Ivonne Furneaux, a long-time member of IABC’s Chicago Chapter, is currently Director of Communications & Community Relations at SSAB, a Nordic and US-based steel company with employees in more than 50 countries. A seasoned communicator who has overseen numerous corporate transformations, including several large headquarters relocations, Ivonne agreed to share her insights on how the communications profession has evolved over the course of her career and some of the biggest lessons she’s learned from her experience.
What led you to a career in corporate communications? Have things turned out the way you expected?
I’d always had a love for writing and journalism in particular. In high school, I was editor of our school newspaper, I worked for the Anchorage Daily News and I aspired to win a Pulitzer Prize someday! So from that standpoint, my career certainly didn’t turn out the way I had envisioned. In college, I did an internship stint in the communications office of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. It was a fascinating experience and gave me my first glimpse into the “other side” of communications, trying to shape the messages versus trying to get the story. I enjoyed it, and from there, I thought a career in corporate communications might give me the best of both worlds. It has.
You’ve spent a good part of your career in the steel industry. What do you find interesting about this compared to other industries you’ve worked in? Any particular challenges you’ve encountered?
I fell into the steel manufacturing industry years ago, quite on accident after a layoff. It’s different from other industries in that while there’s a focus on process innovation, it’s not constantly trying to reinvent itself. Unlike the retail or other industries, the mentality is more about keeping the course than always looking for the next best thing. This can be both a blessing and a curse from a communications perspective. On one hand, you have employees who are extremely loyal and engaged, but on the other hand, change can be challenging.
You have had to communicate a number of major business transformations, including a significant merger and several corporate headquarters relocations. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned that could benefit communicators in similar situations? If you could do it over again, what would you have done differently?
I’ve had the unfortunate luck of being impacted by a number of major corporate changes throughout my career. The key lesson in all of these events from a communication perspective has been the importance of strategic planning. As business communicators, we cannot underestimate the value we provide in consulting leadership regarding how and when to communicate major change, from ensuring we account for every stakeholder to aligning all of our messaging and carefully scheduling each touchpoint. The planning has to be thorough and strategic. And we have to remember that communication for these changes goes beyond that first “big news day” and must carry on for months thereafter in order to keep employees and other stakeholders informed and engaged. It’s similar to a wedding. Too many couples spend months or years planning for a wedding day, but once they’re married, they don’t know how to build a successful marriage. Same idea with a merger or other business transformation. The major announcement is just the first step on a journey of ongoing communication.
What are some of the most notable changes you’ve seen in the communications profession since you started your career?
The biggest change I’ve seen throughout my career is the move to electronic channels for almost all communication. Back when I started, we had email, print newsletters and intranet, but now we’re utilizing mobile devices, digital signage and more. In the midst of all of this digitalization, the most negative change I’ve seen is that good writing has become less and less important. In the push for “content,” too many communicators now haven’t mastered the fundamentals of writing a good story, speech or press release, and that’s unfortunate. And as a side note, I also believe there’s still a real place for print channels when targeting particular audiences (like employees who don’t have computer access!).
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out in a communications field today, what would it be?
First and foremost, become a great writer! There are so many directions your career can take you if you have effective written communication skills. And my second piece of advice would be to develop business acumen that can make you more valuable and credible as a business partner to senior management.