I almost hugged and kissed a corporate vice president last week.
I’m not normally prone to such public displays of affection — well, not in the workplace, anyway — but it was all I could do to restrain myself. The vice president in question is a woman, but don’t get me wrong. My impulse was not sexual. It was purely intellectual.
Any communicator who’s been around corporations for longer than, say, a week knows how rare it is to find an executive who really gets it when it comes to communication. They do exist, but they’re rare indeed.
But here I was, sitting in this vice president’s office, expecting to talk about some story ideas about her department for the company intranet, and instead I’m treated to an exposition on the tone, quality and content she’d like to see in comunications about the department. Such direction can be a nightmare if the executive hasn’t a clue what good strategic communication is all about. Add the fact that this vice president’s department is responsible for corporate responsibility — you know, corporate giving, community outreach, that kind of thing — and this conversation really could have gone south in a hurry.
Instead, this executive started the discussion with this statement: “I don’t do soft and fuzzy.” She went on to explain the department’s raison d’etre — “We don’t just do these things out of the goodness of our heart. What’s the business case?”
My first thought was, “Uh-oh. She wants boring, dry, all-business stories that nobody will read.” But then a beautiful thing happened. After she spelled out the business purpose of the company’s CR programs, she talked about how to help readers understand that purpose. She talked about using lots of stories and examples and “proof points” to illustrate how the company’s community involvement ties back to its business goals. She talked about letting other people tell the story through lots of quotes. She talked about using simple, real language instead of jargon. She talked about the need to answer the question, “Who cares?” She talked about her expectation that every story should include a call to action at the end so employees know what they should do as a result of reading the story.
That’s when the fireworks went off. That’s when I wanted to hug and kiss her.
A while back, this company conducted an internal communications survey in which employees clearly expressed they were over all the stories about corporate responsibility. They said they wanted more stories about the business — plans for growth, how it will compete in a tough environment, how it will succeed. This vice president said she doesn’t believe employees are simply tired of hearing about the company’s CR efforts — they just want to know how those efforts will help the business succeed.
She understands the importance of blending two critical elements in employee communication: great storytelling about real people and a solid business focus. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when communicators find the right mix, that’s when the sparks really fly.