In an interview with The Business Standard, Shamima Akhter, head of corporate affairs, partnerships and communications, Unilever, talked about what the Communication sector was like she started working and what someone should do if they want to be an efficient communication specialist.
The Business Standard (TBS): You have been in communication for many years. Tell us a bit about how you became interested in this field?
Shamima Akhter (SA): I started doing jobs when I was in the first year at university. I used to work as an interpreter for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I was also a part of the United Nations Youth and Students Association of Bangladesh (UNYSAB). In fact, I, along with a few of my friends and seniors, started it. We used to volunteer for different UN organisations, and through that, I found the interpreter's job. While doing that job, I realised that communication is such an important factor because it involves creative thinking to develop the message or even delivering it to the grassroots. That is how my job in the communication sector started.
The business world was small when I completed my graduation from the University of Dhaka in 2004. After graduation, we only had two dreams – either sit the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) test or work in the private sector.
The nonprofit sector was a significant one back then, and it was also suitable for women. Moreover, working in the development sector gave you a feeling that you are doing something for the country and its people. That is how I ended up doing my first full-time job at the UNDP as an executive for their communication team.
My job responsibilities were mostly report writing, coordination and support the department to build communication strategies to provide the right message to the donors as well as the general audiences.
But I never thought about corporate communication at that time. Neither was it a thing back then. You would never hear people saying that they want to be a communication professional or company spokesperson.
However, after spending seven years in the development sector, I moved to the corporate sector as a manager of public relations (PR) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) at Qubee. After that, I worked at Coca-Cola. Now, I am working at Unilever as the head of corporate affairs.
When we started our career, transferrable skills were not really valued. Abroad, you can easily change your career path. But back then, in Bangladesh, people would not take the risk to hire you in a different sector, saying the expertise you had gathered over time was way different from their industry. So, it was not an easy task for me to switch my career in the corporate sector from the development field.
Also, I was keen to know how marketing communication brought out results so quickly. I wanted to understand what drives their communication to be so edgy, and what drives them to use specific media for landing the communication plan.
TBS: You have worked both in the nonprofit and profit sectors. What is the difference between communication in these sectors?
SA: During my seven years in the development sector, I have worked with organisations like the UNDP, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), etc. I felt like development sector's communication takes longer time to bring results . Of course, behaviour change is hard, and it will not come suddenly.
Thus, communication in the development sector is a little lengthier. The communication is more about report writing and explaining theories.
But in the for profit sector, you need to communicate fast. You need to understand the changes that might come well ahead of time through analysing the market and from hints received from consumers. Next, you need to land a communication plan that will connect the people. If the plan is failing, you need to change it once again and do it fast. Also, in the marketing or business sector, your capacity for doing experiments is a lot wider.
But in the development sector, if you are representing a big organisation, your mistakes and inaccuracy of data can create a significant image crisis for your organisation. So, the scope for experimentation was a lot less in the development sector back then.
Also, communication in the development sector that we were taught was through the Westerners. Communication elements were talking in a tone that was not known to our people, and messages were not tested in the field. However, things have changed nowadays. In marketing, communication is all about your target audience and relevance.
TBS: Communication has many parts. Please give us a description of the different parts and let us know how one is different from the other.
SA: In a company, communication is a combination of internal and external Communication and has many parts, such as brand communication, marketing communication, company Communication etc.
In brand communication, it is all about building a brand. Knowing your audience well, and it is very specific.
Marketing communication is wider and involves tactical communication from ATL to BTL. Such Communication look into the consumer psyche and depending on consumer behaviour, marketing plans will change as well.
Also, there is company communication - internal and external Communication. This is strategic in nature. The person dealing with company communication has two sorts of job. One is providing the right information to the employees at the right time and motivating the employees because they are the biggest assets and ambassador of the company.
Then, company imagery does not start with a single person, even if that person is the chief executive officer (CEO). What matters is what everyone is saying and demonstrating the same principles. When every one of a company says the same thing, its image grows, and this is done through internal communication and engagement. In a constantly-changing environment, it is a critical task to give your employees and colleagues the right messages and helping them understand the company principles and priorities.
In external communication, we represent the company. Our duty includes telling the right story and describing the right imagery. While doing so, it is essential to use the right tonality as per the audience and listening to the external stakeholders. By listening to our stakeholders, we understand what message they are giving to the company and how they are understating our Context and stories.
TBS: What steps do you take to establish effective internal communication?
SA: To establish effective internal communication, we continuously assess our employees. We have to carefully observe what motivates them and take an opinion on how often they want to hear from us.
So, one basic element is to communicate consistently and let them know about our new initiatives, our progress, and our future goals.
For example, Unilever is a big organisation, and our employees are in every corner of the country. Those who are in the field might not know what is happening centrally or in the corporate office. Thus, it becomes our duty to keep them informed and aligned.
Also, an effective internal communication team should dig deep and find out the best aspirational stories. They should know what their factory, supply chain, finance, and other colleagues are doing. Because, without knowing everyone's story and whereabouts, it is never possible to establish effective internal communication.
Finding out when is the right moment to do storytelling and celebrate, and when is the right moment to remind the employees company protocol and policies should be done by the team as well.
You cannot plan something at the beginning of the year and say that you will exactly follow the whole plan that year. What you need to do is you must have the skeleton and routine, but you will need to improvise it several times based on the needs.
What are the means of communication? Communication can be done through email, video storytelling, leadership engagement,.
TBS: When hiring for communication jobs, the conglomerates usually prefer someone with a business background. According to you, what is the reason behind this?
SA: It is relatively easy to answer. The people who come from a business background already have the idea about different jargons and business tonality. Thus, the business owners think it is easy to train them. It is not just in the conglomerates. If you look at communication jobs, for example, in the pharmaceutical industry, you will see they ask for a doctor or a person who has a degree in pharmacy. It is only because they are familiar with the terms.
It is a typical theory. But I would say, nowadays the business conglomerates do not hire communication professional only from a business background. This might have been the case 10 years back, but currently, a communication professional needs to be someone who is connected to the communication world.
TBS: Apart from business background students, who else can join the communication industry?
SA: Anyone can join as a communication professional. The world has changed a lot, and someone should join the communication industry only if they love doing it.
TBS: What skills should they have?
SA: Storytelling, and it should be done in a very simple way. Your story should inspire someone, motivate someone, and make someone thoughtful.
Communication professionals are the behind-the-scenes people who make the company leaders ready to face the world. So, knowing a topic thoroughly is also very important. You will also need to have the hunger to know and the ability to stay close to the people.
Apart from these primary skillsets, one has to understand the global policy and country context like country development plan, economic policy, country goals and should have the ability to see things holistically.
TBS: Are there any courses that might help someone build their career in the communication sector?
SA: As writing is an integral part of communication, if you take some writing courses, it will undoubtedly help you. You can also try taking some language courses. But apart from that, dedicated courses in communication are yet to come in Bangladesh.
TBS: What is the future prospect of this job?
SA: I would say the future is very bright in this sector. When we started, as I have mentioned, communication was not even a thing. But nowadays, almost every business has a communication team. Even those who do not have a communication team of their own hire an agency to do the job on their behalf. Thus, I would say, the scope for communication professionals is expanding every day and that is not just in the conglomerates or the development sector.
TBS: How much can one earn in this sector?
SA: It depends on the company. The freshers usually get paid according to the average market rate. For a senior position, it is hard to say because communication specialists can quickly gain a leadership position in a company as well.