A View From The Comms Team
This regular feature looks at the views of leading corporate communication professionals about the latest trends and insight into the industry. This month we feature Mona Patel, the Group Head of External Communications at Royal London
As Group Head of External Communications at Royal London, Mona Patel is responsible for the media messaging of the UK's largest mutual life, pensions and investment company. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, the financial services industry is facing new challenges, trying to be clear about the role it plays in supporting communities who are facing new financial, health and emotional difficulties.
Mona spoke to us about the job ahead and the path she took to being part of the senior leadership at Royal London
A few of Mona's career highlights
Mona's path to being one of the leading corporate comms people in the UK was not an obvious one. She began by thinking she wanted to work in the law but actually started her career in the charity sector. Over 8 years, she worked for 7 different charities and NGOs in London, Brussels and Washing ton DC, ending up as the Deputy Head of Public Affairs at the independent consumer organisation, Which?
It was then that she and her husband, decided to do something very different. They left their jobs, packed their bags and headed around the world on a year long adventure which took them to 12 countries. It was a brave and adventurous decision which she is rather modest about, playing down the boldness of the move. Coming back to the UK, she admits it wasn't easy to find a job in the NGO and charity sector in which she was looking.
But then she spotted an advert for the Head of Communications at the Investment Management Association. It wasn't an obvious choice, "I didn't even know what that bit of the industry really did " she told us. It was a crowded field and 85 people applied for the one job. When she successfully got the job, she asked them why they had given it to, her since she was obviously not experienced in the field.
'It didn't matter that you got some of the technical answers wrong.' she was told. 'What is important is that you knew how to communicate effectively.' Mona worked at the Association for 9 years and says "I learnt something new every single day. It was absolutely brilliant being immersed in financial services and mixing with the most incredible people."
But there were some harder lessons to learn as well. She was told by one senior leader that her previous work at Which? was easy by comparison with what she was about to do. The media were always going to like the consumer friendly messages of Which? but working for the financial services industry was a lot harder sell, she was told. Journalists might feel naturally inclined to believe what Which? was telling them - there was going to be a lot more scepticism of the messages she now had to get out.
The adventurous spirit that took her round the world and gave her the courage to go for senior roles in an industry she didn't at first know very well, is clearly a theme in her career. After 9 years at the Investment Management Association she took another unexpected turn and went on a shoe designing course.
This was no casual interest. Researching at the British Library and studying hard - she designed her own shoes and had them made by a bespoke artisan shoe maker. But while shoes clearly remain a passion, Mona realised it was not going to be a full-time career, so once again she took up the search for another full time challenge.
That challenge came in the form of a temporary job at Royal London. But it was a temporary job that turned into a full time one, as Group Head of External Comms.
The Driving Force Of Good Comms
"Good comms" Mona tells us "is about the ability to take any issue and distil it down to what can be understood by the person in the street. Pensions and Investments can be technical and there are certainly some times when technical explanations are needed, but in essence it's about understanding the relevance of the story and being able to cut through the technical jargon."
That doesn't mean you underestimate the intelligence or competence of journalists but, she says. "They are writing for the general public, so they need to be explaining it at that level. Our job is to help them do that."
The Covid Challenge
Covid brought a new need for nuanced communications and skilled communicators. "Lots of companies concentrated on internal messaging at first" Mona says "That was important, but the outside world also needed helping. People still need to be investing in pensions. At a time when people are losing their jobs and going to food banks - there is a real challenge in sending out a message that the need to invest for the long term hasn't gone away. There is a real fear that when people lose their jobs and understandably stop paying into pensions, they may never start again - they will have lost the habit. In the short term, of course that may be right and understandable but we also have to explain the consequences of that and the need to look after their long term future when they are able to once more save money. We have a responsibility to get the message out there."
Wider Horizons and Difficult Messages
"It's important to open your eyes to things" Mona tells me. That's something she learnt travelling the world and something she is keen to pass to her children. "We have to learn to see beyond the bubble of our developed relatively wealthy country and see what lies beyond." she says.
That's clearly more important now than at many times in the past. But Covid has brought renewed challenges about how to handle difficult messages and the continuing need to have them heard. With so much tragedy and crisis - Mona's team had to make finely balanced decisions about what research to release around the issues of death and life insurance. Some of it didn't feel right and was pulled or delayed. But getting the tone right is important and at such times as these - arming people with the information they need to make important decisions about themselves and their families - is clearly something Mona feels passionate about.
"We continued with our work on the importance of making wills. We did ask ourselves whether this was the right time to do this but it's a hugely important issue and so we decided to go ahead and just to be very careful and sensitive about the tone of what we were doing and the language we were using."
The Right Choice?
Mona first thought she would be a lawyer. She worked for charities and then travelled the world. Later on she became a shoe designer. It's a career which is more varied and adventurous than most would have. So is she happy to be settled now at a company like Royal London and working in the financial services industry?
"The fact that it is a mutual is certainly an attraction and fits in with my experience of the charity sector. It feels like a really good ethos that the company is owned by its customers not just run for short-term shareholder interest. The message we have about pensions is also really vital. If we can help people get it right - it can set them up for a comfortable and enjoyable retirement and make a real difference to their lives. The products we sell and the stories we tell can really help turn peoples' lives around."
Supporting the products that Royal London sell, is clearly only part of Mona's mission. "It's not just about what we sell. There are so many good things, so many good campaigns which we contribute to, that go beyond simple products and it's great to be part of that, knowing it's not just about the hard sell."