At French battery maker Saft, the key to engaging audiences is to tell the real-world impact of the company’s amazing products, writes Emma Firth
Elma Peters is crystal clear in her views on the human condition: “My theory is that it’s not money or sex that make the world go round, it’s stories. If you think about how we, as a species, interact and have interacted since the dawn of time, it’s always through stories, whether it’s reading, going to the movies, or the way we do business deals,” she says. “And we have a hunger to tell each other stories, and hear other people’s stories.”
Peters is going into her second year as global head of communications at Saft, the French battery maker that powers everything from vital medical equipment to the satellites orbiting the Earth. She inherited a fairly old-fashioned and rather unexciting communications output focusing on technical specifics; now she is pushing forward with a strategy that drives audience engagement by humanising and telling the stories of the impact and benefits of Saft’s products and people.
She turned to FirstWord for expert journalism assistance, not just to unlock all these exciting stories but to tell them to their full potential. “One of the things I really like about FirstWord is that they say content marketing is not marketing, it’s journalism, and I like that rigour they apply,” she says. “They also challenged me to think about what I really wanted, so that rather than building up to the creation of a core narrative, we are reverse engineering it one story at a time.”
“It’s especially important that your content is top-notch quality. Your content agency has to be a partner and they have to be interested in getting to know the world of batteries. It also means that you can tweak the arrangement a little bit and change it as needed, because they’re a trusted advisor.”
Out with the old
The core of Peters’ new communications direction is attracting audience attention with beautifully-told stories about how batteries have the capacity to change the world. She says: “One of the first things I realised was that batteries sound like a one-product business that’s not very exciting, but the applications that the batteries power are in many cases a really powerful thing that makes the magic happen.”
Storytelling also helps tease out details behind that magic. “We have brilliant people – 1.5 per cent of our people have PhDs, and we have a lot of brilliant electrochemists, scientists and engineers – but without being flippant, they’re not all natural storytellers, and they find it difficult to simplify their knowledge for a general audience.
“The FirstWord work is really focused on how the batteries make people’s lives a little bit better, how they make the world a better place every day.”
Saft combines innovation with an impressive battery pedigree – seaplanes delivering airmail from France to South America in the 1930s relied on Saft batteries for engine starting and other critical functions, while today, email is delivered using satellite communications powered by Saft batteries. “It’s lots of things like that, that are really cool,” Peters says.
Lessons from crisis
Peters’ passion for content as a way of telling company stories stems from her days with GE during the 2008 financial crisis. GE was occasionally “tarred with the same brush” as the recently fallen Lehman Brothers because of its exposure to the financial services industry. A decision from her head of comms to “tell our story, our way” helped the company safely navigate a rocky six months.
At Saft, to kick things off, two of the FirstWord team went to Paris for two days, and were introduced to senior people from the company’s four divisions to gather knowledge and potential stories.
The result was about 25 story ideas around three themes of “Inside Saft”, “Battery Life”, and “Innovation”. Saft chose its ten favourites for an initial tranche (“but we’ll probably do them all”, Peters says), of which five have been published, including the company’s focus on safety, Saft batteries being part of the Miracle on the Hudson, and a look at three battery technologies that could power our future. A sixth is ready to roll.
Peters says: “The one on the three battery technologies was difficult, because you’re working with very expert people who are a bit like Einstein, and then you’re trying to explain it in layman’s language, so it’s a bit of a negotiation and a trade-off and a compromise.
“But I think as a comms person, that’s something I can bring to a company like this where you have a lot of scientists and engineers and technical experts, I can help them to look at things through a layman’s eyes.”
She adds: “We’re also doing more on social media now, and having more content helps that as well because we can take an article that FirstWord writes and slice and dice it ten ways. A new Saft website, which will lead with storytelling, is due to launch this summer.”
FirstWord is also providing much of the content for the next edition of the six-monthly customer magazine, its 36th, due out in June to coincide with the Paris Air Show, and which for the first time will be a special edition on aerospace.
Saft is still working with a technical writing agency for some of the content. Peters said: “We’re trying to make it less technical, but some people like the technical stuff, a lot of engineers read the magazine. They want to hear that we’re working on the next generation technology for space, what we’re going to do to help satellites with more accurate weather prediction, for example.”
In the same vein, while Peters thinks public relations is “on its last legs”, with press releases of breaking news “outmoded”, she says this is part of a “transition” at Saft, because people aren’t ready to let go of press releases entirely yet, in part because of their success in the trade press. For now, content and PR reside together in parts of the Saft comms strategy.
And in the future? Peters has an open mind. “In terms of what the dream is, I do try to stay on top of trends in communications, because I think that trends in society drive trends in communication. A faster evolving world drives the need to communicate differently.”