Deep dive into corporate communications work and culture in a cross-border PR adventure

Allianz headquarters in Munich

Part II of a three-part global public relations narrative and adventure, from agency Australia to in-house Germany

By Katie Sheppet

Allianz’s corporate communications structure and how and where I fit in

I indicated in part I how my acclimatisation included scheduled appointments for meetings and lunch dates with different members of the communications team. I was quickly brought up to speed on how Allianz SE’s Group Communications team was structured into three main units:

  • external communications
  • internal communications; and
  • communications operations

It was determined the majority of my work would be with the external communications team, as that’s where I could add the most value based on my experience. I also provided support to the internal communications team.

Prior to coming to Munich I was unsure if everyone would be able to speak English (or if it was expected that I could speak German…); obviously this would impact how much I could contribute.

It quickly became apparent that all employees at Allianz SE speak English at a working level. In fact, the company policy is that if an English speaker is in the room, everyone switches from German to English.

Learning nugget: This level of cross-company language expertise, accommodation and kind etiquette left a huge impression on me, especially as this Munich office is the headquarters of a German company.

As an aggregate, employees in Group Communications are incredibly rich and communications diverse, full of seasoned experts in financial communication, CSR, HR and award-winning writers, some of whom have moved from financial journalism in respected entities to serve as in-house corporate media.

Each person is responsible for a business unit or output, resourced in assistance from Steinbeis University students, other working students or interns.

Learning nugget: The Steinbeis students are master’s degree students at Steinbeis University and full-time employees at Allianz SE. The students work 70 per cent of the time at Allianz and study 30 per cent of the time, supported by Allianz.

The students work at Allianz for two years whilst completing their master’s degrees and then are able to apply for a permanent position within an Allianz operating entity (OE). My personal “indoctrinator,” Victoria Ghandchi, has been part of the Steinbeis University partnership program for approximately nine months now.

The depth and breadth of the Allianz work culture

It’s common for employees to work at Allianz for at least 10 year and often for more than two decades. I learnt from some of the longer-standing staff that there are opportunities within Allianz to work across the business.

Renate Braun, head of communications operations, hadn’t worked in communications prior to being appointed lead for her unit. Renate came from a background in HR and has transferred these skills to lead a group-wide HR Excellence Program for Allianz communicators.

Lars Mielke, head of social media (and an employee I ended up spending a great deal of time with), gained his role because he was so passionate about social media. Basically, he reserved the domain names on Twitter and Facebook for Allianz SE and created a role for himself. Prior to this Lars spent around 10 years with the company, including time working at Allianz in South Korea.

The corporate environment is as one would expect of a German insurance and asset management company: The senior staff are highly skilled and professional and under some definite pressures and deadlines. Their knowledge about Allianz’s history and present economic and market positioning is very deep.

Junior staff mainly comprise students from Steinbeis University and are very hard workers. They go through a rigorous process to secure a place within the company and know that the assessment of their communication competencies is ongoing, for work completed in both German and English.

Learning nugget: There is a great emphasis on education in Munich. In Australia it’s unlikely you would need a master’s degree to work in communications.

Nowadays, you may not even need an undergraduate degree in the field of public relations to get into the industry. At Edelman we’re hiring people from different practices and finding people with advertising, creative or political backgrounds add diversity to the skill set in the office.

Despite the pressures at both the senior and junior levels, I found the atmosphere warm and friendly, dispelling any stereotypes I might have had about German reserve. Employees were happy to spend time telling me about their roles and careers within Allianz, when we worked together. also over coffee or (after hours) a beer.

In Melbourne we say we have a “great coffee culture”; what we mean is we make and serve great coffee and the locals are proud of this fact. We might grab one on our way to work or “duck out”i and get a takeaway, but it’s usually a very quick or rushed process. At Allianz I witnessed a different sort of coffee culture—the kaffee-klatsch—the type where it’s normal to take a coffee break with your colleagues and away from your desk.

In general I noticed a bigger emphasis on work-life balance at Allianz than I had previously experienced at home in Australia. In fact, if you’d been logged onto your computer for more than the usual hours of 9am–5pm, your supervisor would get a warning email. I was told if you stayed at your desk for too long after receiving warning emails, your computer would shut down! (This would never happen in an agency where you’re servicing clients.) Although the strict guidelines exist, I regularly saw people doing overtime, even though my time at Allianz was during the summer holiday period, meaning the offices were quieter than usual with many people on annual leave.

The Allianz workflow and how I was streamed in

To streamline the work of the external communications team at Allianz it’s divided into five groups including:

  • financials
  • property and casualty (P&C)
  • life, asset and demography (LAD)
  • responsibility (CSR); and
  • best Allianz (awards and best practices)

Initially I was supposed to support communications campaigns in LAD and P&C, but due to staff changes I ended up working primarily on P&C projects. This included developing and editing articles, attending meetings and providing (welcomed) feedback or suggestions on campaigns and upcoming events where I thought things could be done differently.

As I have experience working in the energy sector in Australia, I was tasked with writing a paper on Allianz’s involvement in renewable energies (both for its clients and as a company). I also drafted an article on Allianz being placed in Interbrand’s top brand awards, and did research for other staff members’ whitepapers.

Getting quite social at Allianz

After meeting with different staff in the initial weeks, I determined I could contribute a great deal to Allianz’s social media strategy and planning. During one of my formal meetings with Emilio Galli-Zugaro, head of group communications at Allianz SE (the man responsible for my adventure), I provided him with some feedback on what I thought could be done to improve Allianz’s social media presence.

Emilio invited me to “think big” and recommended I discuss ideas with Allianz’s head of social media, Lars Mielke, to come up with ideas that were not limited by budgets or red tape. Amazing!

My nervousness about the boldness of this Australian short-term (external) staff exchange person making suggestions to the company’s head of social media was quickly dispelled. At the end of a really invigorating brainstorming session with Lars, I offered to develop a social media strategy document, which included an analysis of Allianz’s current status on social media platforms, followed by recommendations on how to improve each site by driving engagement with fans, and different ways this could be done. At the end of the strategy I developed an estimate of cost and time investment for each activity.

Where I could add even more value was helping with Allianz’s social media by developing tools and a strategy document for the company. Some tools I developed included a social media content planner or schedule (these already existed in different formats in different business units, so I made an overarching one for Allianz SE), a fact sheet on engaging with bloggers with a blogger list (which could later be populated by an intern or working student) and some ideas for content creation to drive fan engagement such as infographics, videos, competitions and more.

Christian Kroos, head of external communications at Allianz (who came to Allianz via a PR agency background before being hired by his client, Citibank and then heading up corporate communications at Goldman Sachs) was enthusiastic and generous about my involvement in further developing the company’s social media strategy, processes and properties, and equally fulsome (as Lars) in his praise about the end documents.

Learning nugget: Emilio Galli-Zugaro valued my honest feedback on my experience at Allianz. Being truthful—even frank—about my observations (which Emilio said was a very Australian characteristic, rather than being concerned with appearing “politically correct”) opened up new opportunities for my contributions to the company.

When I left Australia to spend time at Allianz, I never thought I would contribute such a body of work during my six weeks. In Melbourne I’ve worked on food and beverage and fashion retail social media accounts, along with developing content around the WPRF for Edelman Australia, the Asia Pacific (APAC) region and globally. However social media and digital do not comprise the bulk of my work at Edelman, I work more in mainstream media relations and providing marketing and corporate communications in the energy and agriculture sectors. The social media aspect was one of my most satisfying and fulfilling contributions to Allianz, particularly as it was so welcomed by Emilio, Lars and Christian.

And it didn’t end there! I was very fortunate Emilio saw an opportunity for me to share my social media experience with the Euler Hermes (EH) team, which is Allianz’s global credit insurance arm, whose headquarters are in Paris.

This meant Allianz flew me to France for just over a day to meet with the EH team for an afternoon session. EH had a newly appointed head of social media, Thomas Lancelot, who had recently joined from Chanel.

So once again I was able to share insights from Edelman (and now Allianz SE) and to make recommendations on how to drive social media engagement, this time in the B2B space.

Learning nugget: Looking back on what I had set out to do with my pre-set development goals), I learnt it’s hard to define what a person on a staff exchange can do or contribute before she or he arrives.

My recommendation would be to have enough plans for half of the time to do set tasks or projects and then allow time to discover where the employee could contribute that the company and individual may not have realised prior to the exchange.

How the global network of Allianz communicators is solidified and amplified

A fantastic initiative I was lucky to attend, ironically during my final week of the exchange, was the Meet & Greet session: A meeting for all new communicators at Allianz.

(L-R) Elizabeth Goetze, Katie Sheppet and Svenja Hofle from internal communications at the English Garden after work.

Staff from various Allianz operating entities (OEs) were in the room, including Fireman’s Fund (US), Allianz Global Investors New York and Hong Kong and Allianz Zurich. During this two-day session the global communicators were able to meet with many of the Allianz SE communications team and learn about what was done at the headquarters, and how they could be supported in their day-to-day roles at the OEs. We spent two days together and it was a great opportunity for the members to develop relationships with people they are likely to work with in future. I’ve maintained connections with many from this group on LinkedIn.

At Allianz I met Greg Langley, who is responsible for Allianz’s website Open Knowledge (which is a really interesting content platform for stories relevant to industry, often not about Allianz). Greg introduced me to Damien Keg (another Australian in the company). Damien works at Allianz Managed and Operational Services (AMOS) and runs the Australian “stammtisch” or monthly get-together outside of work for Australians who work at Allianz SE. Allianz has similar lunch groups for different language groups, e.g., the “Spanish lunch” group. Meetings amongst employees outside of Group Communications are organised quite organically.

In light of my induction and acclimatisation at the front end of my six weeks (as detailed in part I), it was quite fascinating to see the official and formal process, in particular for the non-Germany based Allianz communicators.

It again affirmed my belief that Allianz’s corporate communications processes and internal relationship building strategies were first-rate and best practices.

* * *

In my final episode of this public relations cross-border adventure, I spend time on my external professional support networks, new and old, in particular how much I value having mentors. I also summarise more similarities and differences between working at Allianz in Germany versus Edelman in Australia, share the insightful answers that Emilio Galli-Zugaro provided when I asked him, “Why me?” and sum up whether this professional and personal “journey” lived up to my expectations.

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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 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.

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Photo of the Allianz headquarters in Munich, Germany from the corporate communications online newsroom.

Part I: Cause and effect of a cross-border public relations adventure
Part III: Networks and mentors, workplace similarities and differences, complete a cross-border PR adventure

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8 Responses to “Deep dive into corporate communications work and culture in a cross-border PR adventure”
  1. Judy Gombita says:

    Katie, it just struck me that I never asked you where “marketing” sits in the Allianz hierarchy. Presumably it is a totally separate (but equal?) department at the Munich headquarters–or is it left more up to the OEs do do the marketing?

    And is there much crossover work between corporate communications (public relations) with marketing, if the departments have similar business objectives (even if they measure the outcomes differently)?

    A final question (you may have told me this earlier, but I don’t remember your answer), does Allianz SE ever outsource communications/public relations to agencies?

    I’m enjoying reliving my vicarious adventure alongside you, whilst editing. I’m already feeling a bit sad that the final part will publish on Wednesday…… I really do think this is a tremendous addition to PR Conversations long-tail resource archives, so thanks again for taking the time to write out so much interesting and useful (detailed) information.

    • Katie says:

      Hi Jude,

      Sorry for the late reply, I’ve been trying to source more information but haven’t had much luck. I am pretty sure marketing at Allianz sits under “Group Market Management” and there is also an “Executive Events” team. They work with the communications team when projects cover both areas – for example offsite executive meetings for Allianz communicators. That’s about as much exposure as I had was to learn these departments exist, but I didn’t get any insight to their operations…

      As for outsourcing, (and we’ve discussed this over email now but it’s worth stating!) yes Allianz SE outsources some communications / public relations work but only for small projects. Emilio does not like to “outsource brains”, he likes to hire them. That said, if there’s a specialist area of expertise required for things like strategy or planning, an external party might be brought in for a workshop or session, which the team can learn from and then execute in-house.

      I’m so glad you think these posts will be a great contribution to the archives, it’s been a great team effort to get these up!

  2. Kelly says:

    Judy that is a great question and I wondered myself how and where marketing fits into the organization. I look forward to hearing more about that from Katie (hint).

    Katie, I am also interested in hearing more about how Lars’ department is structured within Allianz and how it interacts with other departments and I’m curious as to the strategic advice you offered. Can you share?

    To your point on culture: when I worked in Munich I learned early on the value of the Kaffee-Klatch and the importance of building relationships with coworkers. In fact, those who put work ahead of social bonding don’t get far and aren’t appreciated.

    The Allianz is truly an impressive machine. They are regarded as one of the top (in terms of respect) employers in Germany, and definitely in Munich and they take on A-grade hires.

    Yes, you are right. A lot of it probably comes down to leadership and it sounds like Emilio is a very unique man. I would have given a left arm to work for that company, or for BMW while I was living in Munich. What a great experience!

    • Katie says:

      Hi Kel, tanks so much for your comment! Please see above for my answer to Judy.

      To tell you a little about Lars in social media, at this stage he does not have a department. He is a sole operator which is quite incredible. Lars has regular meetings with the teams from Allianz.com and the Open Knowledge to find out what content they’re creating. He does a lot of hands on, meeting with colleagues and attending events to source social media content. I’d be happy to chat further if you’re interested, let me know and we can discuss.

      Best,
      Katie

      • Kelly says:

        Katie,

        Thank you for the follow-up. I feel we are going to see a lot more of a cross functional approach to Social Media in the near future. I say this from the past three years I have spent focused on customer channels and being the conduit of information flow between the end-user and our organization.

        I think of the position of Social Media Manager something like a Social Rover: they go where needed to get the information needed in order to keep the message and content consistent between the organization and the community. They are also vital in keeping the organization abreast of feedback and delivering those oh-so-difficult to accept “reality checks” from time to time as well.

        It makes a lot of sense that the Social Media Manager is a member of multiple teams in order to keep outgoing messaging and content aligned. I think as businesses move from a “likes” to leadership mentality, a more nimble approach will be needed and my bet is there will be a lot more integration with departments and teams than we have seen in the past in tradition “social media management”.

        Fascinating! Thanks Katie and yes I’d love to discuss more!

        • Katie says:

          Hi Kel,

          Completely agree with you re: the cross functional role of social media or the ‘Social Rover’ analogy. I think it’s how it should be!

          Yes, the social media manager can be the eyes and ears of the company too. Especially as corporations are encountering or picking up on crises more and more via social media…

          On your comment about integrating the “social media manager” – I am seeing this more and more in my role at Edelman. We are approaching client projects with a more holistic strategy, integrating digital to each campaign rather than having the ‘digital guys’ sit separately and work in a silo.

          Looking forward to chatting further with you :)

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