5 ways Duke creates employee-focused content

Stuck writing that snooze of an open enrollment story? Here’s an idea: Make it about a person, not the program, a successful Duke University communicator says.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

In a Ragan Training lecture, Duke University communicator Leanora Minai gives an audience member who called out a correct answer an unusual storytelling manual: Charles Dickens’ classic “Oliver Twist.”

“Charles Dickens was an amazing storyteller,” says Minai, who is editor of Working@Duke and director of communications for the office of communication services. “He had an amazing ability to observe his environment and write about it.”

The story of a poor boy born in a workhouse offers lessons for communicators. Make it all about people, she says in her session, “Enhance internal communications and content with storytelling.”

Duke does this through channels that include the news portals Working@Duke and Duke Today. The college also uses a print magazine, an e-newsletter and social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Here are tips for finding a people focus in your internal communications:

1. Be a beat reporter.

With 38,000 employees, Duke University is like a small city, which is another way of saying it is filled with stories about instructors, cops, surgeons, administrators, groundskeepers and others. Communicators cover it just as beat reporters cover their towns.

The goal isn’t simply to write about programs, but to find people with compelling stories within those programs. At Duke, every story must feature an employee.

“People want to read about people, not programs,” Minai says, citing Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan and Steve Crescenzo of Crescenzo Communications for having promoted this idea.

By writing about individuals, you help transform them into brand ambassadors.

2. Write journalistically.

Duke doesn’t keep its internal communications under lock and key. Its sites, such as Working@Duke, offer stories from its campus that the community of Durham, North Carolina, and others can read. This provides several advantages for the institution. Not only do employees learn about their campus, but resources-strapped news media outlets have picked up Duke-written stories.

One piece, “Uncovering Duke’s mysteries,” explored 12 questions on campus, asking why people were buried under the chapel crypt and why mist rises from the ground in one area. After the piece ran, an editor from a local newspaper called to run it, Minai says.

“If your content is compelling and good, people are going to pick it up,” Minai says.

Another piece picked up in the press was titled, “No place like home: Duke Homebuyers Club helps employees fulfill dreams of homeownership.”

The story tells about a free college program that offers classes and monthly meetings to help employees learn about budgeting, credit repair and working with real estate agents and contractors. Duke offers a $10,000 forgivable loan to employees who meet income and work requirements so they can buy a home.

3. Find the hero.

Medical articles (including insurance stories) are filled with tales of people overcoming the odds in battles against deadly foes. Duke is proud that its employees have a great insurance program because it’s a health provider. Why not write about them?

One article featured an employee who overcame a mini-stroke at age 47. Another, titled “Bonnie’s battle with cancer,” led with the story of an associate with breast cancer who was able to get six injections, costing $4,000 apiece, for a modest copay of less than $100 per dose under the Duke insurance carrier.

The woman was incredibly forthright about her battle with breast cancer, helping Duke communicators to remind employees of open enrollment deadlines.

“We were able to really tell a compelling story about the value of the Duke health benefit for her,” Minai says.

One employee wrote afterward to say the story was a strong reminder that she needs to think about her current health choices. That’s a win for communications.

4. Feature employee content.

When you work in a location and pass the same sights every day, one can stop noticing them. At Duke, communicators used employees’ photos on the campus’s beautiful neo-Gothic chapel, completed in 1932.

The “Eyes on the chapel” photo spread featured the employee pictures of the landmark building, providing fresh views of a familiar sight.

5. Inspire.

Duke Today had 2.9 million page views in 2017, and part of that derives from communicators’ featuring hopeful stories about staff members.

One piece, “Duke neurosurgeons lose 205 pounds through teamwork,” tells how six colleagues motivated one another to lose weight. One assistant professor of neurosurgery decided to take his health seriously after a colleague at Northwestern University died of a heart attack at age 48.

“It made you realize everything we work for can come crashing down if we don’t take care of ourselves,” he told a Duke writer.

He set a goal of working out at least half the days of each month, eventually losing 30 pounds.

Says Minai: “We’re always looking for ways to inspire people and build people up.”


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