📖 Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Toby Frankenstein
Head of Storytelling at CRC
Toby brings more than 15 years of experience from a diverse background in management consulting, brand strategy, technology, and diplomacy to support some of the world’s most competitive companies in developing creative strategy to tell their story and engage their customers and people. Toby has worked with senior leaders and teams to develop and activate brands, names and organizational identities, define business strategy and priorities, and craft talent development and cultural transformation initiatives and strategic communications programs.
Toby has applied his collaborative style and blend of creative and analytical thinking for clients and colleagues at Oliver Wyman (management consulting), Lippincott (brand strategy), Uber and Google. Previously, Toby was the speechwriter for Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and served as a fellow at an NGO that worked in consultative status with the UN Human Rights Council.
Toby holds a bachelor's degree in political economics and French language from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an MBA from INSEAD. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and three children — and loves to geek out on coffee, cooking, and exploring the outdoors.
How did you get your start in internal communications?
I've always enjoyed writing, reading and storytelling. I was always fascinated by great storytellers, too. I once had the privilege of hearing Joel ben Izzy, a prolific storyteller who shares Jewish folktales from around the world. He’s masterful at giving old stories new life — sharing insights and humor about the human experience. I’ve always found inspiration in that sort of work.
The formal beginning of my communications career started when I worked for UN Watch, an NGO that does human rights advocacy at the United Nations; next I served as the speechwriter for Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations. Both of those roles involved storytelling – how to bring political issues and dynamics to life in a way that’s compelling and engaging.
After more than four years in the UN world, I went back to school for my MBA, at which point I joined Google’s internal and executive communications team. My role focused on supporting the VPs of advertising to tell their stories about their product, work, and people. In the end, our best work happened when we didn’t just talk about what we were doing, but we really connected it to a broader narrative that resonated with the audience.
How do you define internal and executive communications?
In my mind, internal/executive comms is really about strategy execution. People might say that communications and strategy aren't related, but internal communications — when done right — is a strategic lever a business can use to focus its people with the right information at the right time to do their work well, stay coordinated across teams, and connect individuals to the broader organizational culture and priorities. If a business leader tells me that their strategy isn’t working, one of the first questions I’ll ask is, “tell me more about what your communications team is focused on.”
All of that to say, the goal of internal communications should be to inform, inspire and engage colleagues. It’s a powerful strategy lever, but its power isn’t always fully applied since people often see comms as information sharing rather than strategy activation and sustainment.
What is a project you are proud of having led?
Speechwriting for Israel's ambassador to the UN was some of the most fun and challenging projects that I’ve done. Israel receives a disproportionate amount of attention at the United Nations so the Ambassador is expected to have very well-crafted statements and ideas about the situation in that part of the world.
I’m proud of the work that we did to articulate Israel's position on very complicated challenges, and to share our position in a way that was true to the policy of the government and brought the human element of what we were talking about to the forefront.
What are the skills that are needed in internal communications?
One of the most important skills in internal communication is being a great listener – being a sponge. To be able to tell a great story or to write effective speeches, you really need to be able to listen and understand, both who you’re writing for and who your audience is.
To be great at listening, it really starts with being empathetic and putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else – it’s not just what they want to say, but how they want to say it. If a beautiful piece of internal comms or a speech is not on tone or on brand for the person who is delivering, it will feel profoundly inauthentic.
Being a great writer and being able to flex your writing style are important to be able to channel that empathy and listening. It’s also about being really open to feedback. When you’re working with executives and teams, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so you can’t fall in love with your own writing. You need to be able to absorb lots of different feedback and ideas to reflect what you're hearing, not just what you think is great work.
How do you continue learning about internal communications?
I love reading sharp, pithy writers, whether it's in The New Yorker or The Economist. I often find that they are written to inform their readers in a way that’s very similar to how great internal communications are designed to inform colleagues about business strategy.
I also ask friends to share when they see communications from a business leader done really well — or conversely when a comms touchpoint missed the mark. Staying current on great internal communications is a bit like being an investigative journalist — you need to always be soliciting opinions and thoughts from others in the field.
On that note, it can be surprising to hear just how much people have to say about the communication where they work. According to a recent study looking at dynamics of the “great resignation,” people rank communications from their manager as the most important skill they need from their managers. If anyone ever doubted the importance of a strong internal comms function, that data point should get them to pay attention.
You have just started a new role. Can you share more?
I joined CRC, a boutique creative agency. I’ve known the founders for more than 10 years, and I’ve always been really impressed with their work and creative edge. I’ve joined CRC as Head of Storytelling to support our creative offering, as well as expand our work into a broader range of communication-related and strategy-activation services, for example helping a business (re)define their mission / vision / values, designing and facilitating leadership and team off-sites, and developing employee value propositions.
What’s one bit of advice you’d offer other internal comms professionals?
To make communications really stick, you need to begin with empathy. Do you really, truly — and deeply — understand your audiences? Have you segmented them into distinct groups so that you’ve got a clear understanding of what keeps them up at night -- or the first thing they think about when they get out of bed? Begin with empathy, and so much else will come into focus and fall into place.