In June this year, and for only the second time in its history, the European Association of Communication Directors elected a new president.
Hans Koelemen, chief corporate communication and CSR at Dutch telecommunications company KPN, took over the role from founding president Dr. Herbert Heitmann. Communication Director spoke to Hans about his vision for the association, his thoughts on the development of the communications profession, and the importance of networking for professional and personal growth.
You are a busy professional, leading corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at a major organisation. What is your motivation in taking on this additional role of EACD president?
Hans Koeleman: I have always been very active in addition to my job. I have completed an MBA and a master's in communications, I have lectured on reputation management and CSR, and I have been active in many other institutes and extracurricular activities such as awards juries and so on. I believe that I can only do my work when I receive inspiration from outside my job as well. You cannot be a good communicator at the top of the profession if you do not step outside your company and engage with other companies, other ideas, other subjects – that is what makes an effective communication professional. This new role is a big responsibility, so I am very happy with the 17 board members who are also very active and have a lot of energy.
How would you describe the role of the communicator?
We are the people that can oversee everything – all stakeholders, all societal developments – and we have the ability to translate this on behalf of our organisations, our CEOs and colleagues in leadership. We can understand the role of our CEO because he or she is in a similar position. We can be change agents, strategic business counsellors, leaders in creating the purpose of organisations, connectors. We are able to build authentic relations with all the various internal and external stakeholders, we are stewards of the brand and of the reputation of the organisation. Some even say we are the corporate conscience, with the ability to bring purpose and values to life, in a world of uncertainty and decreased trust.
What does a communicator contribute strategically to the organisation?
We can help to balance long and term short-term strategic decisions, in order to maintain a strong and healthy multi-stakeholder approach and a good and solid reputation. We know how to align people that seem at first sight to have no possibility of aligning at all. We are aware of the necessity to really engage our people in the execution of the strategy and we know how to strengthen the loyalty of our customers in the long run. We know by heart that culture really devours strategy for breakfast. We therefore embrace diversity because we love it and know what it brings to the culture of a company. We bring an open mind to the table, in the most difficult circumstances. We bring transparency or, better yet, truth to the table, when nobody wants it, because it is painful and difficult to bring up. And, last but not least, and looking at the current days of our lives and the ongoing digitalisation, we are the ones that understand that all this technology needs to be human-centred. We should stimulate companies and organisations to be good citizens, to be frontrunners of positive change for the society in which they operate. I strongly believe that this is the future and the only way forward if we want to maintain our beautiful planet.
In other words, in our profession, that first sight can seem undefined and broad, we have this tremendous possibility of developing ourselves and of creating so many themes that are key to the success of our organisations, but which are somehow overlooked by others, simply because they are too busy and do not share our more independent, unbound, unconfined position.
How do you see the EACD supporting this vision?
We have a great foundation. We are already a vibrant organisation with roots all over Europe in the form of regional coordinators, working groups, and events such as the Forum, the European Communication Summit, Debates and countless regional workshops, discussions and meetings. The EACD us already a very vibrant representation of our profession in Europe and beyond. I want to see that enhanced. Together, we should develop thought-provoking new ideas, new trends, new best practices and new views on the future of our profession.
How would you like to see the association develop over the coming years?
I see an even bigger group of people than we have today, with the very top of the profession working with millennials – the people that are ambitious to grow even further in the profession – in taking our profession into the next era. If you are further down the line in your profession, it is your responsibility to help the next generation in evolving it. Everything is changing, and more and more rapidly, so as a communications leader, I have to reinvent myself all the time.
"Everything is changing, and more and more rapidly, so as a communications leader, I have to reinvent myself all the time."
Organisations develop new business models, there are different societal challenges such as fake news, Brexit, you name it, and we as a profession have to have an answer to these developments. Therefore, it is a joint responsibility not just for me but also for the EACD as a whole to evolve this profession.
What kind of person is attracted to the EACD?
We are looking for professionals that are outgoing, that are interested in what is outside of his or her company, in what other companies are doing, in trends in the market and in the industry, but also in politics, the environment - anything that is happening outside of their daily work life. They also have the ambition to be a top player in their profession. They do not just want to do the job, they want to be the best, and whether they are young or old does not make a difference. At conferences like the European Communication Summit, you meet these kind of outgoing people interested in what's going on and who want to make the best out of the profession, who are critical and don't take everything for granted.
As brand new president of the EACD, one of your first tasks was to open this year’s European Communication Summit, where the mantra this year was “transformation”. What transformations in the communications industry do you find most exciting – or alarming, for that matter?
One of the biggest challenges I see is that humankind is following the pace set by technology, rather than technology following humankind. When you have a smartphone, you look at it much too often and you react to every message that you receive.
"One of the biggest challenges I see is that humankind is following the pace set by technology, rather than technology following humankind."
So my concern about digitalisation is, how can we make sure that it is technology serving the people, and not the other way round? It’s a challenge, not least because, as the recent discussions about Facebook and data privacy shows, we are only now on a mass scale becoming aware of the negative side effects of digital, although these kind of data sharing techniques have been in play almost from the beginning. How can we make sure that digital developments contribute positively to human life? People who are heavily tech-oriented have created wonderful tools for us to use, but they do not always understand how people work, think and operate.
Another transformative development that you have spoken about is the empowerment of employees to communicate freely and responsibly. Where does this leave the communications head in their role as strategic communicator?
I have two perspectives on this. On the one hand, we are seeing a trend towards less hierarchy, in organisations as well as in markets, led by start-up and start-up inspired companies who aim to be transparent, non-hierarchical. In other words, “corporate” as a word is falling out of favour. This is a good development in the sense that what is important is what you bring to the table, whether you are the CEO, the CFO, or anyone else. The way we communicate with each other should be empowered by communication departments to be as open and transparent as possible, and we should help employees and their managers to be able to have a dialogue about anything in total transparency.
My caveat is that, while I think it is very good that we have open, transparent platforms in organisations, and people should be able to share and discuss ideas, at the same time, it is very important to have a strong, consistent focus on key issues, such as the strategy of the company. Otherwise, there is a real risk of losing focus on what the company stands for, what its purpose is and what its strategy is. Ultimately, you need to have a people at the top who are absolutely in alignment with each other on the direction of the organisation and they have to make sure that everybody understands it very well. The ability to dialogue about it is fine, but in the end, as an organisation, to be effective you have to be aligned.
Is it a given that communicators must be involved from the get-go in formulating strategies?
The conversation about the exact position of the head of communications in relation to strategic development is very prominent in in the profession right now. However, we rarely talk about how we should behave in such a way that we do not need to ask for a certain position, we simply are given the position. As a communications professional, you need to have some crisis experiences, branding experiences, you need to fall on your face a couple of times, you need to be neglected by certain CEOs for a while.
All these experiences shape you into the kind of professional that you are and that is an organic, ongoing process. You can read books about the professional advancement until you drop dead, but I believe that it is much more effective to be part of a network and have an ongoing debate about the potential of ourselves and our profession.
Thank you, Hans, and best of luck in this new role.