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We Cannot Afford National Borders

A #COMRebel interview with Magnus Hüttenberend (TUI)

Magnus Hüttenberend has been Head of Digital Communications and in charge of digital communications at TUI Group since 2015. As of April, he has also been Head of Communications for TUI in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland.

In our latest #COMRebels interview, he speaks about dream jobs, chips under the skin, tweeting CEOs, and the diversity of Europe.

#COMRebel Magnus Hüttenberend
#COMRebel Magnus Hüttenberend

Detecon: Magnus, you are Head of Digital Communications at TUI. Is there still such a thing as “non-digital” communications in this day and age, and what would fall into this category?

Magnus Hüttenberend: Digital communications set the pace, that is true. We must respond to crises within minutes and not first announce a press conference, which is what we used to do. Nevertheless, digital channels – especially in Germany – are still often considered separately. In Sweden and the Nordic countries, my title is simply “Head of Communications”. This distinction is simply no longer existent here, and we think in terms of results, not of channels.

For outside observers, you have what is absolutely a dream job because your work involves a topic with generally positive associations: travel. Is that really true? And how is the travel industry different from other sectors for your current communication challenges?

Naturally, it is a great privilege to be able to work with a product that has such positive and emotional connotations. In my previous jobs, I also worked with brand names and products that were a greater challenge in this respect. At the same time, however, the travel industry is affected by every crisis of more than just minor proportions in the world. That means that, although it is a product with highly positive associations, it is at the same time a job that is very, very intense around the clock. Whether a hurricane in the Caribbean or a closed terminal at a German airport, we and our customers are always impacted in some way and must act quickly. In its broad sense, tourism provides 10% of all the jobs in the world, so you can say that in a certain way it is the pacemaker for the world. Personally, I absolutely love working with so many international colleagues as we seek to bring communications into the modern age.

Speaking of the “modern age”: How do you reach your target groups in a time when travel bloggers lead the Google rankings and may possibly tell much more authentic stories?

Travel bloggers are also stakeholders, just like journalists, investors, hotel operators, airports, or employees. TUI was one of the first companies to maintain a professional department for blogger relations. It has always been a great help for us that bloggers also love to travel and are more than happy to cooperate with us. In contrast to energy drinks or the latest granola bar, we very rarely have to convince influencers to collaborate with us. In fact, they are more likely to knock on our door. This puts us in the incredibly luxurious position of being able to be very choosy. We do not need influencer databases. We simply had the good fortune of having been able to establish intense relationships with bloggers for years who enjoy working with TUI in Germany as well as in other countries.

This means that bloggers are essentially an integral component of your communications team. What about the employees? Do you also encourage them to contribute to the dissemination of company messages?

A major part of my work concerns employee advocacy, i.e., turning employees into corporate influencers. Our initial step was to communicate to our top executives why it makes good sense to be present on social media as a person as well. We scale that now so that more and more colleagues recognize that the ultimate aim is not to promote only TUI, but for every single employee to use this means to enhance his or her own visibility within and outside of the company, doing something good for him- or herself and his or her career.

The pleasant side effect is that at the end of the day TUI is perceived to be more authentic. When we started, less than 3% of our colleagues worldwide interacted with us on social media and liked or shared TUI content; now, in just one year, the figure has risen to more than 10%. While we are still not where we want to be, this is an excellent result for a fragmented company with just under 70,000 employees distributed all around the globe and a diversified social media landscape. We want to use digital media to improve our collaboration with one another as well as internal communications. Our employee app does not recognize any borders between countries. You can find information about colleagues in Brussels or Jamaica and interact with them just like you can with colleagues from Hanover and Stockholm.

A few days ago, you made a clear statement about an article in the PR Report which took the position that CEOs would be better off keeping their distance from tweeting on Twitter. What exactly are your counter-arguments?

The wording I used in my initial response was still very diplomatic. But you could almost literally hear the collective “hands slapping the forehead” in Germany when the article appeared. Basically, it is a good example of how people block out the changes in the fundamental structures such as transparency or trust of a digitally interconnected world. There may have been good intentions of protecting a CEO behind the proposal. Conversely, it would indeed be better to hide a CEO who does not have a vision or a message away from the world. The task of leadership is to articulate visions and tell common stories. In the end, the channel that is used is irrelevant. This must function in personal conversations, on a stage in front of employees, and on social media as well. The managing director I have the pleasure of working with feels very comfortable on social media in the meantime and has determined that employees today more frequently bring up his latest LinkedIn updates than articles on the intranet. If you have a CEO who cannot or does not want to do this, that person is more of an administrator than a driver.

If everyone now communicates directly with everyone else and shares corporate content, what role will there be for a corporate communications team in the future?

We call this freedom within a framework. The players should be able to move freely within a certain framework, and corporate communications helps them with this. For one, it provides professional help with the practical aspects. But it also guides the creation of a language, the development of a vocabulary characteristic of an organization. Sometimes it seems to me that people overlook how communications can simply serve to express things in simple words and to pass on the message. The communications culture of a company can be called successful when everyone tells the same story and uses the same terms in doing so. Corporate communications has the task of making precisely this framework available.

So what skills do you believe will be necessary for successful communicators in the future?

I really have a hard time answering this question. For me, the communicator of the future is quite simply the communicator – responsible for securing the reputation of a brand name or a company, independently of channels, and most definitely not limited to media work. The communicator of the future potentially has a very broad range of tasks, should consequently be very aware of his or her strengths or weaknesses, and must be able to accept the measurability of his or her work.

Magnus Hüttenberend (Mitte) & Team
Magnus Hüttenberend (Mitte) & Team

You have also been “Head of Communications Nordics” (Scandinavia plus Finland) at TUI since April of this year. What has been your experience in the months since then, and what are the differences, if any, in the communications cultures of these countries?

I have the pleasure of leading seven employees in five countries. This feels like a combination of an Erasmus semester abroad and special units in communications staffed by completely efficient professionals who are continuously connected. We have a lot of fun, but we also accomplish something.

We get together personally as a team every 5 to 6 weeks. In-between, we communicate via WhatsApp, video conference, or even Instagram direct messaging. In other words, we always use the communications channel where we can quickly place or resolve a concern. The essential condition is great trust in our cooperation. Communicating and collaborating across national borders, however, also requires us to be very direct, open, and honest – otherwise, it will never work out well. This gives my team and me unbelievably great strength because everyone has the feeling that we will not succeed unless we join our forces.

As far as cultural differences are concerned: my favorite example is the chip in the hand. We have offered our employees the opportunity to have their employee identification badge implanted as a chip in their hands. The chip also contains the pass for the canteen, and it can also be used for the underground or the apartment door. One hundred out of 400 colleagues have taken advantage of the offer. This is an excellent example of how the Swedes are open to these ideas and happy to experiment while in Germany the “GDPR club” is immediately raised in preparation for a strike. This makes cooperation a little less complicated and more relaxed. We also have a robot colleague who stands at the reception desk and welcomes our guests.

Cooperation in the Nordics within TUI is extremely modern, and the combination of a startup culture with the security of a large corporation is what makes it so charming. TUI has succeeded in steering the company in this desired direction within four years. This means converting fully to e-commerce, not selling any travel plans in offices anymore, rigorously closing travel agencies. We have created an environment in which top people enjoy working.

What does digital transformation mean for you personally?

Digital transformation has long since taken place. There are just still some people who do not want to accept that this is true. My heating is connected to my watch, Amazon knows all my preferences. People in Sweden have been filing their tax returns by text message for years.

For me, digital transformation means above all individualization and simplification. When, on the other hand, I see the passenger rights form from the railway company or pharmacists who order products by fax, that has little to do with the reality of my life.

At the age of 32, you are the Head of Group Digital Communications, in charge of communications in the Nordics, a lecturer, a speaker at the German Press Academy, chairman of the jury for the German Prize for Online Communications. Other people take all of their professional lives to reach this point; what else can we expect from you in the future?

I studied communications with the goal of taking charge of communications in a company. Finding myself in this role now and, as of recently, being able to report directly to a managing director is an incredible challenge. My responsibility covers all channels and is not limited to digital communications. I now want to master this responsibility completely. We have just launched a new intranet in the Nordics, we are planning to expand the topic of sustainability, and I greatly enjoy the international work as well. In short: I have more than enough to do, and I would like to prove how much I can accomplish in this role.

In conclusion, we are interested in your tip for the ultimate app: What two apps does the communicator of today absolutely require for his or her work and why?

Professionally, LinkedIn, absolutely. I confess I am addicted to LinkedIn. For me, it is an ideal platform to interconnect and to obtain intelligent stimulus for new ideas. Number Two is Overcast, my podcast app of choice. I listen to lots and lots of podcasts, especially with the aim of learning a new language. For instance, I like to listen to “Simple News” in Sweden. This is a news program that is broadcast in very simple Swedish. It is actually intended for refugees, but it is also helpful for other immigrants, and even I can understand it. This is a great help in learning vocabulary from daily politics faster.

Thank you for this fascinating insight, Magnus. We wish you all the best on your continued successful trip through Europe and the (digital) world.

#COMRebels

In the age of digital transformation, even corporate communications is no longer what it once was: the familiar means of information dissemination are becoming less important, polished corporate news no longer stands out, and the “everyone with everyone else dialog” via social media and communities is causing communications teams in companies to lose their control over the distribution of the message. On the other hand, chatbots and artificial intelligence are enabling completely new access points to the needs of customers, employees, and job applicants while at the same time also bringing about fundamental technical and cultural changes.

Brave new world of unlimited opportunities?

So what does it look like, this (digitalized) corporate communications of the future? How, where, and through whom will the exchange of information take place? And how will we structure the interaction between humans and machines?

We are looking for answers

... and speaking to the #COMRebels, the bold, young, wild, digital representatives of a species who delight in experimentation and whose work will play a key role in the transformation of your company into a successful player of the digital age

This Interview was conducted by

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