Part I of a three-part global public relations narrative and adventure, from agency Australia to in-house Germany
By Katie Sheppet
I’ve been invited to share with readers of PR Conversations the narrative about how voluntarily becoming involved with a global PR event (supported by my employer) and, in particular, meeting key senior PR practitioners, provided me with an incredible opportunity only a few years after completing my university degree in media and communications.
I was given the gift and opportunity, to literally and figuratively “cross borders” for a six-week period in the latter half of 2013, where I travelled from Melbourne, with my Edelman Australia–honed skills and abilities (my employer since June 2011) to Munich, Germany to work in Group Communications at the headquarters of one of Europe’s oldest and most-respected insurance and asset management institutions, Allianz SE.
At the core of my experience was an appreciation about the importance of corporate culture and values and, especially positive and generous relationships and networks, which lend themselves to how tangible and intangible information is communicated, internally and externally. As an invited guest, I was given a unique insider’s perspective on (global) in-house corporate communications best practices, while simultaneously gaining a renewed respect and appreciation for the mindful practices, trained skills and abilities offered by high-calibre external PR agencies, and even discovered things about my own interests and motivations, and strengths and weaknesses when presented with new challenges.
This carpe diem narrative will be divided into three parts:
- Backgrounder on this opportunity conceived by Italian-born, Germany-based Emilio Galli-Zugaro, and acclimatisation to my six-week role and temporary home in Munich.
- Allianz’s corporate communications structure and work culture and how and where I was able to add some Australian and agency value.
- Communication networks, the value of having international and local PR mentors and observations and conclusions about cultural and workplace similarities and differences.
Involvement is key to opening doors to unimagined opportunities
In 2012 Edelman offered digital support to the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) the host of the Global Alliance’s biannual World PR Forum (WPRF), which was scheduled to take place in Melbourne that November.
I was eager to play a staff role both prior to and onsite during the WPRF. At the front-end this included working on a blogger engagement piece, with the goals of securing blog posts about the WPRF to raise its profile and generate interest and excitement amongst the global PR community. Although it was part of my day job, some of this outreach work involved evenings and weekend time, collaborating with presenters and bloggers based in different parts of the world and varying time zones. It was because of my WPRF interview with past Global Alliance and PRSA chair, John Paluszek, that I first became introduced to the PR Conversations blog and its principals.
The interview that would change my life
In the lead up to the WPRF, I arranged a phone interview with Emilio Galli-Zugaro, head of group communications at Allianz SE and keynote speaker at WPRF. I had arranged interviews with many of the keynote speakers prior to the WPRF to gain a better understanding of what topics the person was presenting on so I could work to align them with a PR or communications blog for an interview or post that would be of interest to its readership.
The focus of Emilio’s WPRF presentation was on Allianz’s part in a comprehensive Enel-sponsored study that examined the corporate communications practices of leading global companies. The study included Allianz, Philips, Dow Chemicals and others.
Having finished the interview that focused on the corporate character and communications practices at Allianz, Emilio invited me to tell him a little about myself. It was after I detailed my university studies and my role at Edelman Melbourne, that Emilio proposed something that stunned me: An offer to participate in Allianz’s global staff exchange program and spend six weeks at an Allianz office.
The rationale behind this amazing exchange offer was for me to gain experience working within a leading in-house communications team, while at the same time contributing ideas and best practice from my practical experience at Edelman, the world’s leading PR firm.
Learning nugget: When I was at Allianz, a presentation by Emilio Galli-Zugaro to communication employees included his rationale for encouraging staff exchanges. He thinks such exchanges are valuable, because “it puts the perpetrator in the victim’s shoes.”
I think this is a powerful notion that could benefit many in-house and agency communicators.
In the third part of this narrative I’ll share Emilio Galli-Zugaro’s answers when I built up the courage to ask him, Why did you offer this incredible opportunity to me? Suffice it to say that my existing and evolving public relations connections played a role, as did my involvement at the World PR Forum.
An exchange nine months in the making
The offer had been made swiftly, but the confirmation and actuality was a much-slower process. I was very diligent (occasionally inwardly Gen Y impatient) in my follow-up correspondence with Emilio and designated Allianz contacts. Later I navigated negotiations with both my employer and anticipated host company in the earlier months of 2013.
Eventually, with the support of my employer, I successfully underwent an interview process with Allianz and was informed I had a placement in Group Communications at Allianz SE, Allianz’s holding company and headquarters in Munich, Germany for a six-week period that spanned August and September 2013.
Prior to my arrival I submitted development goals in the areas of:
- Enhancing corporate understanding of Allianz Group and its group communications
- General communications skills; and
- Personal growth
Arrival and acclimatising
Following close to 24 hours of travelling, I settled in my room in downtown Munich. My accommodation was in Baaderstrasse, a busy street full of boutiques, cafes, bars and restaurants. I was a 10-minute walk from the Viktualienmarkt, a famous food market in the city centre. I could also walk to work in about 40 minutes, which was a good opportunity to see the city, exercise and catch-up with my family over Skype.
On my first Monday arriving at Allianz headquarters in the Schwabing area, I went to building A, where I was immediately given directions to building G. This is where the communications team was situated whilst the regular office was undergoing renovations. Rather than the offices being located in separate buildings, it felt like Allianz owned the entire block, which backed onto the English Garden. It wasn’t too long afterward that I learned the Garden was a great place to have a beer after work…
In building G I was introduced to Victoria Ghandchi, who welcomed me, took me for coffee and then ran through my entire schedule. I was touched to see Allianz had a six-week plan laid out for me, including scheduled appointments for meetings and lunch dates with different members of the communications team.
Learning nugget: I noted the impressive level of organisation and “induction” care Allianz gave to my six-week work exchange, as in an agency setting new staff tend to jump straight into projects with just a quick briefing.
Although well taken care of in the office setting, my first few nights in Munich were spent either at restaurants on my own (which was a good exercise in itself) or with takeaway in my hotel room. One night I was feeling lonely and bought rosé wine and chocolates to have whilst watching Bloomberg (one of the only English TV stations). The next day when I told some colleagues about my evening in they said, “That sounds fun, why didn’t you invite us?!”
So each night thereafter I planned a drink, walk, dinner or dirndl shopping with people from work. What’s a dirndl you might ask? It’s the traditional Bavarian dress a woman must wear to Oktoberfest—an event that coincided with my six-week visit to Munich!
My first weekend I visited one of my best friends from Australia who was living and working in Berlin, and I also planned a trip to London to see another friend and visit an Edelman mentor (now based there). Although at the start I felt a bit lonely, I realised the friendliness of Allianz communication staff included socialising outside of work hours.
Once I put in the effort to spend time with colleagues, my Munich experience was transformed. In particular it was great not only to form a work relationship but a friendship with Victoria Ghandchi, as her acclimatisation care extended to a weekend split between visiting Victoria’s family in Baden Baden, with another Allianz colleague’s home in Ludwigsburg.
These invitations were quite gratifying, as I was able to experience what it’s like for Germans to catch the train home from Munich for the weekend, how they live and be welcomed into their homes. Although it didn’t appear necessary to make my (European) Jewish heritage known at the front end, I didn’t want to “hide” this fact, either. Certainly it hadn’t factored into my decision to come to Germany. What was so wonderfully surprising was being welcomed by the families of these new friends, unhesitatingly and warmly, and the younger generations desire to build new and positive relationships between the third generations, regardless of heritage.
Learning nugget: Whilst my colleagues at Allianz were incredibly welcoming and friendly at work, it was important for me to make the effort to see if they would like to socialise outside of work, in their own time. Taking this initiative had a transformative effect on my experience overseas.
* * *
When I had jumped at the Edelman opportunity to play a role in the Global Alliance’s World PR Forum, I had no idea what a cross-border public relations adventure and relationships-in-the-making were awaiting me in Germany as one of Emilio Galli-Zugaro’s handpicked work-exchange “perpetrators”….
In part II I’ll detail my deep dive into Allianz’s corporate communications structure and work culture and how and where I was able to add some Australian and agency value (comparing similarities and differences between the two companies and our countries’ ways of working).
Katie Sheppet is a senior account executive at Edelman Melbourne in the brand and digital team. She has experience across marketing, digital and organisational communications. Katie also contributes articles to the Global Alliance’s monthly e-newsletter on a volunteer basis as required. She is on the PRINKS committee, an industry networking event for communication professionals held in Melbourne and Sydney every six weeks.
Previous contributions to PR Conversations include this earlier interview (mentioned above) from when she worked on the 2012 World PR Forum, with John Paluszek from Ketchum PR. She also contributed an article about putting PR theory into practice. More recently, in 2013 Katie interviewed Paull Young, director of digital at charity:water for PR Conversations on social media for social good. Contact Katie by email, follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.
Thank you to Heather Yaxley for creating the original graphic that accompanies part I, which demonstrates how attractive is the concept when the German and Australian flags are blended.