Give 'Em Something to Talk About

Web 2.0 technology is great for quickly spreading information throughout your company. But podcasts, blogs, video blogs, intranets, instant messaging, and wikis are only as good as the messages they carry. How well and how consistently does your company communicate its core values? In a crisis, such as a public scandal, could you rely on any executive — or any entry-level employee, for that matter — to tell your company’s story accurately and well, and to spell out and defend your company’s core principles?

McDonald’s provides a great model for growing and nurturing what I call “the company grapevine.” It starts at the top, with leadership. In the case of McDonald’s, founder Ray Kroc worked side-by-side with his people — from his circle of top executives to the staff at any random store he happened to walk into. There are countless stories of Ray jumping behind a counter to help during a particularly busy rush hour, or asking a manager for a mop so Ray could clean a spill up front himself. Eccentric though it was, this spirit of executives demonstrating unity with the workers caught on and continues at McDonald’s to this day. That's effective messaging.

Ray’s hands-on encounters with his employees not only helped to spread his favorite messages — ”Never be satisfied” and “Work hard and you will be rewarded" — but they showed everyone precisely how positive messages are spread: one person and one role model at a time. If Ray Kroc believed it, everyone else would, too.

Very early on in my 34-year career there, I discovered that messaging played a critical role in my experience and success at the company, as it did for others who were also climbing up the corporate ladder. Anyone who wasn’t onboard with Ray’s messages soon fell away, like a square peg from a round-holed board.
To get your people talking about “it” — whatever you want “it” to be — I offer the following tips, all lessons I learned at McDonald’s. These 10 guidelines will help get people at your company spreading the messages you want them to talk about.
Create your story. Great American companies have compelling stories that become folklore and fill workers with pride. Employees pass these well-crafted stories down through the ranks and incorporate their messages. Ray Kroc isn't the only example of a great legacy-builder; Sam Walton, Lee Iacocca, Walt Disney, and Henry Ford are other similar role models.
Start from Day One. Communicate your company’s goals, objectives, mission, and values to every employee — from mail-room manager to newly promoted vice president. Incorporate these messages not only into your training, but also into your daily work dialogue in interesting and engaging ways. Connect to these ideas and others will, too. Don’t simply post them on a wall.
Reinforce your core principles. Repetition is the key to leveraging the grapevine. In newsletter contests, at company meetings, via social networks and social media — in other words, whenever possible — get employees to restate and re-experience your company’s values and principles in their own words.
Plant a positive message. Employees gossip — it’s a fact of office life. But rather than letting rumors and complaints dominate the grapevine or infiltrate social networks, plant a positive message — such as the newest green policy or a great product review — and watch it spread. When people are used to bragging on their work and company, it becomes a positive habit.
Hold rap sessions. Create staff blogs where people can air their ideas freely and informally. Leaders should contribute, too, to let everyone know they're listening. Employees want to feel as though they're part of the communication stream and company culture.
Eat your words. Regular breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with new mixes of people create an environment for camaraderie and sharing. In most organizations, this is done less often than it should be. Picking up the tab at such low-key events may be one of the most cost-effective performance-boosting initiatives you have in your arsenal.
Plan some “windshield time.” At McDonald’s, "windshield time" was when executives toured the field with staff. Commit to hearing as many points of view, as often as possible — and let all levels of employees and people at all facets of your company see you doing it. This promotes upbeat chatter.
Make it fun. Retreats and conferences are great places to communicate your company messages creatively, and to generate positive dialogue, sharing, and brainstorming among employees. Messages “stick” when people feel happy.

Get them talking. Nurturing your company grapevine is all about fertilizing it with many points of view. As often as possible, ask individual employees to offer suggestions on how to improve communication within your company as well as its reputation with the outside world.

Say it without words. If you want to show employees that hard work, innovative problem-solving, and risk-taking are attributes your company values, throw an awards ceremony. Showing is often a more powerful way to shape company communications than telling.

About the Author

Paul Facella spent 34 years working for McDonald’s and is now chief executive officer of Inside Management, a nationally recognized group of results-oriented senior consultants with expertise in every facet of business and commerce. He is the author of Everything I Know about Business I Learned at McDonald’s (McGraw-Hill), named one of USA Today’s Top 5 Business Books of 2008.

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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.

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