Sarah Danzl on challenges of the past year, value of comms, and data-driven decisions

Sarah Danzl on challenges of the past year, value of comms, and data-driven decisions
Sarah Danzl, head of global communications and client advocacy for Degreed, spoke with us about the multi-discipline nature of communications, and what it takes to stay on top of what often is a busy job.

Sarah Danzl, head of global communications and client advocacy for Degreed, spoke with us about the multi-discipline nature of communications, and what it takes to stay on top of what often is a busy job.

Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?

I chose a role in communications because it was the best way to combine many passions and goals: writing, executive interactions, reputation management to name a few. There are many directions a career in communications can go so I also felt strongly about the foundation it afforded me for future movement and growth.

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

Communications is ultimately about relationship building. You have to be authentic, honest, trustworthy, and reliable, that way, journalists know they can count on you to help them with a story — especially if it's a last-minute project. Storytelling is also a good skill to have — I see this as the ability to know what’s a newsworthy angle and what’s interesting to readers, and then being able to relay this in a compelling and accessible way.

What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?

The past year has certainly been challenging in many ways! The pandemic changed everything for many people and our comms strategy pivoted to reflect that. We became more focused on helping people, delivering value to journalists, and not adding to the noise. We also took a more holistic approach to outreach, by sending little gifts, home working, and homeschooling aids (like coloring books).

Global pandemic aside, another challenge I’ve been working on over the past 12-18 months is shifting Degreed from a single to a multi-product brand. It’s been challenging to decide on the right mix of messaging to reflect Degreed’s new direction and the resources the comms team should commit to each new product. We’ve also had to change our messaging slightly, to become more clear on who we are, what we stand for, what makes us different, and why the market needs Degreed.

Degreed has also been growing quickly, and globally, and this has diversified our communications. We have communications outreach across the world and there are new practical considerations that I have to take into account. For example, in adapting content, news, and data to different markets. It’s not as simple as purely translating something as there are cultural nuances to understand, the maturity of the market may be different, and international audiences have different interests and challenges.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organization?

The communications team has buy-in across the organization, from the top-down. We are a very visible team that collaborates with many different departments at Degreed. We’re also fortunate in that our colleagues in sales are also very bought in, to the extent where we’re often one of the first brought on-board when expanding into new markets. Of course, this provides its own challenges as the team is often asked for more comms and PR, and we’re often juggling several new requests and projects at the same time and making some tough decisions on what to prioritize.

What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?

Build your relationships. Whether that’s getting to know journalists who cover your company and angles or building strong relationships with key stakeholders inside your business. It will pay-off in the long-run, making you and your business more memorable to the press, encouraging your colleagues to go out of their way to help you, and can also help you understand more about your business, product, and potential stories. You never know what ideas can come out of booking a 15-min coffee break with someone.

Part of this is also looking to add value with your interactions. Contribute ideas, find ways to help others, and think about how you can make someone’s life easier. The same applies to your customers and target audiences — how can your business add value to their day-to-day? Ideally, you’d want to find the sweet spot between what, say, a journalist needs and what your business wants to pitch and sell.

My other advice would be to keep learning. The world is changing rapidly and you cannot tell tomorrow’s stories if your thinking is stuck in 2020. I set aside regular time to keep up with the latest thinking in the sector and beyond through books, videos, podcasts, and more. This makes me a better strategist, writer, storyteller, and leader.

What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?

To be effective at communications you need to understand what your audience wants, what their aspirations and challenges are, what makes them tick, and then find where this overlaps with what your business wants to promote. And this isn’t a one-time activity, it’s a constant communication between you and your audience where you build trust and relationships through consistently providing useful information and help.

We at React & Share live for helping communications teams through understanding website content sentiment and improving it off the back of feedback. How do you and your team approach content improvement?

We take an iterative approach and, increasingly, are becoming more data-driven. We look at what’s worked in the past, what got the most downloads and engagement, and also feedback from our customers, prospects, partners, and internal stakeholders. After every pillar content launch, we do a post-mortem involving the project team as well as senior stakeholders like our CMO and COO. We look at what went well and what could be improved, plus changes we’d like to implement for future campaigns. This approach means that we learn and improve with each campaign, and it’s becoming more important as we scale globally and enter new markets, and as we experiment with different content types. In the past year, we’ve experimented with an email course series, an interactive microsite, a checklist, and more.