How to transform internal communications from snoozefest to lovefest

If the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago can host a town hall that looks like a street festival and publish a funny and irreverent newsletter, your organization can too. Here’s how to pull it off.

Communications has changed considerably over time. Just imagine if Romeo and Juliet had cell phones. Things probably would have turned out much differently for them.

But not every organization has grown with the times. Some still send memos dripping with corporate speak and host town halls you could easily mistake for nap time.

Until a few years ago, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago was one such organization.

At Ragan’s Corporate Communications Conference held June 9-11 at the Federal Reserve, communicators Lynn Benjamin and Jocelyn Sims described how the bank was able to bring its communications into the 21st century.

“We’ll never be Google and we’ll never be Zappos,” said Sims, internal communications team lead. “But we can still do a lot with who we are.”

And if the Fed can do it, your organization can, too. Here are a few of Benjamin and Sim’s tips:

Find out what employees want

The target audience of any internal communications department is employees. It’s critical that you discover what information is important to them, and how they want to receive that information. Communication should be people-focused, said Benjamin, communications consultant in the customer relations and support office at the bank.

The Fed’s internal communications team did this by forming a focus group called Grapevine. But Grapevine was not your typical focus group. The group consisted only of highly engaged employees-sour lemons were “voted off the island,” Benjamin said-that met outside of the bank for beers and to discuss the Fed’s communication. The internal communications team did not get money or resources from the bank to conduct these informal get-togethers—the team paid for everything regarding Grapevine themselves.

But the investment was worth it. The group was able to offer feedback on the Fed’s current internal communications efforts, brainstorm innovative ways to increase employee engagement, and test the stickiness of new ideas.

While the group strove to come up with creative ideas, Sims reminded them that it’s important to stay focused on the ultimate goal: communicating. “You can’t do creative things for creativity’s sake,” she said. You have to be able to show leaders the value of what you’re doing.

Change your tone

The Fed’s communication model revolves around the idea of creative disruption, or “internal communitainment,” Benjamin said. “It’s not just about getting your message out. It’s about getting your message heard,” she explained.

That means corporate speak that fills stuffy memos and newsletters have to go. At the Fed, this meant replacing old publications with fresh, approachable and interesting ones.

One new publication, “The Skinny,” is edgier than previous publications. Benjamin and Sims said that management didn’t like “The Skinny” when they first saw it, but have come to appreciate it now that it has proven to be a success.

“The Skinny” is an eNewsletter sent every Tuesday, and employees have come to expect it. Each edition always contains five news items, and tells employees what they need to know for the week in a funny, irreverent way.

The Fed also updated its intranet to focus more on content employees were interested in rather than corporate mumbo-jumbo. The intranet hosts two blogs and has features such as the “Monday Routine,” which takes readers through a day in the life of various employees, and “Undressed,” a photo-heavy feature that helps employees get to know their co-workers outside of their workday uniforms.

Don’t be afraid to try new things

When was the last time you attended a fun town hall? Can’t remember?

Town halls at the Fed used to look how yours probably do now: An executive stands at a podium and drones on about information that is way over everyone’s heads. After a few minutes, employees struggle to stay awake.

This isn’t how it has to be. The Fed has spiced up its town halls. One way was to turn its town hall into a television show.

1. A television show: In Grapevine, some employees suggested turning town halls into a television show with a lively host. The communications department decided to try it out. Builders at the Fed constructed a TV set and the town hall came to life. Employees were interviewed by the host on a range of subjects, and the town halls were filmed so employees who worked odd hours could watch the town halls at their convenience.

2: A street festival: For another town hall the communications team did something completely new: They modeled it after a Chicago street fest. They called it Town Hall Palooza after Chicago’s famous Lollapalooza music festival. Each department had a booth with examples of what they do, as well as giveaways and food. For example, the police and security department had bomb-sniffing dogs and a shooting range at its booth.

Throughout the event, employees went from booth to booth and met people they’d never met before. “It got people outside of their typical routines,” Sims said.

3: Videos: At yet another town hall, the communications department showed videos of employees reflecting about their experiences with the bank. The videos were simple—employees sat in front of the camera one at a time and spoke conversationally about a memory, experience or feeling they had about their work at the Fed. In one video, a police sergeant explained how his legacy at the bank will be the younger officers he trains. The video is funny and heartfelt—it didn’t need to be flashy to be interesting or informative. “Every organization has employees who have stories like this,” Sims assured. “People left that town hall with a lot of pride for what we do.”

But no matter how many creative ways you think up for communicating your messages, “The format should always be driven by your content,” Benjamin said.

You may be thinking that Fed has some great ideas, but that the executives at your organization would never go for talk show-style town halls or irreverent newsletters. Maybe they will. “Take baby steps,” Benjamin suggests. And remember to always focus on people. Let them tell their stories.

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