Leadership Miscommunications – the Seven Deadly Spins of Connecting with Employees

I didn’t bake sourdough bread, adopt a rescue dog, attempt a home reno or train for a marathon. Rethinking my playbook for leadership communications was my 2020-21 pandemic project.

Those revisions began after my boss shot down a tried and true tactics. She was looking for new ways to communicate. I pitched an old idea. She nixed that idea by pointing out obvious problems – problems that hadn’t been obvious to me while I rolled out the idea at two previous employers.

I was also looking at leadership comms from a new perspective. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t in a central PR team or working out of a president’s office. I spent my days closer than ever to the frontlines working alongside colleagues who weren’t in PR.

So I revisited my playbook for leadership communications, rethinking everything from social media, videos and podcasts to coffee chats and breakfast meetings, thought leadership, strategic planning, speechwriting and town halls.

I’ve summed up what PR pros like me say, what busy, weary and slightly cynical employees think and what leaders could do instead when it comes to communicating and connecting with folks on the frontlines.

Leadership Miscommunication draws on 28 years worth of some hits, more than a few misses and lots of lessons learned from dozens of senior leaders who I worked with and watched in action during tour stops at a non-profit, hospital, steelmaker, college and university.

I’ve pulled together a series of earlier posts that went up during the fall. Leadership Miscommunication is a free, no obligation download. I’m not trying to sell you anything. I don’t want your email address. And I’m not angling for a speaking gig or consulting work. This revised playbook, along with figuring out how to make a flipbook, were my pandemic projects.

Always happy to hear what you think I got right or wrong about leadership communications. And whether I should’ve spent the pandemic learning how to bake bread.

DOWNLOAD LEADERSHIP MISCOMMUNICATION HERE.

Field notes from a marketing and communications conference (25 takeaways)

field notes

Here are my top 25 content marketing, social media, video, issues management and crisis comms takeaways from the 2nd annual Marketing & Communications for Post-Secondary Conference held May 7 – 9 in Toronto. The conference was produced by Summers Direct and Swansea Communications and presented by Academica Group.

Highly recommend this conference for anyone working in marketing or communications with colleges or universities and looking for some inspiration. You too will leave with a book full of notes and ideas.

1.     With content marketing, the sweet spot is the intersection of what your audience wants, what your organization is an expert in and where there’s untapped potential for marrying the two. – Graeme Owens, LinkedIn Marketing Solutions

2.     The most engaging and shareable content is helpful, inspiring and entertaining. – Graeme Owens

3.     On social media, visuals are the new headlines. Don’t use stock photos. Shoot your own. Enlist the help of amateur photographers in your organization. – Graeme Owens

4.     68 per cent of Canadians are now on social media. We either use it a lot or not at all. Very few of us are still using social media passively. – Jane Antoniak, King’s University College and Dr. Alex Sevigny, Master of Communication Management Program, McMaster University

5.     Instagram is the fastest growing platform. Seniors are the fastest growing demographic. – Jane Antoniak and Alex Sevigny

6.     Facebook is our 21st century commons. Young people aren’t excited to be there but they’re not leaving in droves. – Jane Antoniak and Alex Sevigny

7.     In managing an issue, borrow from the Arthur W. Page Society playbook. Tell the truth and be patient. Show contrition through your actions. Listen to your stakeholders. Manage for tomorrow. Remain calm, patient and good-humoured. Conduct PR as if the fate of your organization depends on it. – Christine Szustaczek, Sheridan College

8.     Unions are doing a better job than your organization in communicating with your employees. And they’re going to get even better at it as they invest in new technology, including smartphone apps. – Priya Bates, Inner Strength Communications

9.     If what you’re communicating isn’t relevant to the day-to-day realities of your audience, you’re training them to ignore you. – Priya Bates

10. Communicate with the key influencers in your organization. These frontline, on-the-ground, respected and connected influencers are not your formal leaders. – Priya Bates

11. How do you know if employees are engaged? They SAY great things. They STAY with you. And they STRIVE to go above and beyond in their jobs. – Priya Bates

12. If others in your organization can do a better job of telling your story, let me. Harness the power of testimonials from real people. – Michelle Blackwell, UBC Library

13. Content marketing is about creating real value for your audience. Provide a solution. Stop selling and start helping. – Lauren Lord, EDge Interactive

14. Provide your audience with the answers they’re looking for and then supply the information you want to give. – Lauren Lord

15. Online content that will draw an audience to your organization includes how-to tutorials, human interest stories, lists, controversial posts where your organization takes a principled stand, guest articles and videos. – Lauren Lord

16. If content is king, distribution is queen. To get your content out to your audience, know who you’re trying to reach and then use a mix of paid, earned, shared and owned (PESO). Paid social is the best way to generate reliable traffic, to launch a new campaign, boost high-performing content and target specific groups for specific outcomes. – Lauren Lord

17. Instagram Stories is the new television for teens. – Dr. Philip Glennie, Academica Group and Kayla Lewis, Seneca College

18. Consider Takeover Tuesdays and Throwback Thursdays on your social media accounts. Seneca College hands over its Instagram account to students and even incoming students (with supervision from the comms team). The college also posts archival photos from the its 50-year history. – Dr. Philip Glennie and Kayla Lewis

19. Before you can tell your organization’s story, you need to get your audience’s attention. Video is the best way to do that. – Warren Weeks, Weeks Media

20. The most watchable and shareable videos are 30 seconds to 2 ½ minutes, tightly edited and tell a story with an emotional core. – Warren Weeks

21. If your organization has a teleprompter, throw it out or sell it on eBay. Use the money to invest in a light and a mic so your videos don’t have the look and feel of a hostage video. – Warren Weeks

22. In a crisis, it’s not what you want to say. It’s what we need to hear. Anchor your communications in shared, foundational values. Listening is key. – John Larsen, Edelman PR

23. You can’t communicate your way out of a problem. To regain our trust and restore your reputation, you need to take action and fix the problem. Tell us what you’re doing to make things right. This can include telling us you have a longer-term plan with a commitment to report back. – John Larsen

24. Don’t be afraid to pause. Be careful and deliberate. Figure out what’s known and unknown. Validate information. Mistakes can be made by moving too fast. – John Larsen

25. Have clear roles for spokespeople in a crisis. Your PR person POSITIONS the story and provides context. Your subject matter expert PERSUADES (for example, your Chief Information Officer explains what’s being done in the aftermath of a data breach). Your executive presents the PERSONALITY of your organization (this is what we fundamentally believe and stand for). – John Larsen

Old dogs, new tricks & rebooting the employee newsletter in the Age of YouTube

I’ve spent a good chunk of my 20 years in PR writing newsletters, newspapers, magazines and blogs for employee communications.

On Sept. 18, my colleague Sean Coffey and I stepped away from our keyboards, picked up a camera and microphone and started turning stories into videos for Mohawk College.

We launched a weekly video series called MoCast.  Posted every Thursday on YouTube, the series sings the praises of our students and grads, faculty and staff and college partners. And we showcase the places where our students learn and our grads work.

Our primary audience is Mohawk’s 1,000 faculty and staff working at four campuses in Hamilton and Brantford, Ontario.

RATIONALE

We launched MoCast for four reasons:

  1. Sean works with our Vice President Academic to put out an e-newsletter to faculty and staff. The newsletter includes a video clip from the VPA.  Lots of faculty and staff watch the videos.  The written content in the newsletter doesn’t generate nearly as many clicks and views.
  2. Other employers are communicating with their staff via video. The Mayo Clinic puts out award-winning videos that served as our inspiration.
  3. Producing and posting videos is a low-cost proposition and we had the skills, journalism training, institutional knowledge plus the tools and technology to make it happen.
  4. It’s the Age of YouTube. More than one billion unique users visit YouTube every month and watch over six billion hours of video. It’s the world’s number two search engine behind Google. And 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Chances are, the majority of our faculty and staff have spent time on YouTube.

IMPLEMENTATION

We didn’t strike a task force, focus group, working group or planning committee. We didn’t put together a proposal, project charter or PowerPoint presentation.

We just started shooting segments in early September. We gave the senior leadership team a preview of episode one on a Wednesday. And then posted the video to YouTube the next morning.

FORMAT

We’ve loosely modeled MoCasts after CBC Canada’s Rick Mercer Report, minus the rants and without the (intentional) humour.

Sean shoots and edits and I do the on-camera interviews. We aim to make the interviews more like conversations and less like hostage videos.

We’ve found that the question that always solicits the best response is why. Why do you do what you do? Why does this matter to our students? Why does this matter to Mohawk? Why does this matter to you?

Asking that question invariably leads people to share their passion, purpose and pride for their work.

Each episode has three recurring segments so our audience becomes familiar with MoCast and knows what to expect week to week:

  1. In Focus – We drill down into a single topic – a project, initiative or issue – that would be of general interest to our faculty and staff.
  2. Spotlight – We showcase students, grads, faculty and staff who are making a difference at the college and in our community. We interview folks who’ve received awards and accolades for their work and set the bar in terms of best practices.
  3. Roadtrip – We get show and tell guided tours of cool places where students are learning and our grads are working. Many of our faculty and staff don’t have the opportunity to travel between campuses so this is a good way of highlighting what’s happening across the college.

In most episodes, we also include some self-deprecating outtakes and bloopers after the credits roll.

We’re getting better at wrestling the segments down to around eight or nine minutes. Early episodes were running 14 to 15 minutes. However, we found the length wasn’t an issue for most of our primary audience because the content is relevant and their interest in the videos is high.

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Sean shoots the videos in HD using a Canon Rebel T5i and a wireless Azden microphone.  He then edits using Adobe Premiere Pro. Sean uses a single camera and we try to keep edits to a minimum.

Beyond attending a Ragan Communications video boot camp, Sean’s self-taught when it comes to shooting and editing.

GROUND RULES

We have just two rules for MoCast.

  1. We’ll never interview anyone who’s parked in a meeting room or sitting behind a desk in an office.  We do all our interviews in hallways, labs and classrooms, with the hustle and bustle of the college as our backdrop.
  2. We treat all our guests with respect. While we don’t script and rehearse the interviews in advance, we don’t ask trick or surprise questions that catch people off-guard. If they ask for a retake, we do a retake.

DISTRIBUTION

We post MoCast every Thursday to the college’s YouTube channel. We share the link to the videos through social media (Twitter at #mocast, Facebook, LinkedIn and the college blog). The videos also play on hallway monitors throughout Mohawk’s largest campus.

EARLY REVIEWS

We’ve received excellent unsolicited feedback from faculty and staff (informative and entertaining is a recurring theme) and we’re getting a lot of story ideas and requests sent our way. The feedback and ideas far exceed what we ever received when we were putting out traditional print pubs.

A formal survey will likely happen next Spring once we’ve broadcast a full season of MoCast.

The episodes are averaging 600 unique users (our goal was 500 users) and the views climb week by week.  While far from 14 or 140 million views, our goal isn’t to produce viral videos. It’s to build and maintain a core audience of faculty and staff.

The videos have also been shown at open houses for prospective students and programs are posting segments on their webpages.

KEY BENEFITS

There are three key benefits to a video series for employees:

  1. It’s informal recognition on steroids. MoCast is proving to be a great way to publicly celebrate the contributions and achievements of our students, grads, faculty and staff. And the folks we showcase can easily share their video clips with friends and family.
  2. It makes the rest of our jobs easier. Yes, there’s a time commitment (Roadtrips take about 90 minutes while the In Focus and Spotlight segments can take up to 30 minutes each).  But we recycle the segments for speeches, media pitches and award nominations.
  3. It gets us out from behind our desks and onto the frontlines. One of the concerns in launching MoCast was that we’d run out of stories and the series would end after three or four episodes. If anything, we’ve had the opposite challenge of too many stories and not enough episodes (we’ve shot the first 12 episodes and have the Winter schedule fully booked). We’ve had the opportunity to meet with dozens and dozens of students, grads, faculty, staff and college partners which has strengthened and widened our networks across the college and in the community.

FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE

So if you’re thinking of adding video to your mix of internal communications, we highly recommend it. Pick up a camera, follow your news judgment and start striking up conversations with folks on the frontlines. Your videos don’t have to be perfect and polished, just authentic.

And feel free to give us a shout for advice or suggestions. We’re still working our way up the learning curve and looking to get better with every episode. Students aren’t the only ones learning at Mohawk College.

sean.coffey@mohawkcollege.ca

jay.robb@mohawkcollege.ca