📝 Communications Introductions: Cath Anderson
Head of Communications, Cityblock Health
Cath Anderson is a storyteller who's built a career around helping companies shape important change narratives, with specific expertise in the technology and healthcare arenas. She's worked in-house at Apple, Google, and Facebook, while also building the communications function at startups like Amwell and Cityblock Health. She's results-driven, with an emphasis on landing impactful messaging that inspires behavior change and helps to shift public perception. Cath was named among PR News' "Rising Stars" 2015 and PRWeek’s "Women to Watch" 2019.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
I started out wanting to be a journalist, so naturally I was more focused on external comms vs. internal.
It has been the pandemic that solidified my interest in internal communications. It’s become so obvious the critical role that internal communications plays in driving culture and shaping the future of a company. The internal story is the external story. To have an authentic brand and story to tell, they both must be aligned. Arguably, your employees are your most important audience; they are the ambassadors of your brand who are bringing your product to the world. Realizing this, I changed my perspective on internal communications.
A while back, I actually took a role at a very big company where I was doing more internal comms than I had wanted to be doing. For a variety of reasons (not all work related), I ended up leaving that role pretty quickly. At the time, I just didn't see the internal comms piece aligning with my skill set.
It’s so interesting because I’ve come full circle where I’m working at Cityblock and focused on both internal and external communications. I’m helping the company as they scale to serve some of our most marginalized communities in the United States with healthcare. I recognize the importance of internal communications now more than ever.
How are you focused on internal communications in your role as Head of Communications?
I'm building the communications function from the ground up by creating processes, building a coalition and educating executive leadership and not just informing employees, but learning from them and embarking on a journey together. Our challenge is to be strategic so that we’re driving the proactive narrative for both internal and external communications. With my new role, internal communications takes a huge part of my day. It’s really important as we quickly scale and grow in numbers. My biggest priority is to bring people along for the ride. It’s an exciting time as we’re building culture while ensuring we maintain the connection to our mission and values.
I’m also excited to be building my team and welcoming in new leaders early 2022. You need that camaraderie and expertise in comms. I’ll be working to coordinate across communications, but will be leaning on my team to drive our day-to-day strategy. The beauty of having a team that’s smaller and agile is that you can be very coordinated and collaborative.
It's less about the division between internal and external comms and more about this moment that we've been living through during the pandemic where there's a new lens through which communicators are viewing topics such as empathy and leaning into vulnerability which builds trust and belonging. It's an added bonus if you have the internal and external closely aligned. It says a lot about a company when they invest in internal communications because it's sometimes looked at as a luxury, but it's actually the opposite, it’s a necessity.
How do you describe internal communications to others?
It’s communications, but with an internal audience. Any time you're communicating, you’re tailoring it to your audience – you're asking: who is the messenger, what is the message, what is your tone and who is your audience?
Internal communications is about equipping people with the information that they need to do good work, connect to the company and build community. People make a company, so it’s the way to ensure that there’s stewardship of your story and that you’re driving the impact that you want to see in the world. Importantly, you’re giving employees the news and information that they need so they understand the direction of the company.
What are a few projects you are particularly proud of accomplishing?
I'm very proud of working on communicating narratives to change perception around a topic for the greater good. Years ago, I worked on Al Gore's clean energy campaign where he was trying to shift away from the phrase “climate change” because it was so negatively charged. To reach across the aisle, we did a lot of work around how clean energy was allowing us to rely less on foreign energy sources. It was really fulfilling work that showed me all the different stakeholders you need to work with to actually create change.
I also worked on a really meaningful program at Mass General Hospital called the “Home Base Program.” There was a lot of stigma around post-traumatic stress and PTSD. Many young people were being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan – it was the same 1% of military who were returning with invisible wounds. I worked to transform that narrative and build awareness. As a society, how we look at mental health has really changed for the better since then and I see us prioritizing this alongside physical ailments.
When I was at Apple, I worked on the team that launched iOS 9, 10 and 11. There were amazing new emojis and new ways to message. I also worked on the team managing comms for the Apple versus the FBI case where Apple was taking a stand around privacy. Working on privacy narratives has also been a highlight of my career. It’s really challenging work and often means showing not just talking about a change, but I really enjoy it because it’s critical to everyone and every big company.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Communications?
You have to be a strong writer! Strategic communications writing weaves in an analysis so that you're actually providing new information for stakeholders. In as few words as possible, you want to share that information and why it matters to them.
You also need to be a jack-of-all-trades. I value people who stay nimble and scrappy – no matter what level. Relationships are very important – treating people with respect trumps everything and is part of that relationship building.
In those critical moments when you're doing the big decision making, there are so many factors that are out of our control in the world of communications. A prior boss once told me that all we do all day long is to work to control the things that are out of our control. Gut instinct is really important. You're also doing so much traffic control because you're working to communicate wisely, strategic and timely.
Most importantly, you need to be able to have hard conversations and say things that might not be popular, but that's the only way you can actually be strategic and prepare your leadership for the crisis moments. I always look to poke holes so that I can shape the best narrative.
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?
Because communication is so fundamental to who we are as people, I appreciate learning about relationships. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts on these topics. Glennon Doyle’s “We Can Do Hard Things'' is my favorite. I actually just posted an appreciation message to this effect on LinkedIn, because more and more I feel like these topics have relevance in both personal and professional worlds. Glennon recently had Brene Brown on the show and they were talking about change, which is a huge focus of internal communications whether it's a re-org or a shift in priorities.
I also stay updated on the news with NPR One and The Daily from The New York Times. It’s important to stay informed in the work we lead and I love the hands-free aspect of apps and podcasts.
Last but not least, I just joined Chief, the women’s network. I’m excited and honored to be invited to join this robust community of female leaders. I’m really looking forward to learning from all of the great women in this group.