🍽️ Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Samantha Hillstrom
Head of Internal Communications and Employee Engagement, Blue Apron
I enjoyed talking with Samantha Hillstrom to learn about her career path. This is her internal communications story.
Samantha Hillstrom is the head of internal communications and employee engagement at Blue Apron. Based in New York City, with a coast-to-coast workforce in both corporate and fulfillment center roles, Samantha is responsible for ensuring the delivery of timely, innovative, and impactful communications and engagement initiatives that connect employees to the business and of course, to the delicious food. Prior to Blue Apron, she led internal communications at Etsy and Meetup.
Samantha started her career in broadcast journalism as a television producer in domestic news at CNN. She left the world of TV to transition to internal communications where she led the function at NYU School of Medicine's Department of Population Health. In addition to her professional career, Samantha is a certified birth doula and certified childbirth educator and teaches childbirth education to pregnant people across New York City. She is also a certified volunteer crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line. Samantha earned her bachelor's degree in communication arts, with honors, from Marymount Manhattan College.
What sparked your path into Internal Communications?
My path to internal communications definitely wasn’t linear and in fact, I fell into internal communications by accident. I left my career as a TV producer at CNN to become a childbirth teacher and a birth doula. I wasn’t interested in breaking news anymore and wanted to follow a passion I had for childbirth education (yes, it’s very random, I know.) I applied for my two-year childbirth education program and birth doula program, but in the meantime, I needed a job to make money. A friend of mine had an opening in a communications role at the NYU School of Medicine’s Department of Population Health.
I was able to transfer many skills over to a communications role from being a producer and so they took a chance on me and gave me the job. To be honest, the first few months I was working in this role, I had no idea that my work even had a name or a field – someone had to tell me I was doing internal communications!
I really loved the work and it was a great job to have as I went through my childbirth education certification. Once certified, I went to my internal comms job during the day and then taught childbirth classes at night and on the weekends. I managed to attend over 30 births as a doula while working full-time in internal comms! My plan was for internal communications to be a vehicle to a birth career, but it turns out that I ended up loving the work of internal communications, and so my plan reversed and internal communications became the career and birth work became my passion project.
Now that I’ve moved up in my career, I can’t be a doula like I was before as it’s not nearly as easy to leave work for a birth on a whim. However, I still teach childbirth classes and it’s allowed me to keep one foot in the birth industry and feed my passion. I’m pretty lucky to have a career I love and a passion project on the side.
How do you describe internal communications to others?
Internal communications is the PR firm for every team in the company. I am a business partner to all teams, and I’m responsible for making sure everyone knows what they need to in order to do their jobs and do their jobs well. Internal comms is definitely having “a moment” recently as more companies have realized how vital it is to have someone thinking about what information employees need to know and how they get that information.
As the Head of Internal Communications and Employee Engagement, how do you define employee engagement and the work do you lead in this area?
So many people think that “employee engagement” is about events and happy hours, but really, employee engagement is how connected an employee feels to the business and how that connection (or lack thereof) impacts their work. Employee engagement is psychological and it’s not just one thing that makes an employee engaged. Employee engagement has a few components.
First, it’s someone's pride in the organization and their willingness to recommend the company as an employer. Next, is how much an employee is willing to go above and beyond in their role. Finally, with employee engagement, you’re looking at retention and someone’s present and future commitments to the organization. Internal communications and employee engagement go hand-in-hand as they both work in each other’s favor.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
Last year, Blue Apron committed to supporting our employees in their democratic right to vote. I spearheaded the project that we happily called, Red, White, and Blue Apron. Many companies gave employees the day off to vote, which was awesome, but at Blue Apron we took it a few steps further. We committed to the idea that voting was more than casting a ballot, it was about the fundamental belief in democracy and the power of making your voice heard.
Our Red, White, and Blue Apron initiative included state-specific weekly voting information in the states where our employees reside, a bi-coastal voter registration drive at our fulfillment centers, providing free Lyft credits to get employees to and from the polls, and of course, the day off to vote. We partnered with organizations like Civic Alliance, Vote.org, and National Voter Registration Day to ensure we were supporting our employees across all fronts.
There are so many barriers to voting in this country and many of the people who are disproportionately impacted by those barriers are the people who work in our fulfillment centers. I cannot express how profound it was to register people to vote for the first time ever and to see the excitement and pride on their faces. Supporting employees in using their voice through their vote was such a privilege and something that will positively impact their lives, and this country, for years to come.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
Apart from the normal skills that are required of any communications professional, to me, two of the most important traits you need to have is a genuine respect and curiosity for the work people do and the ability to be empathetic. Together, those two qualities will help you learn about people and how to communicate effectively. Everyone wants to feel seen and heard, and I’m just as interested in the work of our most junior employees as our most senior.
The connection I can draw upon with what it means to be a doula and what it means to be in internal comms is that of the ability to hold space for people, listen to them, and help them try to find their voice. Frankly, you kind of have to just...like people. I'm surprised at how many internal communicators hide behind screens. You have to be willing to get out there and have conversations. At Blue Apron, I sit in meetings with executives and I’ve packed boxes alongside our associates in the fulfillment centers.
The best internal communications are both top-down and bottom-up. It's not just our responsibility to disseminate information downward to employees, but it is our responsibility to be on the ground listening and bubbling information up so that we’re creating this constant feedback loop within the organization.
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications and Employee Engagement?
Anyone who is internal communications will tell you that this can be a very lonely role. At many companies, people are a team of one, or if they’re lucky, two. I love moderating and attending talks and group discussions with other people in the field. I also listen to a few internal communications podcasts.
That said, one of the most important ways I continue to learn about internal communications and employee engagement is by talking to and listening to my colleagues. They’re who I work for, they’re my audience, and my relationships with them make a stronger colleague and communicator.