What does authentic communication feel like in practice?

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What does it take to bring an authentic voice to one of the UK economy’s most important sectors and how does it affect one of the leading voices in the national debate?

Portrait image of Kate Nicholls CEP of UKHospitality

Kate Nicholls OBE, CEO, UKHospitality

Kate Nicholls OBE, CEO of UKHospitality talks about her experience as one of the most vocal communicators for the hospitality sector at the height of the pandemic. In conversation with Liam McCloy, Partner & EMEA Lead for Food, Agribusiness and Beverage at FleishmanHillard, Kate reflects on how she balances the competing claims on her time and resources from various stakeholders, including government ministers, national journalists and business leaders while moving at pace. She shares how her communication style has evolved, lessons she has learned and new skills she puts into practice.

portrait image of Liam Mcloy

Liam McCloy, UK Partner & EMEA Lead for Food Agribusiness and Beverage, FleishmanHillard

Authentic communication

Liam: Thinking about all the competing demands on you to push this agenda or that, how do you reconcile these and remain true to yourself?

Kate: The core reason for being a hospitality trade association is to represent the voice of the owner/operator and employer within that sector. So, whatever I am looking at has to pass the ‘So what?’ test: How is it relevant, in what ways are they affected, how do they benefit? I stress test my perspective and position with all these operators, which are many and diverse in our sector, agree on a shared concern and decide on our focus so I can then represent them and their interests with an authoritative, ‘single voice’ on key issues to external stakeholders.

I then have to navigate the demands and interests of multiple external audiences including investors, politicians, regulators, journalists, other industry voices and the public. What helps is two things: Firstly, being able to see the wood for the trees and secondly, having a clear sense of purpose. For the hospitality sector that is ensuring that we are viewed by all audiences as somewhere they want to work, spend time and invest in — I can then defend and promote the sectors reputation and licence to operate accordingly.

Liam: How do you connect with your audiences and build trust and rapport with them?

Kate: The pandemic necessitated us being in daily contact with the grassroots in the industry, media and government. That was particularly true during the lockdown period and helped us forge strong trusted relationships. This meant we were able to problem solve and work things through in a ‘safe space’ with nothing leaking to the press.

Now, as we move beyond the pandemic, we are seeking to maintain the quality of those relationships. What makes this possible is authentic communication — where all sides feel able to be vulnerable and to share as much as they can share and be open, honest and frank. If you can nurture and maintain this, then people will want to continue to be in that relationship.

 “You remain authentic as a communicator by not thinking about that as an objective. If you try and do it by conscious design, it does not work.” Kate Nicholls OBE, CEO of UKHospitality

Liam: How do you remain authentic as a communicator?

Kate: By not thinking about that as an objective. If you try and do it by conscious design, it does not work. I was true to myself because what mattered most to me was helping those in my sector. I’ve spent my professional life in hospitality and, like the members I represent, I am always there for others whether that’s listening to an operator vent their frustration or providing background to a journalist or sense checking something with a politician — these exchanges were often not transactional in nature and I sought to offer that support on an unconditional basis. Also, early on in the pandemic we made a conscious decision that we would do our utmost to leave no one in our sector behind and bring the industry through this together — so lots of the things we did were free for non-members too.

Liam: What impact did the pandemic have on your style of communicating?

Kate: The pandemic meant I no longer had the luxury of time. I had to be ‘always on’ and be able to think on my feet. I think this applied on an operational basis to businesses in our sector too. Those that handled the pandemic well were agile, able to pivot and brought those who worked for them and with them on that journey through constant communication. I think those are the leadership qualities that people will want to keep going forwards.

In terms of my personal style, the pandemic meant that I had to: (a) trust my instincts and my judgement; (b) use my ability to translate complex issues into simple stories and (c) draw on my command over the detail. I didn’t change my style, but the pandemic simply meant I could not over-think or over-prepare things. I started to worry less about the ‘what if’s’ and kept looking forwards. I also had to be more open about what I felt about things. It is impossible to maintain a façade when you are always on the go, and at the beginning of the crisis it was very emotional — it mattered the world to me that 3.2 million people were relying on me and my voice to save their livelihoods. This might sound overwhelming, but I personally found it liberating.

“Authentic communication is where all sides feel able to be vulnerable, share as much as they can share and be open, honest and frank.” Kate Nicholls OBE, CEO of UKHospitality

Liam: You have been recognised as a leading communicator in our industry and awarded the OBE for services to hospitality, what impact has that had on you?

Kate: All of the awards and honours are recognition for the wider team that supports me and helps me stand up in front of journalists and politicians. The team and extended colleagues, friends and families have all worked terrifically hard throughout this period and it has been really tough. That is never taken for granted. The OBE was felt, rightly, by many in our industry as external validation for our industry which I represent and the value it brings and the need for us all to look after it.

The professional recognition also matters enormously to me on a personal level because, as communications practitioners, you all know what it takes to do the things we do day in, day out and to do them well!

Kate Nicholls OBE is the CEO of UKHospitality which was formed four years ago to represent the diverse range of hospitality businesses across the United Kingdom. The association now represents over 740 companies operating around 100,000 venues across England, Scotland and Wales.

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