7 key roles for corporate communicators

It’s never been harder to do this job. Here’s how to remain relevant and not get bogged down fighting the wrong battles.

At the start of the Corporate Communicators Conference in Chicago on Monday, keynote speaker Steve Crescenzo gave attendees some bad news and some good news.

First, the bad: “There’s never been a harder time to be a communicator than right now.” Why? Everyone has attention deficit disorder.

“Nobody can pay attention to anybody for more than a minute,” Crescenzo said. What’s worse, corporate communicators have to compete with hundreds of other media and activities for employee attention. Would you rather read the Cosmopolitan.com’s write-up about the best time of day to have sex or “A Word from the President?”

The 21st annual Corporate Communicators Conference, a three-day event taking place this week, is produced by PR Daily publisher Ragan Communications. To read a live blog of the event, click here.

During his keynote, Crescenzo asserted that nobody wants to plow through boring copy when there’s interesting, fun, or even naughty content they could be reading. It’s up to communicators to make sure their content isn’t boring, even if that’s what the company has always served up.

“Left to their own devices, corporations and organizations will always create really bad content,” he said. It’s up to communicators to say that things can be better.

Luckily—and this is the good news—communicators have more tools at their disposal than ever before to make that happen. If they can find their way into the following seven roles, Crescenzo said, they can push their organizations out of their ruts.

Role 1: The social media spy

Whether companies should use social media isn’t a question worth asking anymore, Crescenzo said. “You’ve got to get it done.”

Here’s why: You have to create three-way communication, where leaders talk to employees, employees provide feedback to leaders, and employees interact with each other. That last part is especially important.

“That, to me is where the magic happens,” Crescenzo said. “If we’re a social media spy, we’re just listening to it and pulling great content out.”

Communicators at General Motors found a great story on their internal social media platform, Overdrive. An engineer at the company was at a drive-thru and saw someone in a Chevrolet Traverse behind him. Not seeing any employee tags, he bought their lunch as a thank-you for buying the car, and he posted something about it on Overdrive. Other employees responded that he did a really great thing for the company.

Communicators spotted the conversation and made a video featuring the engineer. In it, he talked about how important it is to make personal connections with people to bind them to your product.

“Your employees are either your biggest PR nightmare or your biggest ambassadors,” Crescenzo said.

Role 2: The social media counselor

It’s not enough to have executives participate in something that looks like social media and think that’s enough. “We’ve got to help these people understand what it’s good for, what it’s not good for,” Crescenzo said.

For instance, one of his clients, Alegent Health, had an executive blog whose eight writers rotated every few weeks.

“The odds of having eight executives that can blog are very tall,” he noted. “They were getting no comments; they were getting no hits.”

That’s because the tone of the blog was all wrong. Instead of connecting something personal about themselves back to the business, executives were writing dry posts that read like bad newsletter articles. Crescenzo said he asked the executives whether they’d actually say anything they were writing in the blog, and they all said they wouldn’t.

After giving the executives some basic blog training in writing with a personal touch and using examples, Crescenzo heard back from a communicator that “pigs are flying.” The vice president of human resources had written a touching account of bringing her mother to the hospital; in it, she named the employees who helped her. That netted 85 comments.

Role 3: The talent

As video and blogs become more prevalent in corporate communications, communicators are becoming the faces of organizations. “We need to grasp that role,” Crescenzo said.

Kelsey Flynn, a communicator at Mass Mutual insurance, did just that. The company was looking for a new way to cover its annual Leaders Conference, which communicators usually covered from the office, resulting in little to no employee response. Flynn offered to go shoot short, daily video blogs to bring life to the coverage.

Flynn’s bosses initially said she’d need to ask for permission. Crescenzo said he told them not to. “Executives always say no to concepts, because they’re new and scary,” he said.

So Flynn just went, and she came back with some great videos. In one, she found and interviewed five couples who had met at the Leaders Conference and had gotten married.

“People actually paid attention to the Leaders Conference for the first time in years,” Crescenzo said.

Role 4: The talent scout

You aren’t the only person who can tell your company’s story. Go find people who can.

“Your employees are all storytellers,” Crescenzo said.

Different people tell stories in different ways, though. Tim Whitehead of Children’s Hospital in Atlanta found that out when he was looking for new ways to recruit employees. For many years, the hospital had used cookie-cutter copy and a photo of a woman with a stethoscope, but Whitehead started interviewing employees to get their stories.

He got so many stories back that he started a blog titled, “Are You Strong Enough to Care Enough?” Some stories went up as text blog posts; others became videos.

“He was able to identify which ones would make the best video,” Crescenzo said.

Role 5: The alchemist

“We need to spin boring corporate crap into gold,” Crescenzo says.

The way to do that, he advised, is to write about people, rather than about policies or programs. If you start with a focus on a person, information about the policies and programs will come with it.

As an example, he showed a video from Wellmark, which took a standard awards story and turned it into a video with genuine emotion. The CEO surprised an award winner at her desk with balloons. The look on her face was priceless.

“People watched it,” Crescenzo said.

Role 6: The storyteller

“It’s about picking the right channel to tell the story,” he said. An example of using the wrong channel? Having your CFO read the annual financial report in a 20-minute video. That’s not what video is for.

“Video’s great for showing emotion and passion and getting people to places they can’t otherwise get to,” Crescenzo said.

In a personal example, he talked about taking his brother, who has cerebral palsy, on his boat for the first time. Crescenzo wrote a blog post about it, but it didn’t have nearly the power until he posted the video of his brother enjoying himself on the waves.

Role 7: The executioner

“Do less, and do it better,” Crescenzo said.

He advised the audience to stop fighting the wrong battles. Don’t worry about deadlines or creating things that are designed just to speed through the approval process, he said. Don’t do things you’ve always done.

“The only battle that matters is the one for the audience’s attention.”

Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com. Ragan Communications publishes PR Daily.

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