Culture, Comms, & Cocktails: What’s the Current State of Employee Communications

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Sonia Fiorenza and I walk you through the key insights from the 2019 Internal Communicator Index to understand challenges facing communicators.

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails is internal comms served straight up. So settle in, drink in the knowledge, some shaken, some stirred, and maybe even some with a twist, and enjoy the top-shelf guests I have lined up for you.

In this episode, we have Sonia Fiorenza, VP of communications and engagement at SocialChorus, aka leader of the “A-Team”(advisory team). 

And it’s not the first time we’ve chatted in the podcast world—it was almost three years to the date, give or take a few days, that she was on my ICology podcast. But now we’ve transitioned to Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. 

Today, we’re going to talk about a report SocialChorus launched, the 2019 Internal Communicator Index, which surveyed 400+ internal communicators at companies with 1,000+ employees to understand the current state of communications across industries.

“When I was at the Gap, we were kind of handed our internal communications platform from IT and it was like, ‘Here you go. This is what we bought you. Good luck. Hope it does what you need it to do.’ And even in our 2016 survey, a quarter of communications professionals said they had no involvement at all in that decision, which is kind of shocking. And they were just handed the tools like I was at the Gap. But in this last survey only 3% said they had no involvement. And more even said that they were drivers of the decisions, that’s a significant positive change.”

– Sonia Fiorenza

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #13 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Sonia, welcome to the podcast. So grab a seat here at the Culture, Comms, & Cocktails‘ lounge and let’s get started. And something as we were talking about this episode that we noticed, it was almost three years to the date, give or take a few days, that you were on my ICology podcast. We’re going to eventually talk about a survey that SocialChorus did three years ago around the technology gap in corporate comms. And now we’re going to talk about a bit of an update to it. But before, I want to get some other thoughts you have in this area.

Sonia Fiorenza: Okay. Well, first, sorry Chuck, I have to interrupt you and say that it’s funny about that. Three years ago, almost to the day, I actually shared the ICology podcast on my Facebook when it came out, and it came up in my Facebook memories this week.

Chuck Gose: Oh, that’s funny.

Sonia Fiorenza: And it also was one of my most liked posts last year, or three years ago. So apparently we did a really good job and good enough job that you’ve invited me back to talk again.

Chuck Gose: Absolutely. Again, a big part of this podcast is about culture. One question I have, especially for those who have been in the field for a little while is, in your opinion, what role does the internal communicator play in this conversation around company culture? How much do they drive? How much do they curate? How much do they own? How much are they just doing what people tell them to do? What role do they play?

Sonia Fiorenza: I think they play a really important role and there’s actually two that they play and they have to be able to wear both hats. The first one is helping leadership. So being a voice from leadership, getting that information out to the organization, help shape the culture, really, really important. But they also have to be the voice of the employees because employees shape the culture too. Internal comms and internal communications professionals have to feed that back to leadership, make sure that the two messages match up and there’s not complete disparate opinions of what the culture looks like.

Then there’s also this really important role that you play. When you’re sitting in the middle of those two roles, it can be very tempting to say, “We’re going to control everything. We’re going to control everything that leadership says and we’re going to control everything the employees say.” I think that the important role that we have to play is actually getting out of the way and letting others have the conversations. We have to enable it and shape it, but we need to enable others to have the conversation or to shape the culture.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, the way I’ve seen it over the years is I think that’s a unique opportunity for the communicator to play a bit of a BS detector between what leadership is saying culture is, but also what employees might think what the culture is. And some will play that middleman in the middle of hoping a company saw it through what’s fact, what’s really part of the culture, and then what’s maybe more aspirational around that culture.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah, we have to be the ones that are being honest with everyone.

Chuck Gose: Absolutely.

Sonia Fiorenza: With both audiences.

Chuck Gose: Now we, you and I have had a lot of conversations obviously about communications, and many of those conversations probably recorded as a podcast. I know one thing we’ve talked about is sort of this lead into the next question, which is as a creative communicator, there’s things out there that we hear over and over and over again. So what is that one thing that you’re like, “Really? We’re still talking about this topic? Really?” Like what is that thing for you?

Sonia Fiorenza: Well, you know what it is, because it’s the same thing that drives you crazy, which is that proverbial seat at the table. I’m just like, “Really? Are we still asking for the seat at the table? Just pull up a chair. Be at the table. I’m tired of looking for the seat.”

But related to that, I think that it’s that we haven’t done a good job showing our value. I know we’re going to get to the survey in a minute, but one of the things that came out of it is half of communicators said that senior leadership doesn’t value internal communications or doesn’t understand the importance of what we do in our organization. And maybe, just maybe the reason that we’re maybe whining about that a little bit is because we haven’t shown leadership, that we align to business objectives, show the outcomes and the value of what we do instead of saying they don’t understand what we do and they don’t give us a seat at the table.

Chuck Gose: Yeah. I’d put that probably solely square on the shoulders of the communicator for that one, because other functions within a company who allegedly have this “seat” at the table, have done something to demonstrate value or return back to the company, and for whatever reason, not saying every internal communicator because some do have this voice at the leadership room, but a lot obviously feel that they don’t.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah, and some of those, I think they ask, they’re waiting for permission to have a voice instead of going in and inserting themselves in the conversation and showing that they have a voice and showing the value that they bring to the table and bringing their seat to the table.

Chuck Gose: It still bothers me that we refer to our presence as an organization is defined by a piece of furniture, which is still, which is my kind of soapbox gripe, but let’s move on to something a little more positive because I always like to see what excites people or what inspires people because what excites and inspires me might not do the same for somebody else and vice-versa. So what’s something that you have seen recently, heard recently that has excited or inspired you?

Sonia Fiorenza: A couple of things and it’s going to be, I’m always biased because the things that I get really excited about are the really cool things that I see our SocialChorus customers doing. Probably should pause and explain to people that you and I work together now.

Chuck Gose: Well, that is part of the A-team.

Sonia Fiorenza: That is part of the A-team (the strategic advisory team). So when we did this three years ago, we didn’t work together, but now we get to work together on a lot of exciting customers for SocialChorus. I’ll give you two.

One of them was a guest you had on earlier on Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, Kyla from Love’s Travel Stops who tells the story about how they really opened up their culture and opened up discussion among their employees and especially employees who are truly distributed or truly remote. They’re out there in retail stores at Travel Stops and yet they found a way to connect them back to the culture and let them tell the story of the company and let them have a voice. Some of the things that Kyla is doing are just amazing, and I suggest that people go back and listen to that episode.

Then the other one, I don’t want to steal thunder from an upcoming guest, but I know that pretty soon you’re going to be talking to one of our customers from Whirlpool. They’re doing some really amazing things, breaking down barriers between the CEO and employees and building that trust there. So that’s one thing I’ll tease that I know she’s doing. And then the other thing that they’ve done is a super creative way to engage employees around vision and values. I just, I’m not going to tell you about it. People are going to have to wait for your guest.

Chuck Gose: It is good. I teased it as I promoted the next, next episode, because it’s one of the most creative things I’ve heard a company doing in internal comms. Kathy Craig from Whirlpool explains the whys and the hows and some of the nuts and bolts of it, not giving away all the secrets.

But what I liked about those two communicators in companies that you talked about is they are not young, sexy companies. Love’s Travel Stops has been around a long time, family owned, as you said, in the travel stop business. And then Whirlpool, average people might have these in their homes and their grandparents might’ve had Whirlpool in their homes. And yet, these are legacy companies doing really amazing things as a way to not just communicate to employees but have employees be part of that communication process.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah. And it’s back to aligning the organization and having employees feel aligned to the organization. And they’re both absolutely doing that. So that’s what I get inspired by.

Chuck Gose: And very recently SocialChorus launched the 2019 Internal Communicator Index. So what is it? And not just what is it, but why should people pay attention to this?

Sonia Fiorenza: Well, what it is, is a survey of more than 400 internal communications professionals. In case you’re wondering if they’re internal comms pros from small companies, they’re not. This was from organizations of more than a thousand employees. So it’s really about getting the pulse on what’s happening in internal communications and what’s on the minds of internal communications professionals and why should people pay attention.

For what we do as a living in internal communications is we have to help our organizations get aligned. And the way to get them aligned is to communicate with employees across the organization. But we also have to know what are the challenges that our communicators are facing so that we can help them.

I know one of the things that you always say about communicators is we don’t share enough and we don’t help each other enough. So part of this is about going out there and finding what’s on the minds of internal communications professionals so that they can learn from each other and so we can lift our profession together. So I’d say that’s why people should pay attention to it.



Chuck Gose: Now, this, what we mentioned the survey that was in 2016. This is not a complete just duplication of that. Obviously times have changed, the survey changed. But between the two surveys, were we able to see any changes from the last one in 2016 to this one? Or is it just more of the same all over again?

Sonia Fiorenza: A little bit of both. Interestingly, the top challenges for communications professionals, so what they say is the hardest to get their job done hasn’t changed drastically in three years. I find that a bit concerning because that means we haven’t solved the things that were challenges before and we’re still working on them.

Chuck Gose: Or we haven’t focused on those as the challenges. We’ve been addressing other things out there.

Sonia Fiorenza: Potentially.

Chuck Gose: Yes.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah. So we’ve got some work to do to hopefully have some new challenges the next time we do this survey.

I think the other thing that was really interesting and a little bit of same yet different is the top three concerns of executives was the same, but one of them that was in the top three before, which was the executives expect communications to prevent rumors and misinformation, that actually went from their second concern to their top concern. So I think that’s really interesting in the era of fake news. I think it’s interesting in the era of employee activism. And it really is up to the organization to make sure that we’re getting the right information to employees and so that it’s not filling voids with rumors and misinformation.

Let’s see. Another thing, and I won’t go through everything because we could talk for hours about it, and this is a positive one. One of the really significant changes is that communications teams are having more of a say in the tools that they’re using to reach their employees. When I was at Gap, we were kind of handed our internal communications platform from IT and it was like, “Here you go. This is what we bought you. Good luck. Hope it does what you need it to do.” And even in our 2016 survey, a quarter of communications professionals said they had no involvement at all in that decision, which is kind of shocking. And they were just handed the tools like I was at Gap.

But in this last survey only 3% said they had no involvement. And more even said that they were drivers of the decisions. So I think that that’s a significant positive change.

Chuck Gose: That’s a huge change.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah.

Chuck Gose: That’s a huge change.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah. So they’re taking control, which is back to command and control. Communicators are control freaks, I like to say.

Chuck Gose: And why do you think that is? Why do you think they are more on the controlling side of things?

Sonia Fiorenza: Why are we control freaks?

Chuck Gose: Yeah.

Sonia Fiorenza: I think it’s a little bit of the nature of the job. You’re in a very high profile job. All eyes are on you, whether they’re all executive eyes or all employee eyes. In the past we’ve been perfectionists and we’ve made sure that we got the message exactly right, and it was before things moved so quickly like they do today. Now messages have to be faster and tools are faster and both executives and communicators have to be more comfortable with good enough and enable others and let the conversation flow.

Chuck Gose: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, I think, it comes up a lot of times around this idea of fear of failure for internal communicators. I don’t think that’s unique to communicators. I don’t think anybody likes to fail. But I think where other people view it as more mistakes that they made, and you quickly remedy them, internal communicators, for whatever reason, tend to wear them as almost like a scar that they never forget and they never want to repeat. Obviously you don’t want to fail over and over again. But I do think there’s a time where maybe this survey speaks to that where at least by being involved, so going from a quarter that didn’t to now only 3% that didn’t, by being involved, your voice is now being heard. Maybe not fully responsible, but at least your voice is being heard.

Sonia Fiorenza: Well, yeah, your voice is being heard and you’re also getting the tools and the platforms that do what you need them to do, and that are purpose built for what you need to do to get the right information to the right people, and to bring other people into the conversation, which I think in the past the tools weren’t built to do that and communicators weren’t there to say, “Wait, this is what I need. This is how we can get this done.”

Chuck Gose: And this is a great segue into July 24th. You and I are going to do a more in-depth conversation this time via webinar around the 2019 Internal Communicator Index, breaking down the good, the bad, and the ugly of this year, and again, much deeper into some of the data, the trends, the analysis of what we’re seeing. So if you want to get a sneak peek at that, go ahead and you can download that 2019 Internal Communicator Index. Also there, then you’ll be able to sign up for the webinar as well. Should be a great conversation, and again, we’ll come up with a fun little Western theme.


Webinar: Learnings from our 2019 Internal Communicator Index: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Sonia Fiorenza: This time we’re going to be Western.

Chuck Gose: Western, Western theme.

Sonia Fiorenza: We may or may not have given a couple of our good, bad, and ugly in here already, but we’ll talk about that more-

Chuck Gose: That’s all right-

Sonia Fiorenza: … on the 24th.

Chuck Gose: That’s all right. That’s all right. So we talked about culture and comms and let’s get to the fun part of this, was it maybe the more fun part of this, Sonia. What is your favorite cocktail?

Sonia Fiorenza: My favorite cocktail. Okay, so people know that or people who know me know that I like wine. I like bubbles. But one of the things that I also like if I’m drinking a cocktail is bourbon. I came across a cocktail at a restaurant in San Francisco called Prospect. The funny thing is the drink is not on their menu anymore, so I can’t tell you the name of it, but what I call it is bourbon and bubbles. I even made the waitress give me the recipe for it so that I can make it at home. So are you ready for this?

Chuck Gose: I am ready.

Sonia Fiorenza: Okay. It’s one and a half ounces of bourbon, a half an ounce of honey, a half an ounce of lemon juice I’m assuming was what we know here, and an ounce of champagne. So bourbon and bubbles, you can bring them together into a delightful cocktail.

Chuck Gose: It’s a little bit like the bourbon version of a French 75.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah, a little.

Chuck Gose: It sounds like.

Sonia Fiorenza: Yeah, kind of it is.

Chuck Gose: A little bit like that. It’s a good one. That’s a good one. Sonia, thanks again for coming on Culture, Comms, & Cocktails. Again, that webinar is going to be on July 24th. Go to firstup.io/events to sign up. And thank you, Sonia.

Sonia Fiorenza: Thanks for having me Chuck.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms, & Cocktails on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that Subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.

Don’t miss an episode. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)


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Chuck Gose

I’ve always said the best part of my day is when I spend time talking and creating with internal communicators. And now that’s what I do for Firstup as the Head of Community & Industry Insights. In my nearly 25 years of communication experience, I’ve found internal communicators to be the most passionate. . . present company included.

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