Member Spotlight

For this member spotlight, we interviewed Keith Lewis, Communications Director for BAE Systems Electronic Systems.

You have extensive corporate communications experience. How did you decide that the communications field was for you and how did you get your start?

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved to write and growing up I knew that my career wouldn’t be fulfilling without writing. Combining my passion for writing and film, I initially hoped to be a scriptwriter. However, through my Journalism studies at Salem State College (now University), I fell for the craft and realized a path in media held more career potential. It was at the dawn of the internet and a major shift in news consumption was on its way.

I freelanced for local newspapers after graduation and then was hired by a small publishing agency to produce a monthly magazine for heating oil dealers. I enjoyed the freedom I had to craft stories and messaging – spending six years in the agency honing my skills. It takes plenty of creativity to get people interested in underground fuel storage tanks!

Around 2004, print magazines began to struggle as the internet’s influence grew. It was time to shift my career and an opportunity with BAE Systems, a global defense company whose local sector is based in New Hampshire, arose. I interviewed for a media relations position and was hired. Fourteen years later, I’ve been exposed to every area of business communications. Although my career in corporate communications grew out of necessity, once I’d entered the field, I knew I found a home.

You studied communications in college. How has that training helped you in the professional world?

One thing I’ve discovered in my career is that change is constant; to handle that change we must constantly be learning. Salem State has a wonderful communications program. The university taught me about different writing styles and the skillsets demanded by each discipline. Our professors prepared me to write succinct news articles, clear instruction manuals, entertaining features, persuasive ad copy and engaging web blurbs. Their program explored both historical and cutting-edge Journalism techniques. Those years of initial training gave me a solid foundation that has made my writing adaptable. I have the ability to quickly craft a message from our company’s leadership or pump out a video script on one of our top technologies.

In 2000, I pursued graduate studies at Emerson College and its publishing courses were invaluable, helping me develop a more strategic view of communications. Emerson’s Writing, Literature and Publishing concentration expanded my view on how to build an audience of followers who will be interested and influenced by your messages.

My training continues today through my IABC membership, industry training, and internal training from BAE Systems – like its Emerging Leaders Program, which I graduated from last year.

Much of the later parts of your career have been in the defense and space industry. Why is communications so important for that industry?

Communications is critical to the defense industry for two major reasons: brand awareness and employee engagement.

From a brand perspective, we have several key stakeholders: the local communities in which we work, local politicians, our customers (department of defense and others), and our employees and their families. To be frank, there are stereotypes about defense contractors and our goal in shaping BAE Systems’ brand is to help them understand how we support our military and commercial customers through innovative technology, and to get a sense of the amazing employees we have and how committed they are to our missions – We Protect Those Who Protect Us ® and We Innovate for Those Who Move the World™.

Employees unfamiliar with our industry can find their integration into the defense market to be complicated. For them to understand what role BAE Systems plays in the market, Communications needs to deliver clear, strategic messaging and ensure our leadership translates how our employees bring that strategy to life. In collaboration with our leadership team, BAE Systems Communications does an excellent job of helping our employees understand the company’s priorities and feel invested in the business’ success.

In a technical field like defense and space, how do you master the lingo so you can communicate it to everyone?

BAE Systems employs some of the brightest people in the defense and technology industries. Our engineers create amazing things every day (I wish I had their brain power!). The concepts they deal in can be difficult to understand and it’s our job to help them translate their “engineering speak” to something more relatable for interpretation by a wider audience. It’s not easy. I’ve spent time at several BAE Systems sites working in different technology realms. Each time I started at those sites, I had to learn new technical lingo.

I’ve found the best way to learn about a new industry is to get out of my office and into the engineering labs and manufacturing floors to speak with as many subject matter experts as possible. Our employees are incredibly passionate about what they do and I’ve found someone is always willing to talk to you and help put those complex topics into a different context. Building relationships with subject matter experts is invaluable and those folks often become my next lead. I know if I come across something I don’t understand I can call them up for help even years later.

The corporate communications field is constantly changing. How do you stay on top of the changes and how do you decide which new idea is the right one to incorporate in your strategy?

Being a member of organizations like IABC helps me stay on top of the constant changes in our field. Additionally, I attend industry conferences, talk with colleagues, and tap into online resources (like Communications World Magazine) to follow the latest trends.

Using my publishing experience and taking advantage of an online platform, our team created an online magazine (Pulse) that not only served as a great method to deliver engaging stories on our people and technology, but it also ended up winning an industry award (Ragan Communications‘ Best Electronic Employee Publication).

It’s good to know modern trends, but it’s more important to know your audience and whether or not those new techniques will work. I’ve worked at several BAE Systems sites, and as a result, I have a strong sense of what’s important to our employees and our culture. Armed with that knowledge we explore a trend, a new online platform perhaps, and determine if we could adapt it for our audience. Creating a Snapchat page might work for some companies, but we are still swimming in the sea of Facebook. Every company is different.

How important is it to ensure both internal and external communications are aligned at a company? How do you ensure alignment?

To build trust with both employees and the communities that you serve, message alignment is essential. There is such public distrust of government, large corporations and the media; Part of that distrust is attributed to the fact that people don’t receive consistent stories. When messages are not synched, you open yourself to doubt and misinterpretation. As a corporate communicator, I also find it extremely important that our employees hear the story first, you don’t want them reading about the company in the local newspaper or on the web, before they are in the know. When working on communications campaigns, we ensure that our employees are the first to know about a particular issue and we work with our external media relations team to ensure we are aligned. This strategy has built trust and loyalty among our employee population.

What have you learned over the years that you wish you had known in starting out as a communications professional?

You can’t forget the “soft skills.” When I entered corporate communications, I thought that being the best writer/editor and hardest worker would set me apart from others and it’s what I focused on. Thanks to experience and excellent mentorship, I learned that there are other aspects to being a professional that are just as important – especially if you want to become a leader in your organization. You have to work well in a team, be able to positively influence others, and know your stuff. If you can do all three, the recognition will come. When it does, don’t be afraid to let others know about your work – have that elevator pitch ready when an executive walks in the door. Sponsorship and networking can propel your career forward.

Why did you join IABC?

Being in Southern New Hampshire, you can occasionally feel isolated from the Boston communications community. I joined IABC to become more familiar with and learn from other communications professionals in the area, continue to hone my skills, and to learn some of the new strategies and best practices in our field. Becoming a member has been a positive experience.