How Discovery Communications turned comms flops into successes

Do employees snicker over that goofy video you made? Did the health week promotion fail? Don’t mope. Learn from your mistakes, as Discovery does.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses. Click here for more on this session.

You know those rules they post by motel swimming pools?

  • No running.
  • No roughhousing.
  • No alcohol.
  • No unsupervised children.

Have you ever sounded like that when laying out your code of conduct for employees on your internal portal?

No? Then please accept our congratulations.

At Discovery Communications, however, communicators aren’t too proud to admit they’ve had some communications flops—particularly that video launching Yammer.

This may come as a surprise from the world’s No. 1 nonfiction media company, the people behind Animal Planet and “Through the Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman. Yet you can learn from their flops in the Ragan Training session “Failure is the best teacher: Lessons learned at Discovery Communications.”

Despite the self-criticism, Discovery’s Kristen Mainzer and Tim Redd leave an impression of success, of communicators who can learn from and build on the past.

Here are three lessons:

Don’t make videos about ‘the pool rules.’

We all know we need rules for that day that lawyers dread, when some bozo announces on Yammer that he’s leaving his wife for the VP of janitorial services, or posts selfies from his vacation at the nudist colony. But do you need to sound like a cranky librarian when you launch your enterprise social network?

In retrospect, no, says Mainzer, Discovery’s VP of internal communications. Yet she says she and Redd, director of internal communications, made that mistake when they touted Discovery’s new Yammer portal with a stern do-not-do-this-or-that video.

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Failure is the best teacher: Lessons learned at Discovery Communications.”

The two may be too harsh on themselves. (“Please feel free to laugh openly.”) Still, they have a point: Such a video should get staffers fired up about Yammer, not lay down the law.

Mainzer says, “You don’t want somebody saying, ‘There should be no spitting or blowing your nose in the pool.’ Nobody just wants to hear that.”

Learn from their belly flop. Just post your “pool rules” on Yammer, let employees know where they are, and be done with it.

Sometimes a quick hit beats a major production

Discovery’s comms team took two weeks to produce another video, announcing a redesign of the internal portal and soliciting ideas. In it, Redd is straightforward about the old one, noting complaints that “the home page doesn’t even feel globally relevant, and the content only updates once a day.”

Well, all right. But a quick iPhone video for the fitness fair—which took two hours to shoot—had a vastly greater success. It helped that the video featured Nik Wallenda, the first person to tightrope-walk over Niagara Falls and to high-wire-walk across the Grand Canyon.

But still, maybe a slick production isn’t needed—even at Discovery. If you can do it in two hours, why not?

Redd says, “It took us working together for seven years to understand what good enough really is.”

Work groups really don’t work

Discovery’s self-examining communicators may consider their past work groups a fail, but most of us have had a similar experience along the way. You’ve got a project, such as intranet navigation, new employee profiles, SharePoint, or Yammer. You try to interest other departments (ahem, I.T.). They show up for the meetings but don’t have time for what they regard as your work.

“We have realized that when you invite people into your group, they don’t have the same focus that you do, the same desired outcome as you do,” Redd says.

If your organization is like Discovery, you may have had several groups going, with 50 people involved.

Lessen learned: Limit the options. Discovery’s communicators would do the work themselves and come up with two choices. They acted like the eye doctor when she has you look through those metallic goggles and changes the lens, asking which you prefer.

The communicators would tell others, “We know you don’t have enough time to help us do our job. So, here are some options. Do you like A? Do you like B?”

They got the advice they wanted much quicker—and they were open to broader input.

“If at any point A or B is way off course, people can raise their hand and say, ‘It can’t be A or B. It has to be F or G,'” Mainzer says.

So the next time you’re feeling low after a flop, don’t mope. Learn from it. And remember the words of J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan: “We are all failures—at least the best of us are.”


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