Helen Willetts | The Innovator 25 EMEA 2019

Helen Willetts

Head of Internal Communications


“The most underrated trait in a PR person is bravery. Nothing good happens without a great big fat dollop of risk-taking.”

In her first year at BT, Helen Willetts single-handedly overhauled the internal communications function and has thus been at the heart of transforming a British institution into being fit for the future. From a traditional discipline that man-marked senior leaders and sent out newsletters, she has created a 100-strong team that is aiming to turn BT’s 100,000 staff into a community of advocates. Willetts has ripped up the organisation’s internal comms strategy and laid down 10 principles that now guide everything the team does, from creating content so good that employees want to consume it out of work and share with their friends, to writing a mission statement that unites the whole company, to redesigning the employee experience. By the time BT’s new chief executive Philip Jansen arrived in January 2019, the groundwork had been done by internal communications to respond to his refreshing leadership immediately, with new channels, better advice, great content and a real handle on advocacy. In just one year, Willetts and her team have changed internal communications at BT beyond recognition, with brave ideas that have led to huge jumps in engagement scores.

In what way(s) does PR/communications need to innovate the most?
Communications needs to own its truth: that it is innovation in itself. So often marketing is sparkly, big budget stuff (and don't get me wrong, I love good marketing) but people are so aware that it's branding/marketing, it’s not truth-telling. When you look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, it shows that the single most-trusted source of info about any company is its employees. If you equip those people with content so good that they want to consume it in their own free time on a lazy Sunday and then share it, then you've made it. That's where we should innovate, certainly in internal comms.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry's level of innovation compared to other marketing disciplines?
About the same as other marketing disciplines.

Where is the PR industry's greatest opportunity for taking the lead on innovation?
Content creation.

How do you define innovation?
Telling the truth in a disarming way. That's particularly true in internal communications. So often internal content isn’t of the standard employees deserve: campaigns can be a bit too spin-led, or so dry that they have no soul or opinion. To me, innovation is about treating people like “adults who we like”: using the full breadth of emotions but always telling the truth. If your most trusted source of news about your own company is external, or the internal grapevine, then internal communications isn't doing i's job properly. Fixing this industry-wide would be innovative.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider innovative.
I always feel weird about talking about current stuff as I feel like I'm a common-sense innovator, not an off-the-wall one, so I'll give you an old example. I once semi-secretly commissioned an in-house social Twitter-esque feed, before social media had taken off. Our then UK CEO at HSBC ran it as his personal feed to 50,000 people, and it opened up all sorts of chat: good, bad, surprising, awful, brilliant, cringey, but always truthful. At the time there were calls to shut it down (and I also got marched to a very senior person's office for commissioning and building it without permission), and it often made for uncomfortable reading, but to me it was so important for the start of changing a culture from a hierarchical broadcast to an open, normal conversation.

Most underrated trait in a PR person? 
Bravery. Nothing good happens without a great big fat dollop of risk-taking. So often companies, clients want to take little risk with their comms, and by the time you've got input from 87 people you end up with bland. Creative bravery and having the guts to take that risk against the odds is where brilliant work comes from.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
I seek out a problem. I’m definitely the most creative when there’s a nice crunchy problem to solve.

What are you thinking about most these days? 
How I help BT become a national champion again. It's a beauty of a brief for an internal communicator. BT is a treasure trove of brilliant things that most people don't know, even internally, so revealing those truths is a total pleasure: we’re constantly thinking about how, when, what we do that and finding interesting and new ways to do it. At the same time, we need to modernise as a company, so that's a much bigger, loftier piece of culture change work that we'll be doing over the next five to 10 years: also such a pleasure to work on. So, awesome content and culture modernisation.

What one movie, book, TV show or podcast do you recommend to rent, read or stream tonight?
The Squiggly Careers podcast run by Amazing If is great. Thoughtful, funny, practical, advice about life and careers which just feels really 2019.