7 ways to make internal comments work for you

You’re enabling comments on your site, and it’s turning into Dodge City. Here’s how Mayo Clinic moved from controlling the conversation to facilitating it.

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When Mayo Clinic launched a jobs website, employee commenters began demanding a location identifier.

Before social media, it would have taken weeks or months to gather and act upon feedback from the hospital group’s 60,000 employees.

Nowadays, internal comments speed the response.

“The very same day that we ran the article about the website launch, we made a change to the functionality of the website directly based on comments that came in from employees,” said Annie Burt, manager for institutional communications.

Many leaders—often encouraged by communicators—have been taught to control the message. The trend at Mayo, Burt said, is “moving from controlling the message to facilitating the conversation.”

Mayo allows employees to comment on stories and content by first name only (communicators know the full names). A study is underway, and full names may be required in the future, Burt said in a follow-up phone interview.

Here’s how Mayo handles internal comments:

1. Review user comments.

Not every organization wishes to do this, but Mayo feels it’s important. Yet out of 35,000 comments, Mayo has declined fewer than 500. Mutual respect is the key. For starters, shouting in ALL CAPS won’t win you points at Mayo.

Mayo rejected one comment on smoking policy from a woman who wrote, “I would much rather work with a smoker, than someone who sits on the computer all day, ranting and raving online…Get to work!”

Such a remark might work in another organization, Burt acknowledged, but Mayo’s culture tacks toward the conservative and prizes respect.

When comments are rejected, employees get an email inviting them to re-post. Most say they didn’t realize how they’d come across, Burt said. They find a way to tone it down or decide not to comment after all.

2. Address difficult issues upfront.

Don’t evade the tough issues. Address the things employees will be talking about, especially when a decision might be unpopular. State the costs, for example.

“If you don’t put it in the content itself, the very first thing that happens in that comment section is, ‘How much does it cost?'” Burt said.

3. Designate a respondent—and respond quickly.

When posting an article on a subject people feel strongly about, you should have someone ready to respond to comments. At Mayo, every time you submit an article, you must list the name and email of an individual who will be responsible for following up.

Whenever a comment is approved, this person gets an email with a link, a copy of the comment, and tips on how to respond.

If nobody in authority responds, staffers might jump in with their own perspectives. Other employees could interpret such speculation as policy—or worse, “they’ll keep asking until they figure something out.”

On the other hand, if a super-busy exec doesn’t get around to responding to a minor intranet kerfuffle for 24 hours, it might just be best to let the topic drop.

“Now you’re just going to bring it back up to the top and renew the whole thing,” Burt said. “Let it die.”

4. Establish a policy of respect.

Mayo turns the word respect into an acronym:

  • Remain civil at all times
  • Embrace the ability to agree to disagree
  • Stay on topic
  • Polish your language
  • Edit comment length
  • Check to ensure your question wasn’t answered in the article
  • Turn it down a notch (DON’T SHOUT!)

“A corporate forum is not a public forum,” Burt said. “Employees can’t say anything they want.”

5. Don’t squelch criticism.

Employees at Mayo can’t be rude, but the institution isn’t out to quash negative comments. Employees are free to politely disagree, Burt said. Sometimes criticism is the most helpful part of a public forum.

“If employees are only telling you what you want to hear,” Burt said, “you’re not getting the value out of this.”

6. Use feedback to brief executives.

Three-way communications—top-down, employee-to-employee, and employee-to-management offerings—provide an array of insights into your organization. You should let the bosses in on the information you’re gaining through comments, though.

Mayo “can share those perceptions with our leaders, so that we can bring that ‘water cooler’ to them, and so that we can actually effect change,” Burt said.

7. Make sure your leadership is on board.

Sure, go ahead, the bigwigs may say. Let’s go with a social intranet. But to make it a success, they have to take part.

“If your leadership isn’t ready for this, don’t do it,” Burt says.

If you’re having trouble getting buy-in for all your big plans, don’t despair. You needn’t to do it all at once.

A boss who doesn’t have time to commit to a blog might be willing to join in a Twitter-like “Yam jam” on Yammer, or allow employees to comment live in a meeting.



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