Fostering employee trust through authentic tone of voice

Podcast recap Ep 37 Employee trust - headshot of Katherine King
Most of us have a little bit of Etsy in our lives, and some a lot more than others. Who hasn’t spent a rainy afternoon on a laptop doing a deep dive into stained glass suncatchers, Chinese wallpaper, or antique custard dishes? Etsy’s an excellent platform to buy and sell stuff, but what makes it great?

In this podcast, Fostering employee trust through authentic tone of voice, we spoke with Katherine King, Director of Communications at Etsy since 2018. She shared how brilliant communication makes Etsy the destination for those seeking something special.

Katherine loves her work at Etsy, and it shows. Over 80% of Etsy sellers are women, so Katherine’s lifelong passion for girls’ education and female entrepreneurship goes from strength to strength, given that women’s economic empowerment is one of the great things Etsy stands for.

Trust, authenticity, and connection through and through

Before Etsy, Katherine worked in advertising for some of the biggest brands. Here she began developing her skills in dialogue strategy.

Dialogue strategy fosters a customer’s unique connection with a brand when the promotional promise comes through in any touchpoint you might have with a customer-facing employee. One of the most valuable skills Katherine carried across to Etsy was the knowledge that, first and foremost, employing a consistent tone of voice is critical in driving trust.

“Clients put a huge investment into ensuring that their customer-facing touchpoints reflected their business’s tone of voice and priorities. And that was big for trust. They were willing to put their money where their mouths were.”

Also, Katherine learned that genuine brand authenticity doesn’t stop with external efforts alone. Showing up authentically isn’t about showing up in commercials. You have to show up internally at the same time.

The more you live your brand internally, the more it translates externally, whether that’s someone who is a customer-facing employee or just someone who works at your company and represents your brand. Ensuring that it feels cohesive externally and internally is critical.

Also, person-to-person communication and connection are vital.  A big part of Katherine’s role was on the ground with her clients’ employees to develop a tone of voice that matched the brand.

“This made me realize that I really wanted to go in-house. I wanted to talk with employees and be part of that employee group rather than a consultant coming in. That drove me in-house. I saw the job at Etsy, and the fates aligned.”

Wearing many hats

Internal communicators will know that anyone responsible for employee communications wears many, many hats. Katherine and her team cover all the standard fare with newsletters and on their internal communications hub, the ‘Intraknit,’ which reflects Etsy’s creative and artisanal aesthetics.

Employee trust - collection of knitting needles and balls of wool

They handle general ad hoc communications and manage strategy for the senior leadership team, from directors to the C-suite. And they support executive and crisis communications, providing support for some of the internal communications functions of subsidiaries.

Relationships make employee communications the best they can be

On the podcast, Katherine stresses the importance of building and maintaining sound internal relationships between communications people, marketing, and HR to ensure brand voice sounds the same internally and externally. Companies should also be in lockstep when responding to issues, especially the more sensitive ones. Good relationships with all those teams are essential because you work with them constantly.

What’s unique at Etsy is that Katherine’s team sits within the strategy and operations function, which rolls up to the VP of Strategy and Operations and the COO.

“I love that. It’s a critical relationship. Each organization at Etsy has a strategy and operations function. Those have been some of the most fruitful relationships because it allows me to understand each of those strategies, their priorities, and having that connection.”

This way, you can ensure that company messages and priorities are pulled into all the communications touch-points so employees stay focused on the right things.

Also, cherish your relationship with IT and with executives. Making friends strengthens internal communication and drives honest, natural feedback. Never overlook executive assistants and the value they bring.

While executives are critical customers for internal communications, executive assistants know their availability, their feelings on certain topics, what’s on their minds, and what makes them tick. “Executive assistants have so much insight, power, and value, and it’s just been such a valuable relationship for me. I’ve been so grateful for that at Etsy.”

Employee trust - screenshot of smartphone showing Etsy homescreen with backdrop of computer screen showing Etsy graphic

If you’re working remotely, you’ll probably wonder how easy it is to make friends and nurture these relationships in the name of healthy communication when you aren’t in the office. Listen to what Katherine says about establishing those friendships when there’s no water cooler or cafeteria line: “It’s hard to just randomly form a bond with someone, so I’ve been more focused on how to continue building relationships with people I don’t run into five days a week.”

Tone of voice and why we don’t wire ‘mom’ $1M in bitcoin

We’re seeing so much about empathy and compassion in the workplace today. Katherine gives valuable pointers for internal communicators to incorporate these emotions into the content they create for leadership and others. She shares her methods of pre-presentation preparation sessions for executives.

“What’s most important is to focus on what makes that leader tick, to find their authentic source of empathy and compassion. Not what they think others would say, not what they think others want to hear, but what feels natural.”

Crucially, find out how to work with those leaders who don’t have a strong sense of these qualities and help them contextualize situations in a way that makes sense to them. And an essential element of this communication is tone.

As Katherine explains, “We’ve all had those emails from ‘Mom’ in desperate need, asking for an urgent injection of Bitcoin. Why don’t we believe her? Because the tone is wrong. Real mom doesn’t act that way, and nothing is familiar about fake mom’s way of communicating.” A reliable tone breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds trust.

Capturing the authentic tones of the many voices within Etsy is impactful. Still, it takes skill to accomplish: “The job of the internal communicator is to be an acrobat, to prioritize the natural inclination of the people speaking.”

And now for the bad news

Sometimes you need to know how to deliver those awkward bits of information or to set the tone for a difficult spell in the organization. When this happens, even though your voice may differ wildly from the person you are creating content for, Katherine suggests a critical balance between voice, style, and content and leaning on other relationships to help focus and deliver the material correctly.

Being authentic and building frameworks in advance helps your communications team effectively support those in need during crisis communications. “As humans, in our hearts, we want to respond to everything, but if your heart breaks for everything, your impact is watered down.”

As for societal issues, Katherine shows us how Etsy varies the response levels based on how close the problem is to core business values and mission. This ensures using the most effective voice or voices internally and externally, whether targeted to a specific audience or on a broader scale, like a public statement or a company donation.

Advice for a first-time leader of employee communications

One of the best ways to become the most effective communicator is to nurture relationships and make friends. This way, you’ll know what employees need to hear and will understand what leaders need to say to promote the business.

Say yes, get involved, and offer to help. It might seem like loads more work, but these actions are opportunities to show your value and foster relationships.

Understand the business, its priorities and context, the different parts of the whole, and how everything works together. Knowing what is important and why and who does what demonstrates effort and acknowledgment of the roles others play—and this is always appreciated.

Challenges for the next five years

Katherine outlines some challenges in the future, emphasizing how difficult it will be to form strong, lasting relationships in a distributed workforce. And how crucial it will be to get the most out of face-to-face interaction when it arises, the trials and tribulations of remote onboarding, and how this affects employee experience and engagement.

Given these challenges and others, Katherine has some tips on the podcast for how to get better at the job as you go along. Her personal goals include actively improving her writing, developing more frameworks relevant to unexpected scenarios, being more proactive after the last few years of being reactive during the Covid-19 pandemic, and managing it all.

“Etsy takes management so seriously we call it ‘management as craft.’ It’s essential, and my team is growing right now as the company scales, which is amazing.”

You can learn more about Katherine on LinkedIn, where she’ll be happy to connect.

Listen to the full podcast here, and don’t forget to subscribe to podcast updates so you don’t miss the latest on employee communication, engagement, and productivity.

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