Being the voice of a global organisation that impacts billions of lives daily is an immense responsibility, because communicating with integrity and transparency is as important as communicating information that is timely and accurate.
Mehak Chawla, our next pathbreaker, Communications Manager at Google Cloud, manages critical incidents communication by collaborating across the organisation and building narratives for various audiences that depend on technology to keep their systems up and running.
Mehak talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her journey from tech journalism to corporate communications, helping businesses shape and manage perceptions through cohesive and structured stories.
For students, as technology makes inroads into almost every aspect of our lives, the role of corporate communication in technology takes on a new meaning. Read on…
Mehak, tell us about our background?
Let me begin by telling you a story. Back in 1947-1948, a young girl, about 15 years old, undertook a rather extraordinary journey from Lahore, Pakistan, to the outskirts of Delhi. This young girl travelled with her parents, with no luggage other than some essential items and valuables, and she couldn’t really fathom why they were leaving a comfortable, well-settled life, to embark on a train overflowing with people and dangers, to go to an unknown place. What followed was an arduous and dangerous journey, filled with years of turmoil, and the struggle to start afresh, to build a new home and life, once again.
The years I’ve mentioned above are the years etched in our collective psyche as the partition years, and the young girl in the story is my grandmother. My grandparents on both sides migrated from Pakistan during the partition years, and some of my most vivid childhood memories are of listening to the stories of their lives, the journey they could never forget and their quest to keep alive their history.
Maybe that’s how my love for writing and telling stories was born. Back in school, I used to love being a part of essay writing and other creative competitions. I used to contribute to my school’s magazine and was an active member of the debate club. So it came as little surprise to my parents when I told them that I wanted to study literature and pursue my graduation in English (Hons.).
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my B.A (Hons.) in English from Ramjas College, Delhi University, and then went on to do my PG Diploma in Mass Communication and Print Journalism from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. Even though these are my “formal” degrees, they are not the anchors of my career. I’m a firm believer of lifelong learning, and I do several learning programs or projects for hands-on learning every year. This includes several creative writing courses, a distance-learning MA in English, digital marketing certifications, and several other short-term programs.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I’ve always had a love for words. During my childhood, my mom would often find me with a torch and a book under my blanket, long after my bedtime.
I’ve always been curious about the process of ‘creating’ something, and it was one of the reasons I started writing a journal regularly. One of my earliest reading memories is being glued to Enid Blyton’s books that transported me to another world as a kid, and perhaps one of the biggest influences in my life has been my elder sister, who introduced me to reading books and writing a diary.
When I did sign up to pursue a bachelors degree in English Literature, I had no idea I would end up being a journalist. I wanted, mostly, to make a career that gave me an opportunity to learn, create and write. My journalism journey started, without me realizing it back then, in college itself, when I began contributing to a Delhi University ‘newspaper’. DU Beat was something like a cultural newsletter, and my friends and I started writing articles for them. It was something that I enjoyed, and that introduced me to the idea of journalism as a career.
When it came to my post-graduation, I was pretty confused between doing a specialization in PR/Communications vs Print Journalism. Even though I cleared entrance examinations for both, my love for writing and long-form articles made me gravitate towards, and ultimately choose a diploma in Print Journalism. Little did I know then, that I will indeed end up doing a lot of PR in my career.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.
I think a solid career is a mix of the choices you make, as well as the chances and risks you take in your professional journey. After completing my PG Diploma in Mass Communication, I was campus-recruited by a publishing firm called Cyber Media, to write for their marquee magazine: Dataquest. It wasn’t exactly my dream job then, but in retrospect, it changed my life, by introducing me to people I still call my mentors and friends after all these years.
I was always interested in tech, but at DQ, I learnt the nuances of enterprise tech and business journalism. I reported on large IT companies and wrote articles about topics like IT’s environmental impact and its transformational power. More than anything, I made some great connections and friends at Cyber Media. Meanwhile, I was also contributing articles and write-ups in my personal capacity to various publications, and that ensured that I was learning about other things than my core job allowed for.
From DQ, I moved on to join Financial Express as a tech journalist, where I again did some extensive reporting on tech, especially in governance (I interviewed our current PM Narendra Modi, when he was Gujarat’s CM about his digital vision for the state, amongst others!) and eventually moved to The Economic Times Online to manage their online technology section. It was in this stint that I built a lot of visibility with my journalist peers, communication professionals, as well as with the leaders of the tech industry. I did lots of high profile interviews, including CEO’s/COO’s of Salesforce, Adobe, Oracle and AWS, amongst others, and developed a great understanding of how online journalism (keywords, SEO, audience acquisition!) works. Although I never thought that I would end up in corporate communications, my years in journalism laid a great foundation for when that eventually happened.
My big corporate break came with Infosys. I had been toying with the idea of moving to corporate and doing something different for some time, and Infosys gave me a great balance between a good role and a good brand. I was also looking to move to another city due to personal reasons, and this gave me the perfect opportunity. In February 2016, I joined Infosys as a branding and thought leadership manager in their marketing team in Bangalore.
My 4.5 years at Infosys were a time of great learning for me. I moved across three roles, learnt a lot about corporate marketing and branding, and got to see and learn the ‘other side’ of building narratives for a brand, rather than for my readers. Corporate storytelling is a nuanced field, and I got lots of opportunities at Infosys to build and grow in the world of branding and corporate communications. Infosys not only gave me great exposure, but also some amazing mentors. I worked very closely with both the management as well as the marketing leadership at Infosys, and learnt a lot, by actually doing, experimenting and failing at stuff. I did things that I’d never done before, like a rebranding exercise, huge digital campaigns touching millions of people, and steering the brand through some big corporate crises. And while I really evolved professionally: I must say here that it wasn’t easy. It often involved long hours, stepping out my comfort zone, making some uncomfortable decisions and sometimes, even failure. But that’s what learning is about, isn’t it?
My biggest career milestone has been the India Comms Leadership role at Infosys. I had joined Infosys as an assistant manager in Marketing, and left Infosys as the India head of PR and comms. I took some big risks, learnt a great deal, and am very grateful for the mentorship and friendship that I found at Infosys.
I believe that careers are made when leaders take a chance on people. So I’d say more than choosing a career or an organization, choose your mentors carefully. They will eventually lead you to a career you are proud of.
In 2020, as the world dealt with a pandemic, I left Infosys to join Google Cloud as a critical communications manager. The journey from a company that made many of my dreams come true, to a company that I’ve always dreamt of working with, has been nothing short of amazing!
How did you get your first break?
After completing my PG Diploma in Mass Communication, I was campus-recruited by a publishing firm called Cyber Media, to write for their marquee magazine: Dataquest.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
There’s hardly any journey without its fair share of challenges. The biggest professional challenges that I’ve faced can broadly be classified into three categories:
- To strike a balance between passion and practicality: While having and nurturing passions is great, eventually you have to learn how to build skills that add value to your team, organization or business. No great career is built in silos.
- To carve a niche but also remain a generalist: To be an expert at something is critical, but in order to be a leader, you must be what they say “a jack of all trades”. It is really important to learn and develop ancillary, but relevant skills in your field.
- To find and develop meaningful mentorships: I think this is the toughest one. Mentors play a huge role in defining your career trajectory and we must choose our mentors carefully. We must also choose consciously what we want to learn from our mentors. Not all mentors are made equal. And when we’ve all reached a certain stage in our careers, we must also actively mentor, share our skills and experience, and give-back what we’ve so generously availed.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do
In September 2020, I joined Google Cloud to manage their critical communications. This involves building narratives around critical incidents and building a complete communication framework for different audiences.
Our customers, partners and internal and external stakeholders depend on my team and I for accurate and timely communication, and this requires working with speed, collaborating across the organization, and communicating our story effectively to our various audiences.
Although the core of my job remains the same: building narratives and communicating a cohesive, structured story to the audiences, this role differs vastly in scope from my previous one. At Google, I’m extremely aware of the fact that billions of people depend on our services, and that they expect Google to communicate with integrity and transparency about things and incidents that impact them and their customers. In today’s tech-driven world, where businesses and countries depend on technology to keep their systems up and running, accurate and timely information is not only important, it is essential.
Any communications role takes extreme awareness of the fact that you are responsible for what people think about your organization, and that is a big responsibility.
What I love about my job is that it gives me great opportunities to do what I love, while giving me exposure to learn things that I can fall in love with.
How does your work benefit society?
I believe storytelling and saying the right thing at the right time makes this world a better place. So communications, whether during crises or calm, is central to how people perceive and react to every event. Facts are great and sacrosanct, but it’s the narrative around the facts that makes the difference between average and great people, teams, companies, and even countries. And if there’s anything that 2020 has taught us, it’s that communication can either plunge us into darkness and or make us see hope!
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I think in my entire career, the program I’m proudest of is something called the Aarohan Social Innovation Awards for Infosys Foundation. The program was aimed at recognizing and rewarding grassroots social innovators in India, and it involved a massive outreach campaign across India. I experimented with mediums like radio and BTL communication campaigns: something that B2B professionals don’t often get to do. But the most memorable thing was that the program actually changed and touched the lives of people who really needed mentorship and help.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My one advice to students somewhat contrary to what everyone says. Everyone tells you to follow your passions. I say instead of following your passion, find what you are really good at and nurture that skill all your life. Because not all passions can be monetized, but great skill sets and an ability to always keep on learning would always hold value.
Also, don’t compromise your life for your career. Great careers can be made by putting your job above your family, health and personal life, but successful, happy careers are made when there’s a balance between all aspects of life.
My future plan is to keep getting better at what I do, while learning new skills and newer ways to do things. Technology is changing every single field, and the biggest investment anyone can make for their career is to keep reinventing yourself with the times.
On another front, I intend to take out more time to travel, be with family, and to write and tell stories beyond my job, and someday, write a novel.