Telum Talks To... Genevieve White, Managing Director, Hong Kong, Sard Verbinnen & Co

Telum Talks To... Genevieve White, Managing Director, Hong Kong, Sard Verbinnen & Co

Genevieve White, a lawyer for more than 15 years, was announced as Managing Director for Sard Verbinnen & Co’s Hong Kong office in January of this year. This week, she chats to Telum about her decision behind the career change, gender diversity in the comms industry, and how to effectively communicate during the current COVID-19 crisis.

You were at the frontline of the legal services sector for many years. What prompted you to join a strategic comms agency?
It wasn’t long ago that I thought I would spend my whole career as a lawyer. I loved the intensity and demands of working on high-stakes transactions, usually in challenging circumstances, with smart and talented professionals whom I admired. It wasn’t until I spoke with people in the strategic communications field that I realised how similar some of the work is, with the added bonus of the huge variety of matters that can land on your desk for a huge variety of clients on any given day. Strategic thinking, problem solving, crisis management, and of course the ability to write and express oneself clearly and accurately are shared skills across both professions. I was lucky that Sard Verbinnen is a firm that recognises and values the transferable skills that people from different career backgrounds can bring. Many of Sard Verbinnen’s employees are former lawyers, bankers or other non-PR professionals, and the experience and insight that we bring enable us to connect deeply with our clients, understand their challenges and anticipate their needs.

Given your legal background and expertise, what do you bring uniquely to your clients?
Lawyers are natural problem solvers and are also familiar with many of the corporate and financial issues that our clients engage us for. We like to get into the details and are used to always anticipating and thinking through worst-case scenarios. Our clients benefit from a lawyer’s global approach to managing transactions, litigation support, crisis matters and other bet-the-company situations while understanding the market dynamics that need to be successfully navigated.

Nearly three months into your role at Sard Verbinnen, how are you finding everything so far, and what are your plans for the firm in the coming year?
Despite an unusual start given the demands around managing the COVID-19 epidemic for our offices and for our clients in the past few weeks, it has been a fantastic experience so far. Our teammates in Hong Kong are so talented and a delight to work with, and the work itself is fascinating. Sard Verbinnen has an impressive track record managing the most complex matters for companies and investment firms around the world, and everyone rolls up their sleeves to provide the best for our clients globally so that they can be supported around-the-clock.

Our plans for this year have not changed despite the uncertainty around COVID-19: we are continuing to expand our capabilities to support our growing client base, including Asia’s home-grown champions stepping further out on the global stage and multinational companies and investment firms increasing their presence in the region. In particular, we are actively supporting clients on a wide-range of COVID-19 communications matters from communicating to their employees, customers, media and investors to helping with contingency planning and business continuity.

In light of the recent COVID-19 outbreak, what counsel do you give to your clients on how they can communicate with their stakeholders in this time of economic uncertainty?
We emphasise that a communications strategy should be built around factual information from credible sources. It is essential for organisations to keep control of the message with regular communications and speak with one voice to ensure coordination across an organisation. Employees and other stakeholders need to hear directly from the company; any information void will likely be filled with unhelpful chatter and could make the company look indecisive or out of touch with the crisis. Organisations should address the issue with urgency and compassion but not get ahead of the facts and not speculate - it’s fine to acknowledge the uncertainty of the situation. It is important to continue demonstrating that the company is part of a response team and its leadership is aligned with government agencies and peers, while refraining from taking the spotlight or coming off as too self-promotional. In addition, it is critical to consider all stakeholders and how certain messages or initiatives could have an impact on each of them differently. Last but not least: have a contingency plan for worst case scenarios at all levels.

In a crisis, how should the communications team work together with the legal team to protect the company's reputation?
Managing crises requires a cross functional working group to work seamlessly together. This includes the management team, legal, communications, investor relations, operations and others to make sure that decisions reflect all requirements and all recommended actions are integrated and aligned. This is critical to ensuring all communications and messaging are consistent across all audiences.

The natural tension between legal and communications teams is usually that legal teams need to manage legal risk and do not want anything said until all the facts are known, whereas communications teams are keen to be responsive and recognise the crisis in an environment where audiences expect immediate reactions from damaging comments made on, for example, social media or blog posts. It is important to involve the communications teams early at the legal strategy planning stage. You don’t want to start looking at your communications strategy when reputational damage has already occurred.

Have a crisis plan that is regularly updated and tested with the response working group so the team knows how to respond to a situation, everyone is used to working with each other, the decision-making process is familiar and tested, and tough issues are worked out in advance. When the alarm bell goes off, the working group can then almost work from muscle memory.
What's the best advice have you ever been given to succeed as a female professional?
The most valuable lesson I learned was not from any specific advice regarding female professionals, but I was shown a level of awareness by senior professionals that bias, both conscious and unconscious, does exist despite best intentions, and that my colleagues and I, both male and female, have a role in changing this.

The comms industry is female-dominated, yet this is not always reflected in leadership positions. What can agencies and companies do to change this?
Study after study shows that gender diversity in leadership leads to better performing companies. It is clear that diversity, not just in gender but in a workforce of people with all backgrounds and orientations, provides the organisation with a richer pool of talent and perspectives that can only be a good thing in a global economy.

Diversity initiatives are valuable and great strides have been made to dismantle the barriers that have been in place for so long, and many companies encourage and in some cases require a larger percentage of women in senior positions. But it is not enough. We all need to continuously and proactively push our leadership, push HR, and push ourselves to be better. Remind yourself that you are a creature of habit and you gravitate towards those that are familiar. Test yourself: when hiring or promoting, do you usually prefer people who look a certain way, have a certain background or went to certain schools?

Leaders should demonstrate executive commitment towards eradicating bias, build credibility with employees and stakeholders by demonstrating that diversity and inclusion are more than just sound bites, and be accountable. Measure any progress made towards diversity goals and communicate honestly about it. Suggest easy, personal and actionable things to help balance the pool and celebrate specific achievements.

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