Decoded with Frith Wilson-Hughes

If anyone knows about the complexity of navigating corporate communications, it’s Frith Wilson-Hughes. With a wealth of experience in digital storytelling and brand communication, she is passionate about the power of stories and their ability to create emotional connections and genuine change. Now bringing a fresh perspective to Southern Cross, Frith demonstrates an unwavering commitment to authentic, audience-driven storytelling and shares with us some lessons learned along the way.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your career journey and what led you to focus on roles that specialise in digital storytelling

Stories are a fundamental part of being human, and the best ones have an unmatched ability to build emotional connections. I began my career in the book publishing industry with a strong desire to play a part in helping good stories find audiences. I’ve always spent a lot of time online, creating content, participating in and building community. As the internet and social media matured, I noticed that some of the most engaging and progressive stories were being told in digital formats and I realised my skills and interests could converge.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your role at Southern Cross, and what that looks like day-to-day?

I’m still relatively new to Southern Cross and have been spending a bunch of time understanding the business, the brand, the people and really the whole industry landscape. It’s a complex organisation with a lot of history and it’s taking me a while to get my head around. Ultimately I want to understand what we want to be known for, and then pull out stories or ideas that will illustrate this in a way that’ll make people want to give us their attention. Day-to-day this looks like me asking a lot of annoying questions. I’ve been privileged to be given the scope to start with a blank slate if that’s what I feel is best, but I also want to know what’s resonated in the past and build on that.

Q: Why is it important for corporations to listen to their audiences' needs - across demographics and generations?

If you don’t know your audiences, you’re not going to say anything they’ll find meaningful. We’re all aware that the audience landscape is fragmented now, but the response from brands is so often to blast a broadcast message across those fragmented channels rather than crafting messaging that speaks to those audiences where they are. I also think that businesses build trust by consistently meeting customer/audience/user expectations. Those expectations may differ by generation, but again, you won’t know what they are unless you’re listening.

Q: Do you believe brands and corporations have a social responsibility and should be speaking out about bigger global issues outside of business?

I think that businesses have an enormous capacity to do good in the world, but I would say there’s a social responsibility where the issue intersects in some way with the product or service they offer. It’s also very easy for businesses to speak out about an issue but much more difficult to demonstrate a commensurate level of commitment to that issue over time, which is critical if you want anyone to believe you. Talk is cheap, but action can be expensive, you know?

Q: In an era of distrust how can brands and corporations authentically communicate with their customers?

I really feel that brands and businesses cannot ‘perform’ authenticity and the key to communicating in a genuine way is to actually be genuine. Build collaborative relationships with people and organisations looking to achieve similar goals. Know what you don’t know and be confident in what you do. The reality for brands online is that we’re working within this milieu of cynicism and the only way to communicate your way out of that is to be consistent, transparent, and human.

Q:  What do you find is the biggest roadblock for corporations when it comes to making an authentic shift in the way they talk to their customers and audiences?

Trust and alignment from the top down.

 Q: What are some trends or changes you are expecting to see this year?

I mean, who knows, it feels like the ground is constantly shifting under us. The drastic downsizing of NZ’s media industry is obviously heartbreaking and its impact will be felt by all different groups – from the journalists themselves to the advertisers and ultimately audiences. I do hope we’ll see more brands working with media in good faith to produce quality content that’s grounded in sound journalism. What else? The role of AI and generative AI will continue to evolve as businesses lean in and try to balance efficiency with audience and customer expectations.  Social channels will keep throwing more features at us trying to draw more time and attention out of users … and we’ll all be chasing our tails trying to keep up.

Q: What career moment have you learned the most from? If you can narrow that down to one?

I don’t know that I can narrow it down to just one, but I’ll speak to a humbling moment on a campaign for Spark that has stayed with me. We’d produced a content series for TikTok interviewing a range of people about their experiences online – podcasting, running a business, activism, art, and all kinds of things. The participants were interesting and articulate, the length and format were right for the channel, and I was pretty happy with the end product. And then we put it live and the overwhelming response was … why is Spark talking about this? What’s the point of this? And I realised we’d made a leap too far and we hadn’t taken our audience with us. We’d assumed the right to be a part of a conversation simply by virtue of our business facilitating that connection to the online world, but we hadn’t built that understanding or expectation with our audience and so the content fell flat. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do something unexpected or put something out there that’s a bit left-field, but I feel like in that instance we hadn’t listened to or been guided by our audience. I tell you what, I’ve been hit with many, many unpleasant comments over my career, and it sounds so innocuous, but ‘what’s the point of this?’ stung more than most!

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