5 ways the Chicago Fed shook up internal comms

Realizing that stuffy, top-down communication no longer works, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago conducted a makeover that created a more lively culture. Here are some takeaways.

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One day Karan Chandler at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago opened an email from an accountant upset about the new internal newsletter, The Skinny.

“Please do not refer to our Bank’s accountants as ‘bean counters,'” the Bean Counter wrote. “I find this term very offensive, as well as unprofessional.”

Some communicators might apologize and promise to avoid such language. But Chandler, assistant vice president of internal communication, was pleased by the feedback. The lively tone to the Chicago Fed’s new messaging was stirring up employee reaction.

Employees were reading the newsletter for a change. People were showing up for town hall meetings. Staffers were blogging.

Chandler spoke at Ragan’s 2013 Best Practices in Internal Communications Summit. Her session, “Extreme Makeover: How the Fed Changed its (pin) stripes,” was recently added to Ragan Training.

“It’s all about creative destruction,” Chandler said. “We knew we were going to hear noise, expect noise, and be OK with the noise.”

Here are some tips from the session:

1. Relax and strategize over a drink.

What? Alcohol? No can do, Legal might say.

But Fed communicators, hoping for an informal exchange, took their brainstorming session out to a bar. They rounded up employees—some of “the cool kids”—and sought out ideas on remaking communications, Chandler said.

The group served as an “employee think tank,” offering feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and testing new ideas and key messages, she said. Members brainstormed about ways to enhance employee engagement.

“We got a lot of great ideas—ideas that we actually implemented,” Chandler said.

2. Create a blog they’ll actually read.

Senior leaders used to write dull blog posts that nobody read. So instead of executive writers, communications launched a new blog that featured employees themselves as a community-building tool. Every week a new employee blogs about a business or personal matter of general interest, sparking dialogue, Benjamin said.

The blog allows the Chicago Fed to address touchy topics. A woman blogged about being a new mom, opening a discussion. A group of employees began calling for greater maternity and paternity leave benefits, saying the organization wasn’t competitive. But others dispute that, and a lively conversation ensued that raised the points HR would have made, Chandler says.

“Right now our blog is the most highly read item featured that we have on our intranet site,” she says.

3. Ditch the podium in town hall meetings.

The Chicago Fed’s major staff meetings used to be “snooze fests,” with lectures, podiums, and charts and graphs. The fed redesigned the stage, and building maintenance staffers even built a Letterman-style desk for the stage up front, allowing for interviews.

“We tried to bring television, if you will, to the stage,” said Chandler.

Communicators let employees and subject-matter experts tell the story whenever possible. The meetings incorporated multi-media and other interactive elements. Communicators and leaders agreed not to plant questions.

They decided it wouldn’t be a disaster to end a presentation in silence, along with the words, “OK, folks, no questions today.” Authenticity was more important.

4. Redesign that outdated intranet.

In 2009, the Chicago Fed redesigned its intranet to embody the bank’s employee-centric model. The site makes it easier to share and gather knowledge through blogs and customized online workspaces. Live television feeds provide access to CNN, Bloomberg, and CNBC. Elements of the intranet change daily and weekly.

The goal was to get away from the old, flat tone and sound more like the Huffington Post or FastCompany, said Lynn Benjamin, manager of internal communications. It started a series called “My Essentials” that spotlights employees and the tools they rely on every day.

Communicators wanted to drive traffic so that “employees then will read the other types of information they need to know about,” Benjamin said.

5. Take risks.

Want to avoid controversy? Run screaming from any argument about politics. The Chicago Fed, however, set up a panel to discuss a relevant matter that was in the news: “[Former U.S. Rep.] Ron Paul’s saying we should go back to the gold standard. What does that mean?”

Some senior leaders were nervous, wondering why they would even open that conversation. Communicators responded that Paul was discussing the matter anyway, so why not frame the message? The panel was set up with a video, and it got a big turnout.

Said Chandler: “By taking that risk, now folks are more open to this kind of forum.”


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