"We are seeing a change in the old way of thinking"

Danish Crown’s director of corporate communications shares her outspoken views about her work

 

 

When talking about Danish Crown, you do not shy away from words like ‘slaughter’ and ‘killing’, and have even coined the phrase ‘We kill for a living’. How important is this kind of direct way of communicating?

It is not a secret that when I got on board with the company exactly eight years ago, they were in what you would call “bad standing” in terms of media, consumers and activists. They had just been through fairly huge media attention to do with hygiene and cleanliness of their slaughter factory. The worst thing I believe you can do is to try to hide what it is you do, and my very firm principle is that we have a production that we can show to anyone who wants to see it. And if there is any corner of the business where people would say “we really don’t want to have a television crew there”, then we change the way we produce. Transparency to me is a key thing in our production, and if you have transparency then you also have to be willing and able to put the right words to it.

Does this transparency trickle down through the whole organisation, not just the meat processing part?

It has trickled down quite a lot over the past eight years. This is a 126-year old company owned by farmers, and I will admit that when I first got into this business there were areas where it was a little backward, and I had to communicate a little more forward than would have been the choice of the company. But over time they have come to see how this has changed the standing we are in with society and politicians. What has also been very important to me, being responsible for reputation in a company that produces consumer products, is having an eye-to-eye level in our communication. For instance, everything in the annual report is written in journalistic terms and can be read by anybody. It has had an immense impact and today nobody doubts whether it is important. We took home a total of nine awards for the annual report last year.

Danish Crown has also relocated jobs to countries outside Denmark. How difficult has it been to communicate this move?

This is a very good example of being transparent and standing by what you do. During my time with the company, we have relocated 7,000 workplaces, so that today we have a little less than 9,000 employees in Denmark and 16,000 abroad. Eight years ago it was the other way round. Every time we have closed down a Danish facility we have communicated this. At the beginning they were a little scared of touching the subject, but if a closure is carried out correctly and responsibly, then there is always a reason for it and it is up to us to make sure that reason is put out there every time we do these things. We have become quite good at almost chanting the message that the workplaces abroad are the reason we still have Danish workplaces, they are not an alternative. We didn’t do it for the fun of it. We are explaining the difference in the level of salaries and cost production and also the need to be competitive when you are an export company, explaining to people that we export 90 per cent of what we do and we are competing in markets where you have slaughter facilities from all over the world. In my eight years I have been part of closing down 27 facilities in Denmark, we have got a pretty good routine when it comes to doing these things.

Your background is journalism. How has that helped you with your job today in corporate communications?

If I’m going to spend time and effort producing communications, why not create something that I know people will want to read, see and dive into? At the end of the day food is an emotional thing, it connects people, and so for us it is a matter of telling a story that reaches people on an emotional level, but never taking it to a place where it becomes marketing.

That can be a fine line sometimes.

It is a very interesting subject. Right now we are seeing a tendency towards these things changing. Several companies have seen this and put marketing under communication in order to keep storytelling a part of it. Classic marketing, like ads and television commercials, still has a role to play when it comes to very distinct product marketing, but in terms of creating loyalty in the long run, I think that storytelling creates identity, and sometimes I see marketing get it a little wrong by not being strategic enough. Who are you going to use to front your product? If that does not make sense then it doesn’t create the impact that you want to create with that kind of money. So what we see internationally is that marketing becomes a part of the communications department, because that way you get a more strategic approach to the way you act and communicate.

Is that the way it is set up in Danish Crown?

No. It is a big debate. We are seeing a change in the old way of thinking that “we have several brands but we don’t want people to know that they all come out of the same company”. In this day and age, everyone knows, everyone can look it up and find out. I also faced that approach when I entered Danish Crown. What we are going to do now as a first step towards alignment is implementing a little line on business cards across the entire range of companies, saying “part of the Danish Crown group”, like you see with P&G who are no longer scared of people knowing that Johnson’s Baby Oil, toothpaste and shampoo comes out of the same company, and also seeing that does not damage the brand but can actually tells stories about how they are part of everyday life. I believe we are going to see that more and more in the coming years because the whole consumer take on classic ads, it is not like that anymore. You open the newspaper in the morning and switch on the television at night, but between these two there are a lot of other choices of information that reach you and that makes for a very different kind of controlling the picture.

You have said that you pulled the plug on numerous Danish Crown Facebook pages, because you did not have the resources to manage them effectively.

That has created quite a debate between communication and marketing. The two main reasons are that we actually do not have a lot of crises anymore, and I also believe that anything you do, you should do it right. Don’t do things half way or without knowing what you are dealing with. If I want pictures taken I hire a photographer, I don’t send just anybody out with a camera. Social media has created an acceptance of lower standards in a lot of things, and my point of view is, if we do things half way, what does that say about our company? For example, we had a situation where marketing wanted to create a Facebook page for a fresh meat product, and I had to ask “who’s going to watch it 24/7?” because anybody who has any point of view about pork production will now have a easy way to send it out there. Are you equipped to answer these questions? Facebook in Denmark is mostly live between four pm and two am: who is going to sit and watch it then? Next morning is not good enough. Eventually I pulled the plug on it. The fact that we do not have Facebook pages for Danish Crown is not because we are afraid of the criticism or the debate, but we are such a big company, we are very vulnerable – a documentary about pig production in Denmark goes out on television and two seconds later there are 15,000 people debating this online. It is not about controlling, it is about making sure that we can answer the questions and do it right.

With 25,000 employees in 130 countries, could you give us some insight into how your modestly-sized team approaches internal communications?

We do not do that as well as I would hope. This is a matter of resources. The first thing you have to take into consideration is how are these employees work lives? They all stand on a production line and have no access to computers during the day. Is the internet then the best way of communicating? No, of course not. If I had free choice in terms of resources I would use radio, because they already have these headphones on that play the radio. But even among employees in Demark, you have 60 different nationalities and just mastering the language skills is a big issue. So today we have an employee magazine that we send out between five and 10 times a year.

What tone of voice do you use for this magazine?

In terms of the language we use, this magazine has to reflect not only the employees we want to reach but it also has to reflect the issues that they discuss in the cafeteria every day, what’s being debated, the critical stories. We voice these issues in order for them to feel that this magazine is actually relevant. This goes out mainly to the employees in Denmark. We also have substantial production in Sweden, Poland, the UK, the US, in Germany, and other countries have smaller sales offices. Workers in these offices can of course look at the intranet but they sometimes have their own system set up and sometimes they have nothing set up, which is an issue with us and we’re looking into that. The next annual report is going to be called Being Part of a Group, because I’ve literally been around the world this year taking photos for the report to make it clear that we are a worldwide company. I visited our new factory in Omaha in the US, and I met people there who, when I told them I’m from Danish Crown had never heard of it, even though they’re owned by us. So that inspired me.

What are the factors behind this diversity, and how do you plan on working with that?  

Some of this comes out of the fact we’re build on mergers and acquisitions, so we buy a company that has its own identity where  the focus on implementing cultural changes is maybe not that strong and they can easily become little independent companies. In some ways they should, because they have to adapt to the market they’re in – it would be crazy of us to pull Danish culture down over the heads of, say, US workers working in the US market. But still, we want to create a sense that if you are working in any part of Danish Crown, you’re part of something that is bigger than yourself. That is what I want to create with this annual report. Sometimes you will meet someone who does not want to face the fact that they are part of something bigger, and that creates debate and discussion, but I have a strong mandate and backing from the board.

You have also expressed reservations about using the services of public relations agencies. Could you tell us more about this?

I don’t work with any public relations agencies and I am not a big fan of consultancies. This is not because I believe that I can do anything better, but it’s that owning the strategy is important to me. I know people in the public relations business and I also know a few who are really, really good. But I usually put it this way: never have photographers and graphic designers in-house, because you will never get the best, and never have the strategy made ‘out-house’, because then you won’t own it.

Before joining Danish Crown, you were head of press at the association of Danish consumer cooperatives. How have you navigated the change from working for a consumer organisation to a producer – from one side of the divide to the other?

It says a lot about the courage of the chief executive officer I am working for right now. I started out as a journalist, I did television for a few years and then I was a consumer journalist at the largest national newspaper here, and I would say I have written some of the nastiest things about Danish farming and agricultural society on the front page of this paper. I was a journalist for eight years and then I got bored and became the spin doctor of the then Minister of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. She was a social democrat and I would not say she hated farming but the farmers certainly hated her. And then I went on to work for other consumer organsiations before joining Danish Crown. I was contacted by a headhunter, as we mostly are, I thought I would never take the job because it’s on the other side of Denmark. It was quite some months before I said yes.  

What made you say yes?

The challenge and the chemistry with the chief executive officer. He kept asking me, he knew from day one that I was who he wanted. He said to me, “Listen, we have 15,000 employees Denmark (back then) and they hate us, we have 15,000 owners and they hate us, and if you look at the media, politicians, consumers, they hate us. Where will you find a more interesting challenge than that?” And that is where he had me, basically. Here we are eight years later.

Anne Villemoes

As director of corporate communications, Anne Villemoes heads communications at international food producer Danish Crown, one of the largest companies in Denmark. Before taking up this position in November 2005, she worked as head of press for Forbrugerrådet (the Danish Consumer Council) and later the FDB (Association of Danish Consumer Cooperatives). Prior to that she was press secretary for the Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. She has a background as a journalist in television and for Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, the largest national newspaper in Denmark.