Brendan P. Lewis, Executive Vice President of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Oatly, shares his top three pieces of advice for job seekers. He opens up about the importance of maintaining a work-life balance. Brendan also offers his insights on when brands should take risks.
DOUG: Well, I’ve had the same job for about 37 years, Brendan has taken a different approach and had multiple cool jobs in a shorter time frame. Brendan, can you share a bit about your career journey?
BRENDAN: So, I was a sociology major at the University of Maryland, and there’s not a whole heck of a lot that you can do with a sociology major, but the ability to kind of study groups, and understand groupthink, and to communicate things came naturally to me. And so, when I got out of college, my very first job was at a wonderful nonprofit in New York City called the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration, which collects, processes, and distributes cornea tissue for eye transplants. And through that job, I was able to kind of understand the need for comms. You know, I would go out and talk to various organizations who theoretically didn’t believe in eye or cornea, transplants, or donation because they thought it might be against their religion or rules, but no blood passes over the cornea, so it actually is fine for donation. But from therein kind of the ability that’s solidified for me, communications was a job that I wanted to be in and public affairs as well, because, you know, kind of affecting regulatory policy goes part and parcel, I think, with comms. And I’ve had a wonderful, you know, career, if you will. I’ve had the opportunity to work for some pretty interesting brands, some pretty controversial brands, certainly, that have had their moment in the sun. But also, at the end of the day, you know, just getting together with a lot of really great, smart people. As a comms person, your job is to tell stories about the wonderful things that the brands or the companies that you’re working on are doing, and that can’t happen unless really interesting things are happening.
DOUG: Yeah, excluding people who are currently my colleagues at D S Simon Media, what would you tell folks who are looking for their next opportunity in communications?
BRENDAN: Yeah, I think there are three kind of pieces of advice I give to people. Number one is if you say something through an exhale, don’t do it. And I’ve had some opportunities in my career where I’ve, you know, kind of willed myself into it and be like, yeah, you know, this might be an interesting gig. You know, I should probably take it. So, if you say something through an exhale like, don’t do it, or at the very least take a pause and kind of understand it, because that might lead you to take jobs that aren’t necessarily better, but less shitty than where you are right now. And you need to have a clear mind and presence of it. The other thing, especially for communicators, is rely on your network if you will sort of almost build your council of elders. I call it the, you know, the heads of comms club for comms people. We all go through a lot, and we all have interesting perspectives, and you don’t have to necessarily do it alone. If you got some really good friends, some people that you trust, some people that you know have really good experiences, don’t be afraid to use that. And I’ve certainly used it a lot in my career where I’ve called out some friends and been like, you know, I got this situation like, what would you do? And that can help inform a little bit. So, you’re not on this island alone, if you will, because certainly when you’re inside a company that might, you know, mute your thinking a little bit, you might be afraid to make a controversial move or make a suggestion that might, you know, might not be the most popular in the room. But if you get that outside counsel and that outside point of view that isn’t tainted by the internal politics, that’s something that’s really essential. So, you know, those are probably my three biggest pieces of advice that I give to people. And certainly, things that, you know, I’ve learned the hard way, frankly, and, and want to impart so that people don’t have the same journey that I did in a lot of ways.
DOUG: That’s really interesting. And one of the things I try and focus on is for myself and for others, never thinking that your job sucks, but thinking about, okay, what can you do to make it better all the time? And that doesn’t mean you have to stay there forever. Are there any cues or tips you have to get people to change that mindset to where they’re thinking, okay, how do I make this better?
BRENDAN: At the end of the day, it’s all about perspective, right? And I think if your job is your life, there’s a root cause problem. It isn’t the job necessarily. We can be passionate about what we do, but if your whole identity is wrapped up in what you do, there might be some time for self-exploration. And so, you need to have a life outside of your life, if you will. And again, I’ve worked at, you know, I’ve had jobs where my whole identity has been wrapped up in my job, and it’s been very hard to kind of like detach from it because when you are so wrapped up in it, you are so invested in it, you don’t have time to think about other things. And if you’re thinking about one thing over and over again, over-analysis happens, or you just are easier to be aggravated about things. So it just takes some time, take a breath, get out of it, you know, so when you have an opportunity to kind of zoom out, then when you have to zoom back in, you might have a little bit of a fresh perspective, or you’ve given that part of your brain just enough of a rest that you can come into it with a little bit fresh perspective.
DOUG: That’s really great advice. And one of the things I like to say that not everyone agrees with is everyone talks about the work-life balance. And I sort of think part of that is BS because that implies a zero-sum game. My perspective is how do you make your work better? How do you make your life better, and can they be reinforcing each other? I really liked your perspective about the exhale test. And can you apply that same test to something that’s a big issue in communications now when should a brand take risks? When should they play it safe?
BRENDAN: As a comms person, there are a lot of different stakeholders that are at the table when a company is undergoing something. But as a comms person, there is no better expert in the room than you. You’re the one who knows. You can have people who build really great products. You can have people who are solely focused on the economic bottom line. But all of these things are intertwined. And I kind of say as a comms person, we have to scenario plan for every situation that happens because if something goes wrong, we’re prepared for it. And no one’s ever caught by surprise when something goes according to plan. So, you have to do this kind of scenario planning, if you will. And that can be viewed as negativity sometimes in the room for people who don’t necessarily understand it. But our job is to make sure that we are planning because when something does go wrong, you cannot afford to lose any time you have to go into action immediately. And I think, you know, the ability to kind of sit back, listen. Not, you know, almost be the calmest person in the room, if you will, and really think through things and think about what the results might be. And, you know, sometimes controversy isn’t the worst thing in the world, but if it’s reckless controversy, then that’s the problem. And, you know, I think you know when to play it safe. Why not play it safe? For me, it’s a simple litmus test. Is there an absolute regulatory, legal, or massive reputational risk that can happen? And if the answer is yes to one of those, hopefully not all of those, then it’s time to really kind of take a step back and think about it. You know, bring in some outside counsel or things to help you, because at the end of the day, you know, things can turn very quickly. And then the environment becomes so dynamic that you’re playing catch up whilst trying to get ahead. And that’s just not a good spot for any company to happen. So, the ability to kind of sit back, take counsel or give counsel, take in all of the inputs of everybody in the room and understand where they’re all coming from and kind of tying it all together with a suggested strategy on the way forward, might not be accepted, might be overruled. And as I tell people, listen, my job is to sit here and give you the counsel that I think we need to do, given the breadth of my experience over time. But if the decision in the room is to take a different path, then my job is to make sure that it lands in the best way possible. Might not land well at all, but we’ll try and make it land in the best way possible. And you know, at the end of the day, that’s the stuff that you need to do. It’s all a team, and it can be harder when there are more stakeholders in the room. But as a comms person, again, it’s lean back taking all these data points. Think about it. Give your counsel and then either execute or amend as the situation warrants.
DOUG: Yeah, and it sounds like you’re advocating that you change the spelling of comms from c-o-m-m-s to c-a-l-m-s. And I don’t know if I’ve been doing Wordle too much for that one, but there’s also an approach to risk-taking that can make things more authentic. And we know that all of our clients and the public really value authenticity. And that’s why we’ve seen actual change at the station level, where now they overwhelmingly prefer to interview spokespeople from within a company for satellite media tours than some third-party expert. So how do you find a role for risk-taking if it can bring more authenticity?
BRENDAN: When you have bedrock organizational beliefs, or you’ve said everything you need to say about something, then it’s okay. You know, an example with Oatly is we set up a website very quietly last year called fukoatly.com, and that was a compendium of every controversy that Oatly has ever faced, whether it be seed oil or investments that we took in from private equity to campaigns that went the wrong way or weren’t received really well, and we put it all in one spot. You know, we love our fans and our haters equally, and that was born of the fact that we are truly an authentic organization. We have firm beliefs in what we do. We have firm beliefs and issues about, you know, the health of the planet, the health of people, large lobbying organizations that hold sway over regulatory authorities who have massive budgets for public persuasion campaigns. But people would come to us and say, well, what about this? What about that? Well, actually, you’re right, and we’ve created a website for you. Now, what we did was we did it in a very authentic and fun way too. So, if you go to fckoatly.com, you can actually go to fckfckoatly.com because if you don’t like fukoatly.com, you can go to the other one. And if you don’t like fckfckoatly.com you can go to fukfukfukoatly.com. And it goes down this whole rabbit hole, which was done in a way that you know, people who know our brand would expect nothing different. And the ability to show, warts and all, you can’t get more authentic than that. You can’t be accused of readily, you know, whitewashing your organization. If you show the bad stuff, it makes the good stuff highlight even more. And, you know, I think it’s maybe not necessarily possible for every organization out there, but I do believe that if your company is truly committed to the bedrock beliefs of who you are, what you stand for, and be able to kind of admit where they’re missteps, you can’t get more authentic than that. And I found it to be very refreshing in my career, especially when I was talking to Oatly before joining them. I’ve worked at places that that wanted to paint only a rosy, wonderful image, and that just at the end of the day, makes things tougher, especially for comms people because when true controversy hits the organization, people know that your kind of faking it, and that makes it harder for everybody involved in the chain. Reporters might not be as receptive to what you have to say. Your customers might abandon you. Your colleagues might get disgruntled because they know the truth versus what’s being said externally. So, it’s a rubric that you got to be very careful in, but if you’re willing to kind of speak up your beliefs, commit to them and stay to them and not change them because things might get bad or show, yeah, we’ve kind of screwed up along the way. You can’t get more authentic than that.
DOUG: And Brendan, we usually try and limit F-bombs to like one per episode.
DOUG: So, think the count was about 11, but think the value of what you communicated made up for that.
BRENDAN: I didn’t even name all of the permutations of F Oatly, I could have blown through your yearly quota right there.
DOUG: Yeah, I think you already did. But thanks so much for being with us.