9 questions with Richard Etienne

We caught up with Richard Etienne, Deputy Head of Internal Communications at the Department for International Trade (DIT). Richard manages the leadership communications strand of the team’s strategy.

The DIT Internal Communications team provides strategic internal communications advice to all parts of the department. The team works closely with key DIT business areas so we can help our 5,000+ employees across multiple international regions understand DIT’s communication priorities.

DIT insights

What was your first ever job?

I was a petrol station supervisor at Sainsbury’s supermarket. I really enjoyed it as I was able to play my own CDs in the shop and met celebrities due to the location that I worked in. One famous UK comedian once left his car keys with me because his credit card declined!

How did you get into internal communications?

My entire career up until 2019 had been focused on external communications, with a strong focus on transformation – whether that be an organisation’s brand or processes. Having flourished in my Downing Street role as Theresa May’s head of video communications, I sought to diversify my comms skillset and now work at the Department for International Trade where my focus is on leadership communications.

What about your job most excites you?

Being part of a Department where I have the ability to creatively bridge the gap between senior leadership and the 5,000+ global staff network gets my heart racing.

Having the scope to make significant corporate contributions is another attractive aspect of my role. In November 2019 I was elected black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) Network co-chair and, along with our committee and allies, led the necessary and difficult discussions around race and inequality throughout a turbulent 2020. This work was recognised with a DIT GREAT Team Award by our Permanent Secretary Antonia Romeo in October 2020.

What do you think makes a good internal communicator?

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that communicating from a place of authenticity and empathy is essential in delivering good internal communications.

Much of my role includes leading through others and so having clear strategic direction and continual dialogue is also key in enabling staff to reach their full potential and feel consulted.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

Wow, that’s tough. The filmmaker in me is bias and wants to say the best screenplays I’ve read, however I’ll keep on message and say Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates as it reads like a letter to my son that I never got to write.

What’s the biggest challenge for internal communications and how do you see it getting solved?

Losing the ‘why’ behind the message people want to communicate can sometimes get lost in the noise of sticking to what is considered the correct lines or way of doing things. The 3 questions all comms should essentially address is what, so what and now what.

If you could ban 1 piece of jargon what would it be and why?

I always thought ‘holding the pen’ a longwinded way of saying ‘responsible’. Three years into the Civil Service and I’m still hearing jargon that seems alien to me. Leading, managing… there are so many other one-word alternatives. Okay, I’ll drop it

What have you learned from any mistakes in your career?

That it’s okay to keep making mistakes and learning from them. Growth happens when mistakes are made and the psychological safety that the culture of an organisation provides will ensure their people are not afraid to try new ideas. If you knew how many times I made mistakes at No. 10 and yet this enabled me to create the first 360 video of any global leader to publish on social media and win plaudits for my work. You can watch it on YouTube.

Who is the person you most want to meet and why?

Barack Obama. I’d like to gain public speaking and leadership tips from him. Plus I’ve convinced myself that he’s the one public figure I’d be starstruck by.