Value Storytelling Is a Must for Employee Engagement

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Most of the news published by internal communications is corporate/organizational info — a new product, a marketing campaign, info on a senior hire, the announcement of a major milestone achieved, org notes from leadership, and so on.

This kind of content is sufficient to keep your employees informed, but it’s not enough to keep them engaged, not enough to get them actually interested in the company, products, services, role in the community, their peers — to get them emotionally vested in your organization.

suf·fi·cient (sə-fĭsh’ənt): adj.Being as much as is needed; adequate.

  • Employees who are already engaged will eat up the corporate news. Those who are motivated to climb a ladder or to have some influence within the company will stay on top of who’s who and what’s what.

The harsh reality is that corporate news is often the least popular content because it’s boring, old news, perceived as company propaganda, or all of the above. Even more, company news can feel disconnected from (or tone-deaf to) what’s happening outside the office.

How do you get employees engaged in company news?

Keep it real: Internal comms must report on real people doing real work that has perceived and actual value, and do it in a way that is inclusive and doesn’t ignore what’s happening outside the company’s walls.

Most employees are disengaged.

A Gallup poll released earlier this year showed that just 36% of employees are engaged with the company. This 36% are motivated and enthusiastic about their job and workplace.

  • 36%, however low that number seems, is actually the highest engagement rate since Gallup’s studies began in 2000.
  • 51% of employees are psychologically detached from the company. These employees are ho-hum about the org and guess what: this 51% are actively looking for other jobs.
  • 15% of employees are actively disengaged, which means they’re totally unhappy. This 15% is spreading their miserableness around to teammates and on their social networks.

Interesting to note: Around the time of the murder of George Floyd last year, engagement dropped to 31%, an indication that employees were distracted by “bigger ideas.”

One way to increase and retain employee engagement — to move that 36% to 45, 50, 55% — is to create content that touches on the “bigger ideas” that affect the lives of employees outside of work.

  • That doesn’t mean that every intranet story or executive video needs to address racial injustice or climate change or gun violence or cultural topic du jour.
  • It means that some stories should indirectly address hot issues by subtly weaving in your organization’s values. You’ll succeed most when the message isn’t blatant or explicit.

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3 organizations share their internal news

Fortune 100s and startups alike are elevating their comms with Axios HQ — intuitive software that helps teams tell their stories more effectively.

Among them:

  • JPMorgan Chase, sharing its economic recovery plan
  • GLG, touting its team’s nonprofit work
  • Utah State, sharing news across its business school

See an edition from each.

Editor’s note: I’m a big fan of Axios HQ’s use of Smart Brevity®, which I saw firsthand as a pilot partner during my tenure at BlackRock.

The emerging trend in internal comms storytelling is around values.

Value storytelling is running on two complementary tracks.

D&I storytelling means engaging employee populations that are generally underrepresented in society and in the workplace. I often speak with internal comms storytellers and time and again they talk about D&I as an extra dimension in their editorial assignments.

  • Once they settle on a story to tell — a new product or a major sales milestone, for example — IC storytellers work extra hard to ensure that a diversity of voices and experiences are expressed in the article.

This inclusive effort isn’t limited to obvious diversity categories, like Latinx or LGBTQ; it reaches other levels, like making sure those with invisible disabilities are featured or, like they’re doing at IKEA, ensuring that the many cultures that represent the employee base show up in internal news articles.

Storytelling around corporate values means talking about what the company stands for, as these examples from Apple and Spotify illustrate:

  • Example of reinforcing corporate values: When the ISIS-inspired attack happened in San Bernardino in 2015, Apple refused to help the federal government hack into the perpetrators’ iPhones. Apple outwardly declared its seriousness about privacy. This value stance lit a fire internally. I spoke with someone in internal comms at Apple who said the event sparked an editorial series about the engineers who make data privacy possible.
  • Example of telling a counter-narrative around values: Last year Spotify got a lot of heat for signing a megadeal with the controversial podcaster Joe Rogan, who has expressed anti-LGBTQ opinions on his show. You can imagine how this upset the LGBTQ+ally community at Spotify. To counter the negative media narrative, internal comms started an editorial series to highlight Spotify’s LGBTQ community, in support of their corporate value of inclusiveness.

The Biden v. Trump eras

It takes more energy to catalyze storytelling around your company’s values under a Biden administration. Why? Because it was SO EASY to be against Trump’s xenophobia, homophobia, and racism.

  • A tweet or LinkedIn post from the CEO expressing disagreement with whatever Trump just said was (mostly) enough to placate consumers and employees who disagreed with the divisive president.

In contrast, Biden’s White House generally believes in social good, like being anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ, and pro-climate science. Therefore employees (and consumers) will direct their energies to push companies to take specific stances on policy, legislation, and supreme court cases, which will be very tricky to do and to communicate. Nevertheless, it’s happening.

You need storytelling to bring value stances to life.

  • Levi Strauss example: After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in which a gunman murdered 26 people, including 20 children, Levi Strauss made very public statements about gun violence and advocated for legislation that restricted the use of guns. That story is told externally as much as it is internally and employees support the narrative. How do we know? Do you see any Levi Strauss employees tweeting or staging walkouts because they don’t agree with the company’s values on gun violence?
  • Patagonia example: Patagonia is taking political stances, making decisions that put a dent in their revenue (e.g., no more vests for Wall Street bankers), and is actually endorsing political candidates. No walkouts or angry tweeting from Patagonia employees because the company takes time to explain its values internally.

Bottom line: Besides supporting business priorities, your storytelling needs to weave in societal and cultural activity. Employees don’t stop being Black or Conservative or Immigrant or living in wildfire zones when they clock in. When telling stories internally, the outside world can’t be ignored.

This article is sponsored by Axios HQ.

P.S. Value storytelling can’t be done willy nilly. You need an editorial strategy to have an effect on business outcomes. Start with these two articles:

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Many internal comms teams don’t have an editorial strategy. I’m here to fix that. Newsletter: https://mistereditorial.substack.com/.