At ServiceNow, every communicator is a storyteller

Empathy is essential when your audience stretches from California to Hyderabad and spans both internal and external communications.

Lest you doubt the importance of storytelling at the cloud computing company ServiceNow, a staffing priority gives away the game.

Every member of the communication team is a storyteller, says Emily Russel, head of the employee communications and engagement team.

Storytelling is woven through all the company’s communications, both internal and external.

“The heart of everything we do is around storytelling,” Russel says. “It’s what connects us as human beings. It is the single area where we need to build better capabilities as a team and as a function and as a practice.”

ServiceNow hired Russel last year to create the employee communications team from scratch. The team now has eight people and is expanding in the United States, Europe, Asia Pacific and India. Everywhere, the emphasis is on empathetic storytelling that puts employees at the heart of everything.

Storytelling, she says, begins in understanding one’s audience at a deep level. This derives from a value of being “a human-centric organization,” Russel says.

Empathy as a storytelling tool

Employee storyteller and content creator Janessa Robinson says that means empathizing with the staff, “understanding what their day-to-day experience is like. What technology they have access to in their office space across the world, what their hours are like. And in some cases, venturing to understand more about someone else’s culture and the language that resonates with them.”

That means understanding how a message might be interpreted, not only in the company headquarters of Santa Clara, California, but among remote employees and multicultural teams in places like Hyderabad (in southern India) and Amsterdam, Russel adds.

ServiceNow’s commitment to storytelling doesn’t mean it is pumping out newsletters (there is no newsletter) or posting writeups on the intranet (ditto). The company uses Workplace by Facebook as a platform to connect its employees, and as its primary channel for building community, driving engagement and communicating company news.

This is done both through location-specific groups and through communities built around issues, topics and values. For example, there is a community dedicated to diversity, community and belonging.

Community-building on Workplace by Facebook

“Our intent is really around building community,” Russel says, “and making sure that we have an open, transparent, human-centric platform that really connects people based on the communities that they want to be part of.”

Russel encourages the entire communications team to think of themselves as storytellers in every communication or experience they create, whether that’s a leadership announcement, communicating a change from IT or discussing the company’s purpose and cultural values.

“It’s an ongoing dialogue and an ongoing story that we’re telling,” Russel says.

Robinson joined the team last year from a design studio, and she has a background working with nonprofits. In using empathy as a means of reaching others, she says, the organization opens new channels of communication.

“What are the questions we need to ask our internal customers to understand?” Robinson says. “What do they want to communicate? What are their goals? Who are they talking to? What is the experience of the people they’re talking to? … And then who can we talk to before we start creating our message?”

ServiceNow has focused on creating broad narratives that apply the classic lessons of a storyteller. This means asking:

  • Who are the characters here?
  • What is the change that happens?
  • How can we construct a narrative that is communicable to many audiences in a way that people are used to getting their information?

Culture transformation as a journey

At ServiceNow, communicators’ goal is to engage the team in an ongoing conversation rooted in their personal experience at work.

“We don’t want to just communicate and then just check the box,” Russel says. “We want to make sure that we engage them in two-way dialogue, and that absolutely is part of the storytelling.”

Additional beauty of the approach is that it’s multichannel and it’s multi-audience. There is no division between internal and external communications, nor employee communications and media relations, they say.

For example, Robinson’s 2018 Diversity Report was prepared for both internal and external audiences. Everything created for employees is created for multiple channels and multiple audiences.

“Anything you proclaim externally as part of your talent brand—our purpose, our culture and our values—has be grounded in reality internally as well,” Russel says. “Employees have to feel that message is authentic and real to them.”

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