📋 C-Suite Conversations: Roberta (Bertie) Thomson
Chief Communications and Creative Officer, Notion
In This Interview
🌋 How crisis communications helps you become a better communicator
🥰 The mind-meld between the CCO and internal comms
🗒️ Ways to learn from your own product and apply it internally
Roberta is an experienced communications leader with a background in finance. She is currently Chief Communications and Creative Officer at Notion. Notion is helping knowledge workers break away from today’s work tools and bringing us back to the ideals of early computing pioneers — that flexible tools can help us think better. Previously Roberta led Product Communications at Meta (formerly Facebook!), and before that led the company's Corporate Communications team for five years. She helped tell Facebook's story both externally and internally for more than seven years. Previously Roberta spent over seven years at critical issues and corporate relations agency Brunswick Group, where she advised on media relations, crisis and issues management, and over $150bn of M&A transactions.
Roberta spent her teenage years singing in a rock band, and then read Classics at Oxford. She started her professional life as a chartered accountant with Deloitte in London, where she worked with clients across sectors on both statutory audits and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. She brings a transatlantic perspective having worked in London, New York, Dallas and Silicon Valley.
What sparked your professional path into Communications?
It was a complete coincidence for me! I studied Classics, and then trained to become a chartered accountant. When I graduated from college, I went to work for Deloitte as an auditor. It’s a career path that I highly recommend. I learned many important skills — the basics of finance, and how to serve clients.
When I was living in London, I had dinner with a neighbor who was working at Brunswick Group, a financial PR agency. His work sounded a lot more interesting than testing consolidation adjustments. Before I knew it, I was meeting with the team at Brunswick and started a new career path.
It was a very easy transition because both fields are client-focused. It was also nice to start with a subject matter expertise in finance. I could talk with reporters with some level of confidence. I’ve been in communications ever since.
What are projects you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
I have enjoyed being able to work on projects that bring completely new experiences and learning. At Brunswick, I worked with a client who was developing a hydroelectric power project in the rainforest of Guyana. I learned an entirely new media landscape, led press conferences, and managed crisis communications. It showed me how differently media operates in different environments, and I learned how to communicate effectively in other parts of the world.
I’ve also worked on many meaningful M&A deals — approximately $150 billion worth of acquisitions. Some have succeeded and others have not. I learned that you can put a lot of effort into a project and not have it go the way you expect it to. In 2011, I worked on AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile. I also worked on Sysco’s proposed acquisition of US Foods. Both deals failed to secure regulatory approval after months of work. I started to learn a little about public affairs and policy from these experiences. Even though these acquisitions didn’t work out, they were good lessons because our discipline is very focused on hoping for the best and planning for the worst — you don’t always have control over external events.
I’ve also worked on crisis communications, including developing comms following a series of factory fires in Bangladesh affecting workers producing garments for Gap, Inc. Dealing with tragedy and finding a way to navigate with empathy, transparency, and principles is incredibly important. It helps you be a better communicator and show up in a way that’s calm and moves a situation forward.
Finally, some of my most meaningful work has been focused on internal communications, which I think is the hardest and the least appreciated. Without good internal communications, a company or organization can’t achieve its goals. If employees don’t understand your company’s mission, then your culture will fail. Internal comms is integral to that. It’s important to me to communicate values in a way that’s meaningful and transparent for employees. People don’t see that work externally, but it’s so critical.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Communications?
Communication isn't rocket science, but that doesn't mean it’s easy. There's a lot of common sense, judgment, and experience that’s needed. You must have flexibility because external events are always influencing your work.
You play a very crucial role in coordination. When you’re willing to step out of the comms lane to own more decision-making, you can have a huge impact by being collaborative and serving as a project manager. Sometimes you end up being a tie-breaker or a negotiator on a major announcement before it’s shared! There aren’t many disciplines that let you have that level of visibility at an organization.
You also need a thick skin because it's the kind of space where you get a lot of feedback. If you can marry all these skills, you’ll be successful in communications. It’s a very strategic role that involves playing through scenarios of what could happen based on a series of often challenging decisions.
In your role, how have you partnered with Internal Communications?
It’s less of a partnership and more of a mind-meld. You have to be completely on the same page. It’s a very different discipline than external communications. Some companies just translate what you’re saying externally and share it with employees, but it should be an inside-out approach where you’re always focused on communicating early and transparently to your teams. Then, later, you figure out how and what to share with the external world.
Internal comms is a highly strategic function that plays a really important role in company decision-making, especially around values and culture. It’s also incredibly important as a function to advocate for employees, and can act as a filter to help company leadership speak authentically to people of all backgrounds. This has never been more important, especially after the past few years we have lived through.
Discussions of race have become more common in the workplace. It’s been an awakening for leaders who aren’t used to discussing these issues inside their companies. Internal communications plays an important role in helping leaders step up, and also in moderating conversations with empathy. Employees have different expectations of leadership now. It’s not enough to just show up, but people want to know the values you are standing behind as a leader.
How does Notion embrace internal communications?
At Notion, internal comms is incredibly important to us as a company of only around 250 employees. We have a huge opportunity ahead of us, and it is absolutely crucial that each one of our employees understands our mission, vision, and operating values.
It’s crucial at startups because you help drive the company’s ability to reach its mission by supporting its culture with a seat early on in the life cycle.
We run our whole company on Notion! We try to share as much as possible as our own first customer. The benefits of being able to work collaboratively and asynchronously are incredibly clear. As I use the product, I find the beauty in it.
Can you tell us about your role as Chief Communications and Creative Officer?
I love the combination of communications and creativity because the most impactful work I’ve seen has always been a close partnership between comms, brand and marketing. There's no point having these teams operating in silos. I'm incredibly excited to join at this moment, with an awesome brand that’s beloved by our users.
The passion from the Notion community is an energy that is wonderful to see. People really appreciate the design and quality of our product. Our community sprung up organically, and we do everything we can to support them by creating forums for exchanging templates and sharing knowledge.
Our Co-founder and CEO, Ivan Zhao, says that Notion should be like water. It’s enabling your own creativity.
I’m lucky to have an opportunity to build out Notion’s Creative Studio and help us amplify our brand. With best-in-class communications, my team can really support our mission. It’s my job to very tastefully make Notion known. We’re building a generational company!
How do you continue learning about the field of Communications?
I studied Classics, ancient languages, literature, history, and philosophy which is relevant when you’re thinking about rhetoric. But, my greatest learning comes from experience.
In the places where I’ve worked, I’ve been dropped into situations where there weren’t any playbooks. I learned by experience, by doing, and by making mistakes. One of my amazing mentors, Caryn Marooney, taught me that it’s ok to make mistakes, as long as you make a new mistake each time.
I also stay on top of trends. The field of communications is shifting a lot. Traditional media relations is a smaller part of our discipline, with creators and influencers playing increasingly important roles. It’s important to understand how people consume information so you can get ahead of those trends. I spend a lot of time on Instagram and TikTok!
Would you like to share anything else about your professional path?
I would love to highlight how many incredible women of color we have working in communications.
In my experience as a Black woman in this industry, I’ve found myself underestimated quite often. I want to implore anyone reading this to think about the makeup of their team, and whether they are fit for purpose to communicate to this next generation, which is becoming more and more diverse.
We have a lot of work to do as an industry to make sure our leaders are representative of the audiences that we’re speaking to.
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☎️ Every edition of The Switchboard is personally curated by me — Julia Levy. This post is based on a live interview conversation and edited for publication. Learn more about why I write.