AURORA: What prompted you to make your career in corporate communications?
ALI HABIB: I graduated from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi 30 years ago. Since then, I have worked in two different industries. I spent the first half of my career in the FMCG sector, working for Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Reckitt Benckiser (RB), both in and outside Pakistan. For the past 15 years, I have been in the financial services sector, where I have had the opportunity of serving Standard Chartered, UBL and now HBL.
A: Was P&G a good base to launch your career?
AH: It is a great organisation. When I joined in 1990, P&G had just come to Pakistan. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity of working with them at the start of my career. They are like a business school. They have well defined organisational work ethics and approaches which they inculcate across their network. For someone at the start of their career, it is a very instructive stepping stone into professional life.
A: Did you hold a marketing function at P&G?
AH: Yes. I worked with them in Pakistan, Yemen and Egypt. Working at P&G taught me how best to approach brand building. I say brand building and not marketing, because brand building is more holistic. Of course, it has a marketing aspect but that is a discipline; brand custodianship and brand building are, above all, about communication, whether you are creating a piece of advertising or talking to the media or communicating with your colleagues.
A: Was it always your intention to make a career in communications?
AH: I use communication as an umbrella term. When I graduated from the IBA, there were two broad streams one could go into: finance or communication. I chose the latter and it turned out to be the right decision. At the end of the day, it comes down to what motivates you, because this is what will help you grow professionally and personally.
A: Was moving away from FMCGs and into banking a deliberate decision?
AH: Firstly, in this field, the skills one develops over time are often transferable and although industries may differ, the communication dynamics do not change. Secondly, when I made the switch, banks had started to invest in communication and brand building because of intensifying competition. Customers had become more discerning. When I moved into this sector, banks were actively looking for professionals with an FMCG mindset, because it was thought they would be a lot more in tune with the notion of customer-centricity. Banks were investing heavily in consumer financing (credit cards, personal loans, auto loans) – and all those things required a customer-centric mindset that understood the target audience and knew how to segment audiences, engage with third party vendors (for example, automobile and white good appliance manufacturers) and develop schemes, promotions, advertising campaigns and PR campaigns. In those days, banks found it more expedient to import these skill sets from other industries. Now banks have developed their own branding strengths and are filling those roles from within. Today, HBL is probably the strongest brand in the banking sector and one of the strongest across all sectors in Pakistan. This is reflective of the consistent effort that has gone into building the HBL brand over the last few years.
A: What is your role as Chief Corporate Communications Officer?
AH: Communication mediums and processes are now so fragmented, they have become specialised units. In terms of media, we have paid, earned, owned and shared media. Corporate communications focuses on earned media, which means media relations. Also crisis communications, and increasingly reputation management, falls within the purview of corporate communications.
A: What about internal communications?
AH: That is part of my role. HBL is one of the largest employers in the private sector; we employ over 17,000 people and we like to think of them as our brand ambassadors. They are the people who most strongly believe in HBL and who, in their personal capacity, live our brand and consume our products and talk about them to their families and friends. One of my responsibilities is to communicate to them and ensure they are aware about what is happening in the bank. Think of my role in this respect as that of an internal newspaper publisher. I try to do for my colleagues what Aurora does for communication professionals.
Because of social media, corporate communications has become vastly more challenging. We live in an era of citizen journalism; today, any individual with a mobile phone can become a journalist.
A: How difficult is this to achieve, given that you have to cascade your communication to 17,000 employees? Furthermore, given the operational scale of HBL, you are still only reaching a relatively small segment of your customer base, so in many ways your on-ground employees are probably the bank’s most important communication tools?
AH: Absolutely. Firstly, reaching out to 17,000 colleagues across Pakistan is a challenge because of the geographical spread and diversity. One of the things we have done is to encourage dual language communication – English and Urdu – to ensure the communication message gets across. Secondly, we are working on improving the consistency and the frequency of communication in order to capture the multiple external and internal initiatives that HBL engages in. HBL colleagues are tremendously brand loyal and interested in knowing what exactly is happening in the bank. This is achieved via electronic communication tools and the in-person engagement of the senior leadership team, with both small and large groups. In the spirit of innovation, we are always on the lookout for the latest communication techniques available to carry forward our message to our employees in a timely and relevant manner.
A: Negative feedback is part and parcel of social media. Do you have protocols in place to deal with this?
AH: There are two aspects to this. The first is what we call query management/customer complaints. There is a complete protocol for this. The same applies when it comes to crisis communication, in terms of how do you tell if it is a crisis or not, who in the bank should respond and how to take ownership of the event – there is an escalation matrix that goes all the way to the top. In the world we live in, anything can become a crisis, if not properly handled.
A: There is a fine line between what employees (of any organisation) can post on their social media handles in their personal capacities and what could be construed as being reflective of the organisation they work for. Do you have protocols regarding how employees use social media in their personal capacities?
AH: For most of us, social media is part of our daily life, it is inescapable. There is indeed a fine line that separates what an individual should/should not post on social media and protecting and respecting an individual’s right to freedom of speech. That is something we have to keep in mind. So we make our colleagues aware of the fact that social media, like everything else in life, should have its own guidelines; guidelines that equally apply to our personal and our professional lives. We are very conscious of the fact that our colleagues must be made aware of the pitfalls of social media.
A: What do you think social media guidelines should try to communicate?
AH: Broadly speaking, effective guidelines should cover at least three aspects. Firstly, they should alert our employees about the broad reach of social media and therefore, the innate capacity the medium opens up for misunderstanding. Secondly, they should alert them of the implications a social media post may have on the bank; in other words, what they say in their individual capacity could be misconstrued to be the organisation’s point of view. Thirdly, they should alert them about the fact that what is posted on social media stays in the public domain almost forever and can rebound at a later stage and cause embarrassment. In my view, so long as an organisation has guidelines and they are repeatedly reinforced, the chances of something going wrong can be minimised. Lastly, every organisation has a code of conduct and the social media guidelines should dovetail into that.
I feel that a part of my brain is always switched on. I am always looking at a news item and asking myself what implications it could have for my organisation; especially in an environment where HBL is present in multiple geographies and multiple time zones.
A: How have the functions of corporate communications evolved in the last 15 years?
AH: Because of social media, corporate communications has become vastly more challenging. We live in an era of citizen journalism; today, any individual with a mobile phone can become a journalist. Fifteen years ago, the first thing a corporate communications professional did in the morning was to open a newspaper and check the letters-to-the-editor page and the business pages. In fact, the letters page was the first, and in some cases, the only place where a public complaint or a negative comment about an organisation would land. Now social media has stepped into that domain and with near instantaneous reach. Furthermore, as a result of social media, two things have happened. One, living in a 24/7 news cycle as we do, the quantum of complaints, observations, and negative reports have gone up and two, the threshold of what constitutes a crisis has gone up as well. This means that today, a corporate communications professional has to make judgement calls in terms of whether or not a particular news item is likely to escalate into a crisis. The first judgment call is whether it is factual or fake and if it is factual, is it resolvable and if it is then quickly own it and resolve it. Secondly, if it is fake then you need to judge whether it is likely to go viral, because if it is not, sometimes the best thing is to ignore it. Fifteen years ago, I probably had to deal with fewer news items but I had to react to every one of them. Today, I have a lot more things to react to but I don’t necessarily have to react to all of them. That is the big change in the role of corporate communications. A good corporate communications professional should be adept at knowing what to react to and what not to, because at times, your reaction can give life to something that doesn’t deserve that life. It is a very fine line and you have to be very diligent at judging the engagement/interest levels of a particular news item. In a cyber world, the job is a lot more complicated because it can happen at any point in time.
A: Do you sometimes go to bed at night wondering whether you will wake up to a crisis?
AH: I feel that a part of my brain is always switched on. I am always looking at a news item and asking myself what implications it could have for my organisation; especially in an environment where HBL is present in multiple geographies and multiple time zones. The quantum of news has increased tremendously; the mediums on which news appears have increased exponentially and the chances of something going wrong – or perceived to be going wrong – have tremendously increased as well. This is why you need systems, processes and standard operating procedures; you need escalation matrices, listening tools and mechanisms; otherwise you will be overwhelmed and the moment you are overwhelmed, your judgement will falter.
Ali Habib was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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