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June 27, 2018

Someone to Know: Q&A with Unum Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Jim Sabourin

You might know him as the past Chairman of the PRSA Corporate Communications Section… Next up in our series is Jim Sabourin, senior vice president and Chief Communications Officer at Unum. He’s a kind and open leader who’s known for being masterful at relationship and reputation management. He’s dealt with countless reputation issues throughout his career and shares a refreshing take on his role as the SVP of Communications, including some fantastic advice for leaders who want to be better. I hope you enjoy our Q&A.


Q&A with Jim Sabourin,
Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer
at Unum


Q: How do you view your role as SVP and Chief Communications Officer?

A: On paper, I’m accountable for all internal and external communications for a Fortune 500 employee benefits company, but in reality my role is focused on all things reputation. That’s not a very specific description, but I’ve always believed the job of a communicator is broader and far less defined than most others. We are held accountable for far more things than we are directly responsible for on an org chart. It may not be fair, but it comes with the territory.

Q: What opportunities and challenges does Unum face when it comes to communications?

A: Externally, it’s that we’re not a household name by any means, which can be both a curse and a blessing. On top of that, people sometimes only interact with us under very unfortunate circumstances, such as disability or death of a loved one. So we’ll never be that rock-star brand, in spite of the societal value we provide.

Internally, our challenges are probably no different than what other Fortune 500 companies face. It may sound strange coming from a 170-year-old insurance company, but we’re going through lots of change these days so change fatigue is an issue. There’s no shortage of organizational changes and process improvements, and that’s on top of all the other communications employees are bombarded with. And it’s all “top priority,” so employees have to somehow come up with their own way of choosing what’s really important to them.

Q: What trends do you see in internal communications that excite you … and are there any that worry you?

A: Your more seasoned readers will remember the days when internal communications was simply “reporting the news” and re-printing press releases verbatim in internal news outlets. That changed when employee engagement began to matter to CEOs. Now, the biggest trend is the transition to storytelling. There’s so much competition for employees’ hearts and minds that you have to give them a reason to care. And they care more if it’s a story they relate to.

Another trend in communications is meeting people where they are. Not too long ago, a friend in our profession told me about a conversation he had with his millennial son who was relaying how he gets his news. The son said something to the effect of, “If news is important enough, it will find me.” It doesn’t mean we have to publish stories in 50 different vehicles to reach all of our audiences, but it does mean we have to be more creative in how news finds people.

Q: What tried and true strategies do you count on to help leaders understand the value of communications?

A: We start with the premise that not all leaders get it in quite the same way, and that’s ok. You have to choose which ones are the most important to you and make sure your energies are focused there. Then talk to them in terms they understand. If you’re dealing with the head of HR, talk about employee engagement. If you’re sitting with the CFO, talk about how employee engagement leads to productivity. And if you’re advising the CEO, talk in terms of employee engagement, then connect it to productivity, then to reputational impact.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of advice for leaders who want to be even better?

A: In our profession, we spend way too much time worrying about “getting a seat at the table” and comparing ourselves to other functions that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Sometimes we need to just get out of our own way and focus on thinking the way our CEO thinks.

I also believe we, collectively as a profession, tend to be nice people. And nice people don’t always give candid feedback. Yet the people around you – whether it’s your CEO or the people who work for you – want candid feedback. So our job as leaders is to give it, but do it in a way that doesn’t get you fired in the process! That’s part of knowing your stakeholders.

Last, my very first manager out of college used to say, “The absence of a red light is a green light.” If you have a good idea and haven’t been told no already (and it’s not against your company’s code of conduct), give it a shot.

Q: What's something your team has done that you're most proud of?

A: I’m blessed with an outstanding team. I’m proud of them for a lot of things, but mostly for the role they play in helping shape our company culture. They never lose sight of the good we do for millions of people during some very difficult times, and it comes across in the work they do.


About Jim

Jim-SabourinJim Sabourin is senior vice president and chief communications officer for Unum, a Fortune 500 insurance and employee benefits provider based in Chattanooga, TN. He oversees the company’s communications and reputation management efforts, including public relations, issues management, executive communications, media relations, employee communications, social media and event marketing. Jim is accredited APR through PRSA and is a graduate of Florida State University.

To read more executive Q&As in our Someone to Know Series, click here.

Click below to download the eBook—Going Slow to Go Fast: Making Internal Communication Work for Youa go-to resource for communicators who want to build an internal communication plan that speaks directly to the number-one question on business leaders’ minds: How will this improve our bottom line?

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