Internal communicators share lessons learned, helpful tips

A Ragan conference highlights the many uses of Yammer, with insights from Discovery, Air Canada, Teach for America—and Oprah Winfrey.

There was a surprise guest last week at Ragan’s Breakthrough Strategies for Corporate Communicators Conference at Discovery Communications headquarters: Oprah Winfrey.

She didn’t drop in the Ragan conference. She was making an appearance at Discovery, which broadcasts her OWN network, for a town hall with Discovery employees. It demonstrated the excitement that well-executed internal communications can make. The atmosphere in the packed atrium was electric.

The reality for many internal communicators is that they can’t just tap into the dynamism of an Oprah Winfrey. For every star turn, there’s also the seemingly mundane to communicate what’s essential to help people get their work done.

With that at its core, here’s what the three-day conference covered:

  • Day One: Practical training for internal communications
  • Day Two: Writing
  • Day Three: PR and media relations

Hope and stability

Day One saw an opening keynote from Tom Rath, a senior scientist and advisor to global research consulting business Gallup. In 2007, Rath authored the New York Times best-seller “StrengthsFinder 2.0.”

Rath’s presentation centered on his latest Times No. 1 best-seller: “Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes.” Drawing from extensive workplace research, Rath outlined key steps for engaging the hearts and minds of every person within an organization. There were interesting takeaways for internal communicators.

On employee engagement, he drove home that persistence and patience are crucial.

He also stressed that although people who work from home are often more engaged, watercooler moments and a physical connection to offices and the company are important balancers. He added face-to-face technologies such as Skype are viable replacements.

His final point, before turning things over to the Discovery team, was that messaging should be full of hope and stability.

Good is OK—it can’t be great all the time

Kristen Mainzer and Tim Redd (vice president and director of internal communications at Discovery, respectively) took an honest look at internal communications efforts that have fallen flat at the 5,000-employee company.

They offered a stilted internal comms video (featuring themselves) that had an amateurish feel, with jarring cuts, inconsistencies, and length and complexity that quelled viewers’ attention. Though it was a lot better than many corporate videos, its flaws were obvious, and many in attendance related to the inherent difficulties of such projects.

Today, the Discovery team makes videos that take less than an hour to shoot and edit—all on an iPhone—and which deliver better impact than the high-production video.

They showed a video put together after a visit at Discovery HQ made by “King of the Highwire” Nik Wallenda. Just a couple of minutes long, it captured the essence of the visit with tight sound bites and a clear message and call to action. Mainzer and Redd’s takeaway was that perfection isn’t always required in order to have a lasting impact.

They also warned against overwhelming colleagues with a barrage of information about the latest, greatest thing. Using the launch of Yammer as an example, they said that though easy, an info dump tends to confuse people and create more questions than answers.

They’ve switched from that to a more organic approach, letting it grow within the organization, rather than forcing it on employees. This resulted in increased adoption and value.

Less red, more white

It was no surprise that Yammer was a recurring theme of the day. Sebastian Cosgrove, social media community manager for employee communications at Air Canada, and Aaron French, internal communicator at Teach for America, conducted a session detailing the different ways they use the employee collaboration platform.

Witness the power and impact of this era of internal communication: Each day on the platform, Air Canada sees 6,000 users (of 27,000 employees) and 15,000 interactions (a post, “like,” picture upload, or reply).

Business enhancements have come from Air Canada’s social media network of choice. For example, flight attendants were getting more requests for Coke Zero (which they didn’t stock) than for Sprite, as well as passengers’ favoring white wine over red.

Before, the in-flight staff might not know how to convey this important information up the chain—or had they tried, the message would probably have gotten lost. Via Yammer, they could alert the right person directly and immediately.

The results are happier customers and empowered flight crews with a properly stocked drinks trolley.

Keeping tabs

Air Canada’s monitoring approach is interesting: With 15,000 daily interactions, tracking everything would be impossible. Instead, Cosgrove’s team identified keywords—a particular airport or the incipient low-cost carrier, “Air Canada Rouge”—with relevant posts automatically forwarded to them. Meanwhile, a Yammerfall at the Toronto headquarters displays posts and other interactions in real time.

Air Canada’s use of Yammer shows how the platform can work within established companies that have everyone from 18-year-olds fresh out of high school to people that have worked with the company for 45 years all using and adopting the internal network.

Cosgrove noted that Yammer can be downloaded onto just about any device. It has also broken down barriers: Workers at all levels can speak with senior execs, and different departments—such as maintenance and in-flight crew members—actually talk to one another.

Another approach

Teach for America, a frequent presence at communications conferences, has more than 2,000 staff nationwide. Among the different ways that it uses the platform, the neatest was in conjunction with The Chat, a weekly conference call featuring its co-CEOs.

Colleagues across the business dial in to hear the conversation; Yammer is the backchannel for comments on topics that resonate, as well as staff interactions and questions. By keeping all this on Yammer, they get great engagement, regularly receiving 150-plus comments.

Like Rath, French advised people to stick with Yammer. As he put it, back in 2010 when Teach for America started using Yammer, he was the “lone dancer,” posting content that didn’t get many comments nor much interaction from others. Over time, the passive participants—the lurkers—became comfortable with the platform, and some started to contribute.

This supports the 90:9:1 rule of internal social networks: 90 percent of users are lurkers, 9 percent are sometime contributors, and 1 percent create original content.

Later in the day, Alyson Outen of employee semi-conductor manufacturer Micron spoke about how she and her team handled a crisis that few will ever face—the sudden loss of a CEO. She stressed the need for communications teams not just to have a robust crisis plan, but also to run regular simulations to ensure everyone knows what to do if disaster hits.

Be authentic

From the day’s bounty of advice, the message that resonated most came from Oprah Winfrey. A Discovery employee asked her for one piece of advice she would give anyone. Her answer was the simplest yet sometimes the hardest to do: Be authentic and true to yourself. If you can do that, Winfrey said, everything else will follow.

That simple ethos is something that we as internal communication professionals would do well to implement. It was the thread running through every example of breakout communications: authenticity.

If we can ensure our communication within an organization is authentic, successful employee engagement, understanding, and action will follow.

Daniel Penton is an internal communications specialist who works with a variety of large organizations around the world. A version of this article first appeared on Simply-Communicate.

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