Winners 2023

Best in-house team: corporate communications

Re-inventing Group Communications
Oxford University Press

Why did the communications team at Oxford University Press, a charity dating back almost 550 years, put themselves for an award? In their own words: ‘We’ve delivered brilliant campaigns, supported business objectives and boosted audience engagement.’

These are all fantastic achievements, but it seems that what the team is most proud of is the way that they collaborate, support each other and embrace every challenge and opportunity they face.

Oxford University Press is the world’s largest university press, encompassing three divisions: academic, English language teaching, and educational.

These are supported by central functions, including communications, which has a remit to position OUP as approachable and forward-thinking to its 5,500 employees and multiple stakeholder audiences, including teachers, institutions, researchers and parents.

Since the pandemic, however, the communications function has been on a transformative journey. Historically, it focused on internal communications but from 2021, the function has expanded into other areas, refreshing the brand, signalling OUP’s digital intent and kickstarting its PR and thought-leadership programmes.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Post lockdown, the team suffered several resignations, including at the senior level, and it soon became clear that the existing structure was not suitable to scale up operations.

By the team’s own admission, it was ‘depleted and deflated, but never defeated’, as it set about reimagining what Group Communications should look like to create a more strategic, effective and valuable function.

The first step was to refresh strategy, leading to three clear, long-lasting objectives – in line with business objectives – which reflected the team’s breadth. A matrix structure was then established, to maximise resources, provide clearer progression routes and improve alignment.

Four team principles, articulating how it would approach work, were created alongside the new structure.

The principles are:

  • Supportive: communications executives, who provide flexible resource, now have both a line manager and a dedicated ‘mentor manager’ for day-to-day support and pastoral care.
  • Connected: divisional communications leads sit on divisional board and the communications leadership team, keeping it connected to key decisions. Two centres of excellence – corporate affairs and brand and digital – support divisional priorities while delivering group-wide objectives.
  • Empowered: senior specialists in brand, design, PR and internal communications deliver group-wide campaigns and consultancy. While communications managers predominantly serve one division, they also cover all aspects of communications and work on projects serving different areas to support their personal development.
  • Focused: design apprentice and social media manager roles were created. The social media manager has subsequently increased engagement on all relevant platforms, including a 42 per cent rise on LinkedIn and a 1,100 per cent uptick on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Once the structure and principles were endorsed by the executive committee at OUP, the team reviewed the way it worked, leading to simplified campaign planning processes, a new channel strategy approach to ensure each delivers against the brand promise, and development objectives for each member. There are also regular training sessions and workshops to build high performance teams and maintain wellbeing.

And these efforts are paying off. The latest employee engagement scores for the communications team reveal an 18-point increase in overall engagement to 85 over the past 12 months, a 51-point uptick in leadership to 94 and a 41-point increase to 96 for management. Empowerment, well-being, simplification and satisfaction also registered strong increases and high scores.

By having the right structure and processes in place, the team has been well positioned to deliver results even though it is based all over the world and works in a hybrid format.

For example, in 2022 the public was invited to select OUP’s Word of the Year for the first time. From a list of three terms, more than 340,000 votes were cast for the winner Goblin Mode, meaning a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations’. The campaign significantly outperformed Word of the Year initiatives by OUP’s two closest competitors.

The judges loved how the ‘team has been re-shaped to add value to the business’, adding: This is a ‘grown up’, strategic function with an emphasis on team development and values. Some great metrics from the employee survey and campaigns work. This team should be proud of everything they have achieved through a challenging period.’