Showing Some Love to a VP Who Gets It

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.


9 Responses

  1. Robert, I’d like to hug and kiss her as well! What a fab client to have. What I really like about your post is that these are lots of good points to ask any client, if they are not as savvy as your VP. I plan to take the points of the conversation you had with her, and compile them into a list of questions for my team to use with their clients. Thank you for sharing.

  2. P.S. I tweeted this post.

  3. Thanks, Susan, for the shout-out!

    I agree that the points of our conversation can apply to practically any client group. In fact, I’m already using the principles she laid out to help counsel other clients in the same company.

  4. That’s awesome. Usually that conversation has to happen the other way around, with us trying to explain all that to them. To her point, I believe we often underestimate employees’ wilingness to understand and embrace organizational goals. It’s our job as communicators to help them understand those goals and what they can do to support them.

  5. That’s right, Ray. Employees really do want to understand business goals. They want to see the big picture of why the business engages in certain activities, takes certain actions, etc. And most of all, they want to know how they can plug in and help the business succeed. It’s their livelihood, after all!

    That doesn’t mean the telling of this business information has to be dry and boring, however. Our job as communicators is to grab people’s attention so they’ll get these important business messages. That’s where great storytelling, compelling quotes and real language comes in.

    Steve Crescenzo was right on target in his “Creative Communications” seminar in Richmond last week. We corporate communicators are competing for employees’ attention. And we’re competing with the likes of Cosmo, People, CNN, the Drudge Report. That’s a tall order! It’s time for us to get a lot more creative in how we tell our business stories — but it’s business stories that we’re hired to tell.

  6. I think this person is on to something. Employees need to know — and I believe that they want to know — what their employer organization is doing for the common good.

    I have long believed in the power of the corporate communicator as story teller. In every organization I have ever worked with, there have been so many worthy stories to tell, make that, to share, and they all are about real business issues.

  7. And, Les, I would add that employees want to know why their organizations are doing such things. That was the central point this VP made so clearly: The company does a lot of good in our communities, but for what business purpose? How do such programs and activities advance the organization’s goals?

    So, the work becomes developing compelling stories, told in the real words of real people, about what the company is doing and how it connects to the bigger business picture. And then tell employees what they can do as well.

    You are right, Les. There are so many great stories that relate directly to the business. Our job is to find them and tell them well.

  8. My favorite part of the piece was not the content but how excited you got about your work! Very few people get to see “fireworks” when working with the VP of a client organization, at least not the positive kind. Congratulations for attracting such a great client, and I only hope it was good for her, too!

  9. Tom: Ha! Well, I might have embellished things just a little bit — but not much! It really is rare to work with an executive who understands the strategic and the creative sides of communication.

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