Dustee Jenkins is the head of global communications and public relations at Spotify. Dustee joined Spotify in late 2017 from Target, where she spent seven years, culminating in the role of Chief Communications Officer. In addition to being part of PRovoke Media’s Influence 100, Dustee has been Recognized by Mashable as one of 10 Pioneering Women Changing the Field of Communications, and was listed on PR Week’s Global Power Book and also highlighted by Ad Age for 40 Under 40 in Marketing, and PR Week’s 40 Under 40 in Public Relations.

In this conversation, Dustee and Lippe Taylor CEO, Paul Dyer, discuss internal and external communications in the era of COVID, new and exciting advancements at Spotify, as well as the virtues of being press shy.

Below are some key takeaways from this conversation with Dustee. To hear to the entire discussion, listen to it on Lippe Taylor’s Damn Good Brands podcast, available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and everywhere you listen, or check out the audio below. This interview was conducted on May 12th, 2020. 

Be press shy (or at least ‘press selective’). Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO, is notorious for being ‘press shy,’ but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that Daniel is simply highly selective about what he talks to the press about, which is extremely strategic. As a result, people pay more attention to his announcements because they’re usually exciting and meaningful. The practice of forgoing 'press for press sake' also gives Daniel more focus and energy to spend on internal communications (see next bullet). 

Double-down on internal communications. Spotify has always been very focused on internal communications and transparency, two qualities that have become significantly more important in today’s very uncertain COVID era. Spotify takes transparency so seriously that they have even coordinated a way for any of their staff to ask their CEO Daniel anything they want, and to do so anonymously using an app called Slido, which allows a Reddit-like function to upvote and downvote questions.  

Use your mission to move mountains. Before becoming the behemoth audio platform that it is today, Spotify had to start off by individually going to all the major record labels to convince them to license their artists on the Spotify platform. That is an incredibly herculean task, especially considering that many of those labels considered Spotify to compete with record sales at the time. Daniel accomplished this primarily by explaining his mission against piracy with enough passion and purpose, and the rest is Spotify history. This story is indicative of how the communications function goes above and beyond press and how the right mission, properly articulated, can enable your company to transcend extremely daunting, even seemingly impossible tasks. So work on that mission statement, you never know where it can ultimately take your company. 

Paul Dyer: So Dustee, we’re all working remotely in the COVID era. You are in this unique and enviable position of being the head of communications at Spotify, one of the darlings of business in this time where large numbers of people are relying on your service to stay connected and to stay sane. From your perspective, how has this affected the state of communications?

Dustee Jenkins: Obviously, like everyone, Spotify has been impacted by COVID. I don't really think that anyone is immune from this. Normally, as a leader of a global team, I see issues come up that impact a region or a market. This one is very unique in that the whole world has been impacted. And so, in terms of our business, we are fortunate that Spotify is providing much-needed relief to many families all around the world during this tricky time.

We're seeing trends change. Listening habits have certainly shifted and changed, but our business is doing really well. We announced our earnings just a few weeks ago and shared that we have hit 286 million monthly active users. That is a global number, so that's people around the world listening to Spotify. People's habits were really disrupted, and so a lot of people, for example, listen to Spotify during their drive time. But morning commutes quit happening because people weren't getting into their cars and going to the office.

As a community, Spotify has also seen artists be heavily impacted. So many artists were hit hard by the fact that they couldn't tour, they couldn't play at bars and restaurants, and basically all summer concerts were cancelled. We did two things to really reach out to the artist community during this time. We set up a music relief fund that helps artists in need, and we're partnering with 19 different organizations around the world that you can donate to. We're in 13 different countries with this effort. 

In addition, we have allowed artists to do an “artist’s pick” which enables them to fundraise directly from our user base. The way that artists do this is to change their homepage to encourage you to donate to their Square Cash or perhaps a GoFundMe page. They could also choose an organization, but essentially what they're doing is they're raising money directly from our user base. We're seeing a great response to that. We've seen millions and millions and millions of people click to donate and to learn more, so that's been a wonderful effort.

PD: That's amazing. It's great that you've been able to turn all that around, really quickly it sounds like. For large global organizations like yours, often times it can be too much to ask for any major efforts to be undertaken that quickly. 

DJ: Every company is grappling with figuring out this new normal. But in our case, people can still stream music, so they can still enjoy music, and music is providing a great relief. It's been interesting to note the changes in consumption. People are listening to more things that are related to chill music or maybe easy listening. We're also seeing a shift into areas like meditation and wellness; mental health is top of mind for people. Paul, I know that you have children too. No surprise to us parents, people are listening to a lot of kids’ music, so we launched our Spotify Kids app recently and that's been very timely for us.

PD: If I have to hear Baby Shark one more time, I just might never ever sign back on.

DJ: It's a fan favorite.

PD: It is a very young fan favorite. So you've talked a lot about the music industry, and you just mentioned launching your new app. There are a lot of companies that are doing some soul searching right now because of the way their businesses have been disrupted, whether that's their supply chain or their manufacturing or their distribution or just where their soul is leading to. A lot of companies are trying to answer the question of “What business are we in?” And Spotify, it seems like, may be in two businesses. You're in music, but you're also a tech company. How do you navigate that “Who are we” question?

DJ: It's a big one. I think as a communications leader I think it's so important to know who you are. People are always looking for comms specialists to write beautiful words, to communicate strong narratives, but it all comes down to that foundation of, “Who are you, who do you want to be, what's your North Star as a company?” And I'm very fortunate that Spotify definitely has one, and so we have talked a lot about our mission of helping artists to live off of their work. But in terms of our aspirations overall as a company, our CEO, who's also the founder of Spotify, Daniel Ek, has made it quite clear that our goal is to be the world's largest audio streaming service.

Our North Star really enables us to think of ourselves in a couple of different ways; we certainly are a tech company. The digital technology powers our platform, it enables us to reach our users, it makes the Spotify experience quite exceptional. So we are a tech company. We have thousands of engineers that work at Spotify, so we compete against the biggest tech companies in the world for talent. So there's no question we are a tech company, but we are a music company. When you look at the bread and butter of our platform, it is a music platform. It started that way. We've been in existence for over 10 years and you really have all the world's music in your pocket.

But in the last year, we've also introduced podcasts into the platform in a really big way. We've made some big strategic acquisitions; we've also announced some exclusive podcasts that are coming to Spotify. So I really think about it as three concentric circles: technology, podcasts and music. And at the center of that sits audio, which is all-encompassing as it touches all three. 

So I love any opportunity to tell that full, holistic story of who Spotify is as an audio company. But without any one of those three circles, Spotify isn't Spotify. And so without the incredible technology, the platform experience wouldn't be what it is, which enables it to really be best in class.

There's no other platform from a technology standpoint that can do what we do, because music is our focus, day in and day out. But we're really doubling down on podcasts and that's been exciting to watch. 

PD: So you mentioned Daniel, your CEO. Daniel is somewhat notorious for being press shy and not somebody who seeks out a lot of media attention. How do you navigate that as Chief Communications Officer?

DJ: Well, “press shy” is probably an understatement, given what we do. We are founder-led, so Daniel is active in the business day in and day out. I speak to him on almost a daily basis. He very much sets the tone for what we're going to stand for, what we're going to do. And one of the reasons that I came to work for him is that even though he personally doesn't always love engaging in media opportunities, and often does shy away from the press, he is incredibly passionate about storytelling.

He believes in communication. He understands that for people to buy into something, to believe in something, they have to get it, they have to understand it. And the way he convinced people to license the rights to the music for Spotify was to tell them the story of how he believed he could turn people from basically stealing music through piracy to actually paying for the music that they were consuming. And at the time, the industry sort of scratched its head and said, “Well, we don't even know if that's possible anymore,” given what had happened with the music streaming service, so to speak, in terms of what it used to be.

Daniel told the story of what he believed it could be. He has a deep appreciation for communications. 

He's also incredibly passionate about internal communications, which is also a personal passion of mine. One of the things he does that several tech companies do is basically an “ask me anything” with employees that we call Unplugged at Spotify just about every other week, where we take any and all questions. Those questions are submitted through a tool called Slido, and you vote up questions that you want asked. And so it's a very democratic process—really, anything goes in those forums. 

In addition, we also put out a daily update to employees and so we spend a lot of time thinking about communication on our own team. And then to his credit, he has come around and has been on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter recently. He did the cover of Fast Company when we listed publicly. So what he's opposed to is press for press's sake. He's not looking to have people build up their own egos, but he absolutely does believe in telling the company story when it makes sense from a business standpoint.

PD: You mentioned that you came to work for him, specifically, and it's been about three years now since you joined Spotify from Target. What have the differences been in the communications function at both companies? 

DJ: I will always be grateful for my time at Target. I learned so much at that company. I still talk to many of the team there on a regular basis. It was an incredible ride and I saw that company through some really incredible times. We got to announce a lot of designer collaborations when I was there. We got to launch massive brands like Cat and Jack, which is now a multi-billion-dollar brand. And then we also helped shepherd the company through the data breach and had to do a massive restructure; we expanded into Canada and then we pulled out. I really am forever grateful for that experience. 

At Spotify, there are many similarities and differences. There's a heavy focus on team at Target, there's a heavy focus on team at Spotify. We move really fast at Spotify. It's still, in many ways, a lot like a startup, and so it's a little bit like “Hold onto your seat” because things change really, really quickly. It's a very dynamic working environment, so, much like the big tech companies out there, we try lots of different things. We test things all the time; some we talk about, some we don’t. And we're not afraid to really iterate quickly. Also, I would say, one of the things that I love the most about Spotify right now is we are an incredible company and people really love the brand. 

It's one of those services that when you tell people, “Oh, I work for Spotify,” you get this very emotional reaction. And one of the other things that I love is that we're really reflecting culture. So when things happen in the world, like what's happening right now with COVID, it plays out on our platform. Your Daily Wellness is one of our most popular playlists.

And Dinner Party playlists are obviously falling by the wayside because people are not doing that right now, but it's great to see what trends are happening in the world. 

It's kind of funny—I have noted that some people are creating playlists about hair cutting right now. We're seeing playlists about gardening. People doing playlists about hair cutting at home, obviously, wasn't even a thing a few months ago. We watched the world shift on our platform and it's quite fascinating.

PD: That really is incredible, and it's really a small number of companies in the world that are able to see shifts in consumer behavior so quickly. Obviously, the two big ones that come to mind, Facebook and Google, really are caught up in a discussion right now both at a societal and a political level around this concept of censorship in technology and whether tech companies should be playing a role in censoring content, or in some way approving or flagging content that maybe is of questionable veracity. How does that impact you at Spotify? Does Spotify have a position on this topic?

DJ: What's said by people who use our platform is something that every single company in this space is thinking about every day. It's certainly a hot topic this week with all the news coming out. Spotify is in a slightly different position because we're not a social media platform and we don't have open commenting. We really are more of a creator platform.

But that being said, obviously we have to be very mindful of the kind of content on our platform, and so we have a very clear policy in place. We've removed content in the past and we don't hesitate to remove any content that violates our policies. You cannot incite violence. You cannot have hate speech on our platform, and we have a very clear policy around this. But of course, for everyone, this is a risk. And it's top of mind and it's something where you can never take your eye off the ball. We're always paying attention to it. But we do believe in having a lot of different voices on the platform.

I go back to Daniel's ambition to be the world's biggest audio company. And to be the world's biggest audio company, we can't just have voices that we agree with, we can't just have all the people we like. And so the platform is a host of lots of different people, lots of different types of music and we really look to our users to decide what they want to listen to. But there is a line that you cannot cross.

PD: I'm reminded of a statistic that Scott Galloway shared when he was professor at NYU that can be polarizing, but also inspiring. The statistic was that 74 percent of Netflix users said that they would cancel their subscription if they were made to watch advertising. And that may be an exaggerated statistic, but Spotify has an ad-supported platform as well a free version. What are you seeing in terms of the trends in how that might be changing?

DJ: Well, one of the beautiful things about Spotify is we give you both options. And so we have a free tier where you can listen to all the world's music, you can listen to podcasts, but you get served that content with advertising. It's free and available in 79 markets around the world. And then we also have a paid tier where you can pay a price depending on what kind of plan you get. So we have a family plan where you get multiple subscriptions--that's what my family has, so that my kids can have their own playlist and don't mess with my algorithms.

But we have this family plan on the paid tier where you have the opportunity to get served all your music content without any advertising. And so it really depends on the user and how they want to engage with the platform. I will say, in a time like COVID, though, where we've seen a lot of people be impacted by job loss or shifts in the economy around the world. 

To have that option of a free tier is unique to Spotify. Many of our competitors don't have one, and so we have continued to see people shift into free if they have to for some period of time and then come back to be a subscriber if they want to.

But it really is left up to them. The other thing I think is important to understand about our business is that about 60 percent of our subscribers start as a free customer. They might want to just try it out and see how the service is, see if they like the playlists, see if they like the experience. That's a pretty big number. So obviously, that's a really important pool for us, when people start as free and then move over into being a paying subscriber.

PD: So you mentioned earlier that Spotify is a global company in 79 countries.  That's amazing. 

DJ: The fact that we're in 79 different markets around the world means there are a lot of different points of view, lots of different cultures, lots of different musical tastes that are represented. We like to say that music is borderless. It travels around the world and it's this universal language. When you hear a song that's upbeat and happy, even if you don't understand the words, you know that it's upbeat and happy.

One of the things we really focus on a lot at Spotify is celebrating the cultures that make up our team. Of course we're a global company, but we refer to our approach as “glocal,” merging the words local and global. We think about things at a global level: how do we scale, how do we move quickly, how do we ensure that the product make sense wherever it is in the world, but we also have experts. We have teams in each of our major markets, all over the world, and we look to them to determine whether or not something will make sense in their market.

We know it's not a one-size-fits-all and so the podcasts that might be resonating in a place like India or Indonesia (where we're launching nine new podcasts this week alone) are going to look different than in the United States. We're looking to see what is going to be relevant, what's going to make sense—but the reality is, you have all the world's music at your fingertips. And the Spotify team, the health of the team, the community of the team benefits from all those different points of view and all those different cultures coming together.

It's something where we absolutely have to be intentional to hear one another, to celebrate one another, to be kind to one another, to be good to one another, and so it's definitely top of mind for us.

PD: We're at a time in our industry where, unfortunately, a lot of people have lost their jobs and are looking for future opportunities, and trying to maybe think about how they can make themselves more marketable as candidates. You're in a position where you've grown your team considerably over the last couple of years and made a lot of hiring decisions. So I'm curious, what is it you look for when you're hiring somebody, and do you have any advice that you would give to people as they try to make themselves marketable candidates?

DJ: Great question. I have spoken to several people in the last few weeks--more so than I have, really, in any time in my career--who have lost their job. And they range from reporters that I respect and know are really good at what they do, to communications professionals who are inside of a company, and it's heartbreaking. I have never seen anything like this. And so, certainly I'm trying to be helpful to them where I can, to try and connect them to people. And Spotify is in the fortunate position where we continue to grow our team. And I know that there are several companies that are doing that and I'm trying to help them.

But my advice to anyone in this space is, first and foremost, when it comes to communications you have to love—like, love deep down in your soul love--the art of communication, day in and day out. These jobs are hard. I work at night, I work in the morning, I work on the weekend, I go to bed with my phone, I wake up with my phone. And I never feel “this is awful,” or “this is miserable.” I love it! Do I have to be intentional about carving out time for my family? Of course I do. I have to create boundaries. I have to push myself, but I love what I do. I love writing, I love storytelling, I love figuring out tricky problems; so I really think it starts with “Do you love it?” because you kind of have to in these roles, given how demanding they can be.

I really seek out people who are not afraid of hard work, who are incredibly curious in terms of wanting to learn about this business. The foundational skills of communication might be the same wherever you are: good writing, good narrative, can you convince a reporter to cover a story? But I think where it gets really interesting is learning the business. That's always been my favorite part. I'll never forget when I was working for Target, I had a chance to go with the team to Asia and I spent some time in Vietnam to understand our sourcing practices.

I had written about sourcing in press releases and in announcements for years, but to be up close and personal in factories and to understand the supply chain lines, it was so eye-opening. And so I try as much as possible to spend time with the business teams at Spotify, spend time with the engineers to learn the ins and outs of the problems they're solving and how they work and how they get things done. Obviously, that's a little bit harder right now with us working from home, but I think that curiosity has to be innate in who you are.

It's a really hard thing to teach if someone doesn't have it, because being really good at this job is all about the questions you ask and probing to go deeper, rather than just sort of accepting what someone tells you is the news or the interesting part of a story. And then the last thing that I would mention is you’ve got to be well-read. I subscribe to lots of random business journals and magazine journals and I subscribe to lots of trades, and that's because I want to learn as much as possible. When I'm sitting across from someone I can share with them what a competitor has done, what someone else in the space did, what we did a year ago. So also knowing the history of your own business, I think, is really important.

PD: Well, if we’ve ever all had the wherewithal and the time available to do some reading, I think this is probably it.

DJ: That's right. That's right. And there's so many great news aggregators out there today. I start my day with several different ones, and I find that's also incredibly helpful.

PD: Definitely.  Are there any that you would recommend?

DJ: I love Dylan Byers’ newsletter, so that's a new one that I've started reading. I'm a big fan of Dylan's. He's a great reporter. I read all the political ones because I'm a former politico, I'm still a political junkie at heart and so I pay lots of attention to those. I love everything that the journals are putting out. There's several that I start with, and then, as I mentioned, we also write one at Spotify. We put one out to the Spotify team each and every day where we're telling them what's happening across the company on that day. I look at ours before I go to bed at night, and then I like to read it when it comes in my inbox the next morning just to make sure we got it all right.

PD: You guys recently launched a marketing campaign called Listening Together, which is a microsite that shows people who are listening to the same song at the same time around the world, which is really just cool. That's just really cool!

DJ: Isn’t that cool? It really speaks to this notion that music is borderless. I remember traveling as a kid, and you would go to different parts of the world and you could only hear that music there. You could only feel that vibe there. You could only feel that level of excitement there. And so, what Spotify has enabled is that we can truly all listen together. And it's amazing.  My parents are in Texas and I love to share things back and forth with them. 

I really think Spotify can serve as this great connector. And the reality about music is it does help you heal; it brings you up, it brings you joy, it helps you come together. So it's a really powerful thing, especially in a time like this one.

PD: We have a lot of people listening who are in brand marketing or communication roles, so I wondered if you might just talk for a few minutes about what Spotify For Brands is all about and why they might think about looking you guys up?

DJ: I love this one, Paul. It gives me a chance to brag on the opportunity to work with our team! As I mentioned, Spotify has a paid tier and a free tier--I do think it's also important to note that all podcasts have advertising partners within them. When you listen to a podcast, often there'll be host-read ads and so you might not notice that you're hearing an ad. But whether or not you're on the free or paid tier, you're going to be listening to ads on podcasts.

But our Spotify For Brands team is really looking for ways to bring advertising partners to our platform. So we work with a number of different brands and create entire podcasts that, for instance, teach children how to brush their teeth with a brand partner. We will work with brands to take over an entire podcast for a season if they want to do that. 

We've worked with a number of different partners, but obviously, we're in 79 markets and we reach more than 286 million people around the world. And one of the other beautiful things about Spotify is that the engagement is really high, so it's not like we just reach them because they listen once. We reach them because they listen again and again and again and again. We know that the consumption time on our platform is incredibly high. 

We also really understand our listeners because we can see what music they listen to, and we have insight into what podcasts they're listening to beyond just being able to reach people by rough demographics.

PD: That's amazing, and I'm sure that there are a lot of brands that are interested in that. So let me just say thank you on behalf of PRovoke Media for talking with us today.  We're very much looking forward to hearing all of the feedback that we get from people after hearing your insights.

DJ: Thank you so much for having me, Paul. You take really good care out there.

PD: You too.