Chuck Gose: Hey Steve. Are you about ready? And is the wine glass filled?
Steve Crescenzo: I am ready to go! Unfortunately, with a protein shake instead of wine glass. Only a barbarian drinks wine in the morning. Unless it’s champagne.
CG: Recently I saw that you compared yourself to Walter Cronkite. Care to explain?
SC: Ha ha . . . It was at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism with a great group of government communicators. I was kidding about the comparison. I think I have more Hunter S. Thompson in me than old Walter.
CG: And this is a nice transition then to my next question. You are one of alcohol’s biggest fans. But what is your drink of choice?
SC: Red wine. As Churchill once said: “I have gotten more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.”
CG: Are you one of those “the cheaper, the better” wine drinkers?
SC: Oh, goodness no. My wife and I are foodies. If anything, we are wine snobs. We only save the cheap stuff for people we don’t like. You can count on a nice glass of barefoot cabernet when you visit.
CG: You mean if I ever actually got invited?
SC: Well, right. But stranger things have happened.
CG: You mentioned that you spoke at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism for an event, how much of your work is to large groups like that compared to working one on one with a client?
“If you want to excel in the field, you need to take what we do seriously. That means doing the stuff most communicators don’t want to do — like research and measurement.”
SC: I am very lucky that way. About half of my work is speaking at conferences like that. But that is where I find my clients, which provide the other half. For example, from that conference at ASU, I have been corresponding with three people about possibly coming in to work with their teams.
CG: Corresponding. . . that’s a fancy word. Perhaps even a champagne word.
SC: I am a writer, after all. I correspond. Sometimes in complete sentences.
CG: One of the very simple but helpful pieces of advice you share is encouraging communicators to use their “weekend words.” Is corresponding a weekend word?
SC: It is for educated people. You should probably stick to “talking to” or something simple.
CG: And I do, but I might try to get a bit fancier since I’m now “corresponding” with a writer. Explain what you mean by weekend words.
SC: What I mean is, far too many people in the corporate world use words they would never, ever use with their families, their buddies, etc. Words like maximize and optimize and leverage and empower and core competencies and paradigm shift and utilize and I could go on and on. They don’t use the words in real life, and they wonder why nobody pays attention when they use them at work.
CG: So how do they fix this? Is there like a 12-step program or something?
SC: That’s where communicators come in. Most people don’t even realize they are doing it but they do it because everyone is doing it. Communicators have to show them there is a better way. Unfortunately, too many communicators are afraid to speak up, so nothing ever changes.
CG: Let’s talk about communicators not standing up for themselves. Do you see them being more “taskers” and less consultants? And if so, how do they change?
SC: I think that’s the biggest problem in corporate communications today. There are too many “private publishers” or “taskers” as you call them (not really a weekend word) and not enough consultants. The only way to change is to change. That’s what my wife Cindy and I work on with our clients: Changing the perception and reputation (and, ultimately, the role) of the communicator within the organization.
CG: What should the role of the communicator be?
SC: Strategic counselors to both the organization’s leadership, and their internal clients. I interviewed a very smart CEO once, and asked him: “What do you want out of your communications team?” And he said: “I’m sick of them asking what I want them to do. I want them to come to my office and say, “I know your priorities, and here’s what I can do for you.”
CG: But I assume you do see communicators who are doing the right things. Is this based on their personality? Their drive? Their longevity? Their zero Fs given?
SC: All those things. But more important, it’s based on taking the craft of communications seriously. If you want to throw together Powerpoints and churn out crappy intranet stories and press release, there will always be a job for you. If you want to excel in the field, you need to take what we do seriously. That means doing the stuff most communicators don’t want to do — like research and measurement. And standing up for ourselves. And fighting for what we believe is right. And speaking truth to power. None of which is easy.
“There are certain things marketers do — segmenting the audience, hitting different audiences with different channels, testing campaigns, constantly measuring their effectiveness — that internal communicators should certainly learn from.”
CG: One of my biggest pet peeves of communicators is when they say, “I don’t like math. I’m a words person.” But guess what measurement is — here’s some math involved. How do you stop communicators from sabotaging themselves like that?
SC: It’s not easy. But it’s also the only way to change. The one question I get at conferences, EVERY time I speak is, “How can I convince management to let me do things differently.” There’s only one way: First, you have to prove to them that what they’re currently doing isn’t working. That is research and measurement. Second, you have to show them you have a better way of doing it. That’s where best practices come in. Third, you have to show them the new way is working. That’s back to research and measurement.
CG: Earlier you casually mentioned your wife Cindy. How do you two work together?
SC: She is without a doubt the brains of the organization, and a genius at research and measurement. Right now she is running two full audits for very large corporations—focus groups, executive interviews, and surveys. As the former marketing for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that is her strength. I come in and look at the structure of the communications team, analyze the vehicles, look at the editorial process, look at their content . . . and then we come together with solutions. It’s a good fit because I can’t do what she does. She could probably do what I do, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.
CG: So you see her marketing background as being a huge resource for internal communicators YET you hear communicators shun the idea of “marketing” to employees.
SC: Anyone who shuns the idea of marketing to employees is missing opportunities. I’m not saying you “sell” to employees, but there are certain things marketers do — segmenting the audience, hitting different audiences with different channels, testing campaigns, constantly measuring their effectiveness — that internal communicators should certainly learn from. I think Cindy’s marketing background is essential to our work.
“You have to think of your employees as different audiences all working for the same company.”
CG: You mentioned segmenting audiences, which in this case is employees. How do you think communicators should do that?
SC: I think too many employee communicators think their audience is “all employees,” allll the time. Not true. Corporate employees are different than field employees. Managers are different than employees. Leadership is different than everybody. Offline versus online. There are lots of segments in any organizational population. We did a LOT of work with Target. Three very distinct audiences: People in corporate, people in the stores, people in the distribution centers. Plus managers and leaders. You have to think of them as different audiences all working for the same company.
CG: We talked about the value that marketing can bring to IC. Let’s talk about journalism. I see more and more former journalists getting into internal communications. Do you see this as a good thing?
SC: I see it as the possibility of being a VERY good thing. BUT . . . (and I just had this conversation at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism; did I tell you I spoke there?) the journalists will only provide value if they retain their journalism skills and FIGHT for good content, good writing, good storytelling. If they allow themselves to be beaten down by approval processes and lawyers and managers who think they know how to write, they will add no value whatsoever. I spoke to a former journalist who said the corporation had “beat all the journalism skills out of him.” That happens far too often.
CG: The term “corporate journalism” has been around for a while. But in your opinion, what makes a good story and what will grab an employee’s attention?
SC: Stories about people. I always say that in organizations, we write about the Four Deadly Ps: Products, Processes, Procedures and Programs. We need to focus on the Fifth P: People. Any good story has people in it.
CG: Kind of like soylent green?
SC: I guess! But don’t write about a Wellness Program. Write about someone who benefited from it. Don’t write about a corporate program. Write about the people who are making it work. Don’t write about a product. Write about the people who created that product, or who are benefiting from that product. The thing is, that takes more time and work, which is why so many people take the easy way out and just check boxes. As the great Mitt Romney said: “Corporations are people.” Yes, they are, and that’s where the stories are.
CG: Is this also the same Mitt Romney who had binders of women?
SC: Yes. . . Tons of good stories there!
CG: There’s a sliding scale of “asking permission” and “asking for forgiveness.” Where should internal communicators fall on this scale?
SC: I am firmly on the side of “Proceed Until Apprehended.” I mean, don’t get fired, and don’t do anything stupid. But if you are doing the job right, and you are helping the organization achieve business goals because you’re a strategic counselor, then you’d be surprised with what you can get away with. BUT . . . organizations tend to say no to “concepts.” They are hard wired not to try new things. The communicator has to be the one to push on that.
“If you are doing the job right, and you are helping the organization achieve business goals because you’re a strategic counselor, then you’d be surprised with what you can get away with.”
CG: My new “thing” with leadership is compassion. I read an article that talked about how honesty without compassion is cruelty. In our new Trump world, how can leaders be honest but also understand the need for compassion?
SC: I think that is largely up to the leaders themselves. This past week I was with a big company up in Green Bay. The CEO was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. The whole time I was there, he was walking around, greeting people, asking about family members, asking about vacations. He gave us an hour and a half of his time, and blew me away. So honest, yet so caring. He promised to get me Packers tickets! But he also asked about my company, my kid . . . just an amazing human being. His executive assistant told me, “I love coming to work every day to work for that man.” I asked him about this, and he said, “I won’t tolerate grumpy executives. There’s no rule that says just because you have bigger office, you get to be a jerk to people.” I hugged him and told him I loved him.
CG: Does he know you’re a Vikings fan?
SC: YES! I think I’m getting tickets to that game!!
CG: Now that is compassion.
SC: Amen brother. You would be so inspired by this guy. And I think if he does a good job of modeling that behavior, it would be hard for other leaders to act the complete opposite.
CG: I will next see you in a few months, and that’s only because the restraining order expires, at PRSA Connect. You’re doing a workshop in Denver. Care to shed some light on what you’ll be workshopping?
SC: I’ll be doing a workshop on how to preserve the basic rules of good writing, good content creation, and good storytelling in the corporate environment. Which, as we talked about on this chat, is not easy. And I wasn’t aware the restraining order had expired. You’re not going to set up a tent in my courtyard again are you? My neighbors were pissed.
CG: No tent this year. Going full mobile home in 2017.
SC: I envision Randy Quaid in Christmas Vacation.
CG: It’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year.
SC: Chuck, all kidding aside, YOU are the gift that keeps giving to the employee communications community. Thanks for doing these chats and the podcast. Always interesting stuff. Except for today probably.
CG: Sometimes you swing and miss. It’s okay. But I did want to also talk about the rest of the Crescenzo Communications staff. You, like a lot of communicators, hide from IT.
SC: Yes, though it’s getting harder. Our old IT staff went over the Rainbow Bridge, and we now have two kittens running IT. They have settled into their role nicely. They don’t come when we call, they ignore us half the time and irritate us the other half. And they like to lick themselves. Perfect IT workers!
“Done properly, internal comms should be FUN, like having a glass of wine.”
CG: But they have the coolest names ever.
SC: Yes, Jack Bauer and Chloe!!!
CG: From the second greatest TV show of all time, 24.
SC: GREATEST TV show!!! What is your first, Beverly Hills 90210?
CG: Sure, that show had its qualities and Steve Sanders never got the lines he should have BUT The Wire is the greatest.
SC: That was a very good show. Again, great PEOPLE and great writing, too. It all comes full circle. Great content is great content. Inside a corporation or out.
CG: We wrap up every Chuck Chats with this same question. But I’m going to guess yours and you correct me if I’m wrong. Use an emoji to describe how you feel about internal communication. My guess is
SC: Yes . . . done properly, internal comms should be FUN, like having a glass of wine. I have to go with that, because I don’t know how to do emojis on the computer, just my phone.
CG: We love you anyway Steve. Much like your love and admiration of Marty Brennamen.
SC: You bastard.