In comms we trust: with Sarah McCarthy

Written by

Penny Edmondson
Penny’s passion is delving into problems and distilling strategic and creative thinking; it’s the most challenging and rewarding part of what she does. With a background in marketing and employee communication, she helps businesses to ‘brand from the inside out’.
We all know that good communication builds trust; and trust is the foundation of all good business relationships, reputation management and continued growth. But what is the state of strategic communication as a discipline right now, and can we still put our trust in it?

We’re interviewing expert practitioners in the field, as part of our ‘In Comms we trust’ series, to help answer that question. During these conversations, we’ll unpack their views on current comms challenges and opportunities, as well as what they find useful, interesting and inspiring.

In this, the first in the series, we chat with Sarah McCarthy, General Manager Brand & Engagement, Ventia.

Sarah recently had a new role (General Manager Brand & Engagement) created for her at Ventia, reporting directly to the CEO. Previously, she’d headed the Brand, Marketing & Communications team; and while she misses her team, she is relishing the new opportunity – and open space – to grow employee engagement and the Ventia brand.

Growing brands and brand engagement is something she’s a master at; we’ve had the privilege of seeing this first hand as we’ve worked with her over the years. Perhaps this skill has sprung from what shaped Sarah during her childhood.

Born in a small town in regional NSW, she then spent her early childhood in North West Tasmania, before landing in Sydney, which she has called home since. Her parents were both full-time schoolteachers, and much of her youth was spent caring for her high needs disabled brother. This has given her bucket loads of empathy, the ability to connect with people and to think laterally.

Fast forward to today, and Sarah is like the human equivalent of a bower bird: she’s a collector of people’s stories, an avid listener, known for her quick intellect and her ability to create a strategy and structure that empowers everyone in the business to be strong brand advocates.

Here are some of her thoughts on the communications sector today.

Penny: How would you describe the state of communications right now?

Sarah: “What I’m observing is that the role of communication is seen as more important than ever. We’re ‘doing the doing’ and we’re being called on by the executive to support them too on a variety of issues in the business and externally.

Organisations have a greater role to play now on a range of issues, like the Voice for example. As an organisation, we don’t vote, but our employees are looking to us for guidance. Our role is to help them understand both sides, rather than influencing them on a yes, or no vote. Our role is education, to help people make informed decisions.

I would also say that comms is no longer a single discipline. It covers brand, PR, strategic communications, change, internal communications, leader communications; we’re also running integrated campaigns, using digital and social media and using data to support everything we do.”

Penny: What are some of the challenges and opportunities we’re facing as practitioners?

Sarah: “We have to do more with less, but we also can’t compromise on quality. That means we’re constantly reassessing our priorities, making adjustments and using data and insights to do that with greater clarity.

Budgets are tight, so how we engage our employees is important; ideally, we’re running campaigns that really engage people and then hopefully go viral.

Our employees are our biggest brand ambassadors. When they understand who we are and what we stand for as an organisation, that has a massive flow-on effect right through to recruitment and client activation.

At Ventia, we’re focused on enhancing the skills of our employees; for example, we’ve trained more than 1,000 of our people to use LinkedIn more fully, showing them how to post, comment, connect with customers, suppliers and community. That helps us bring our brand to life.”

Penny: What do you find useful in helping you and your team to create impact?

Sarah: “We’re valued by the executive and business; we have a seat at the table. The Brand, Marketing and Communications team (at Ventia) is providing both strategic advice and tactical assistance.

We’ve come a long way in terms of being able to respectfully say ‘no’ to doing some things; but it’s not just a ‘no’, we’re also giving our people the tools and resources for them to be able to help themselves. It’s taken a while to build that.

As a comms leader, it’s also about having the ability to let go of some things; for example, to rely on your suppliers and enabling your people to have the direct relationships with them across our business. We’ve also rolled out Canva and more than 250 people have signed up.

At Ventia, we’re empowering our people by putting communication knowledge and tools into their hands. Whether that’s templates, frameworks, imagery or standard blurbs on our intranet. Then, of course, we put trust in them to use them well. There are more than 15,000 visual assets, for example, that our people can access. And we’re constantly re-engaging with them to understand how it’s working.

I also think storytelling never goes out of fashion – long-form, human interest stories about our people capture interest and inspire others.”

Penny: Who is your biggest inspiration and why?

Sarah: “I’m mostly inspired by making connections with people, hearing their stories. That really lights me up. As part of the CareerSeekers program, I spent time with some refugees and asylum seekers who were mid-career professionals when they arrived in Australia but aren’t recognised necessarily for what they’ve achieved previously. I’m inspired by their tenacity.”

Penny: What would you say to your younger self?

Sarah: “I guess I’d say: ‘Don’t be afraid to always make a start; make your own way even if you don’t feel like you have the traditional connections. Value the relationships you have with people along the way and remember they are often the stepping stones to the next, interesting job or opportunity. I’m happy I tapped into a career that has played to my strengths and I enjoy doing it.’”

We’re happy Sarah’s doing this too. If you ever get the opportunity to meet Sarah, hit her up for a chat. I guarantee you’ll gain something from the conversation too. We can’t wait to see where she takes Ventia brand engagement in her new role.

Thanks for the chat, Sarah!


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