mad not to apply for and would kick myself later.”
Abby got an interview, and then the job.
The day she found out she had won the role at Royal Mail, RE Media announced a swoop of redundancies that encompassed her role. If she had had doubts, they were silenced. “RE decided to relocate their business plan and keep everything based Derbyshire rather than London but they hadn’t given any indication that was on the cards, so I couldn’t really believe my luck.”
While Abby undoubtedly had a robust archive of experience to draw on - from being a PA to a finance director, to head of investor relations for a FTSE 100 company in her 20s - this was a step up to take on the future of a household name.
“The brief was unbelievably generous,” Abby says. “I was instructed to come in and evaluate all of the digital channels and embed them in to the organisation’s day to day comms. Rather than have digital as a bolt-on it would be a central point of our communications plan.” After overhauling the digital presence of nearly every firm she had worked for - whether that had been her brief or not - Abby was perfectly placed for the position.
But she had a key hesitation before accepting. “In my second interview, I was very frank with Shane O’Riordain [group communications director at Royal Mail] and said: ‘I’m applying for head of digital comms and lauding digital when actually digital is the single biggest risk to Royal Mail’s business, the core trade of letters and deliveries.’
“With the rise of email people no longer get bank statements posted to them. It did feel weird being that person saying ‘digital is amazing - you can do all this and don’t have to print it out and post it’ in that type of a business.”
O’Riordain assured her that Royal Mail was a dynamic, complex and evolving organisation that understood the need to embrace digital to make it in the next generation of trade.
While Royal Mail’s communications department was already formidable - it has a media-led team, community investment section, and a group looking at the products-based strand - Abby was hired to bring together digital and internal communications, and to create an online message that would consolidate a sprawling, evolving and diversifying organisation. “Royal Mail’s communications operation is so vast it’s almost like one agency within a company, so it’s our job to make sure all the systems and platforms are working at the best capacity. I’m here as an in-house digital consultant helping people realise digital doesn’t have to be scary, it should just be second nature and part of the integration plan.”
Royal Mail is the nation’s second largest employer - behind the NHS - with c.150,000 people on its pay roll. But of those, just 25,000 are office-based staff with a company email account or laptop, as a large proportion of employees are postmen or logistics workers not behind a desk. Therefore getting messages out to the entire staff based about Royal Mail’s future is a dynamic task.
A study into the organisation’s internal communications was commissioned in 2011 just before Abby joined the group and asked employees whether they felt they were being engaged with and if there was a two-way communications channel.
“The results were staggeringly low,” Abby remembers. “People really wanted to be included in the business strategy but the feedback was they didn’t know what the future held or how Royal Mail was performing. They wanted to know what their local results were but didn’t know how that fitted into the bigger picture.” Receiving the internal magazine was helpful, but not enough. The situation was so unsatisfactory that staff had taken to setting up their own Google alerts about Royal Mail and using that as a way of keeping up to date with the company’s progress.
Before a major restructuring of the business earlier this year, Royal Mail’s core mail collection and delivery unit - picking up the post, sorting it and putting it through letterboxes - had lost nearly £1 billion in four years. Mail volumes had fallen by a quarter since 2006. It took a Government deal in April 2012 to secure the long-term future of the Post Office. But that meant the institution was separated from Royal Mail, which is now rebranding itself as a long-distance parcel service and provider of financial products.
“Most people still don’t realise that the Post Office and Royal Mail are separate entities,” says Abby. “When I tell them I work for Royal Mail not the Post Office, their attitude is normally: ‘it’s the same thing’. That can be quite infuriating.”
In order to better inform both the employees and the wider public, Abby took the corporate website apart and rebuilt it, creating a transparent storyboard that would tell journalists, employees and investors alike where the Royal Mail was at. Concise tags such as ‘Building a commercial future’ and ‘driving profitable growth’ ensure that users leaving the website do so with a confident idea of how Royal Mail intends to survive and, indeed, thrive in the digital era.
Websites are Abby’s forte. Abby’s calling card is her natural flair for using new media to broadcast messages that will improve the financial future of a company. Her corporate career began in the pubs of Bristol. Abby’s determined work ethic during the completion of a politics degree allowed her to use a part-time bar job to become the city’s youngest licensee at 21. Realising she wanted a different type of career, Abby left for London and took a position as a PA to the financial director at materials specialist Low & Bonar.
Coming into the role Abby found it hard to research the company as the website was clunky and uninformative. “Within a few weeks, I flagged the website to the management, noting that it would be the first point of reference to any shareholder coming to the firm. At this point, Low & Bonar hadn’t really floated on the FTSE 100 so it was important to have our strategy clearly laid out,” Abby says. However, other business strategies took priority and months passed without the issue being addressed. “A few months later, I went back and raised it again and said you are missing a trick. People won’t be able to fathom the business from the corporate website. “
The response was - if you want to do it, then go and do it. Abby worked with investors to make-over the site, and was consequently highly commended for best practice at the Investor Relations Awards. “I had never considered digital communications as a role, but all the things I loved about that job looking at how to write press releases, and that whole aspect of integrating the website,” she says.
Abby stayed at Low & Bonar until September 2005, before approaching a recruitment agency. She wanted a new direction but wasn’t sure what it was. Given her passion for communicating a company’s objectives and successes, the agency decided investor relations would be the ideal channel. After a brief stint as a PA to the investment director at Consensus Business Group, Abby joined Land Securities, as part of the investor relations team.
“My role was talking to equity analysts and investors, setting up roadshows, doing presentations, going out on the road etc and I really loved it,” says Abby. Within four months of joining, fate threw her a golden opportunity when her superior left for a new role. “They knew it would take a while to recruit a permanent replacement, so after four months of my first IR role I was asked to step up into the interim head of investor relations for a FTSE 100 company. I was terrified to say the least but it was fantastic, and fascinating to understand what makes the investment decisions for these big pension funds.”
After six months, the communications directors departed, with the interim financial report due to be published. Having done two at Bonar, Abby was called on by the chief executive to step into the breach. Naturally, she brought her digital flair to the task. “I said I would love to do it and wanted to talk about html reporting. In my opinion, we were behind the curve with the website and so I pulled together some benchmarking and case studies to show how people were warming to information being available digitally, rather than just as a hard copy.”
In 2007, Land Securities ran its first HTML annual report, setting a precedent for the future. Abby pushed the envelope on the way digital media can be used to bring to life corporate messages and communicate data. “I was trying to bring what can be a very dry report to life through video or animation. From that I started to take more and more responsibility on the digital side and found this creative part of me I never knew existed. I’m so disappointed I didn’t know about it when I was younger and going to university - who knows what I might have done?”
It’s hard to think that she could have achieved any more.