Transforming Canadian Pacific Railway’s Internal Communications Strategy

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New podcast on the challenges of reaching diverse frontline teams, and how to work smarter (not harder) by measuring the impact of your internal comms.

Culture, Comms, and Cocktails is internal comms served straight up! I’m your host, Chuck Gose, senior strategic advisor at SocialChorus, and on this episode, we have Melissa Murray, director of internal communications and community relations at Canadian Pacific Railway, or CP as the locals call it. 

Melissa and I will talk about how they transitioned from a pilot program to a full launch of their workforce communications platform, the challenges of reaching and engaging diverse frontline employees that also span across generations, using authentic videos in your content, and how to work smarter (and not harder) by measuring the impact of your internal comms.

“The measurement that you can get out of the SocialChorus on the back-end is really, really user-friendly, so you can just click on that content card and everything you could possibly want to know about your ROI is right there in front of you. It’s also nice to be able to validate with other people outside of the communication realm why you would make a recommendation and why you wouldn’t, and then to have those proof points so to say, Hey, a four-and-a-half-minute video, traditionally, it just hasn’t been performing really well and here are the numbers. But if you did a 45-second video, it’s going to probably improve by X percent and we can show you those proof points.”

-Melissa Murray

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 #15 Transcript

Melissa Murray: Thanks for choo, choo, choosing me to chat with today, Chuck.

Chuck Gose: Wow. Well done, Melissa. Grab a seat in the Culture, Comms, and Cocktails lounge, and let’s get started.

Melissa Murray: Thank you.

Chuck Gose: I’m completely off track.

All right, so as I learned, I got to be your advisor on this project, Melissa, and CP has been around for a long time, so talk about how long and how big, but also, what have been some of your communication challenges with employees there?

Melissa Murray: Yeah, so CP, Canadian Pacific Railway. It is an iconic Canadian company. Anyone in grade school in Canada will learn about Canadian Pacific Railway in school because it is credited with physically connecting the country from coast to coast. It’s one of the oldest Canadian companies. It was founded in 1881. For context, Canada only became a country in 1867, so CP is nearly as old as the country itself.

Today, we have a network of 12,500 miles, so CP is a Class 1 freight railway. Our network is in Canada and the US, and our employees work in big cities and small towns across the Canadian prairies, the US Midwest as well as port locations on the West and East Coast of North America, and the CP family, we refer to ourselves as the CP family, is around 13,000 people strong, predominantly male.

Melissa Murray: We’re quite evenly distributed across all age groups, so ranging from 18 years old all the way to 65 years plus, and of the 13,000 employees, about 80% or more work in train operations, so things like train conductors and engineers, track and equipment maintenance groups, signals and communications employees. It’s a really diverse group, and they are charged with running the trains, or fixing the trains, or laying tracks. All of the important things that you need to move freight.

Our biggest communication challenge is, of course, is that with the predominance of these employees being away from a desk, deskless employees, the touch points with them are limited, so when they come to work, they are there to do their job. They may log into a system and they might check the intranet, but they may not because a lot of their jobs are pretty safety-sensitive.

They can’t have a mobile device or any sort of electronic with them, so they’re not checking email every day, or in their 8 to 10-hour role, they’re not checking any sort of electronic, and they don’t have a corporate-issued device either, so they don’t have a laptop or a mobile phone from the company. There really are quite limited touch points with them, and traditionally, these touch points have all been fairly manual like posters, and bulletins, and things like that, so that is where our journey begins.

Chuck Gose: Now, I know that, again, from visiting with you and the team there, you are Canadian Pacific Railway, but you do have employees both in Canada and the US. Has that presented any challenges over the years?

Melissa Murray: Sure. I mean, I don’t know if it’s challenges… Culturally, I think Canadians and Americans are a little bit different, but I think railroading is the same, and it’s becoming more and more the same across North America, so certainly, the day-to-day operations of operating a railroad is absolutely the same across North America. There’s not really a challenge there with how the trains operate from a communications perspective.

I mean, it’s things that you wouldn’t normally think of right away, but because we are headquartered in Canada, in the past, we traditionally would celebrate Canadian holidays and maybe put a little bit more fanfare behind them. The 1st of July is actually a really big holiday in Canada, Canada Day, and we would tend to downplay the 4th of July, which I hear is actually a pretty big deal to some of our workers, and those types of things where… Diversity is actually one of the values at Canadian Pacific, so we’ve really been trying to get more open-minded and make sure that when we are creating anything, any brand new program, or system, or policy, or communication at the company that we are talking to people all across our network so that you’re getting all of those different perspectives and you’re not missing anyone and those kinds of things. Yeah, yeah. I mean, there are some challenges, but we work through them, and it only makes us better.

Chuck Gose: You guys launched the new CP XChange platform in Q4 of 2018 as a pilot. It’s now fully available to all employees, but what did you learn about running that pilot before the full launch, and what advice do you have to anyone else who’s thinking about running that pilot or starting off at that small group before making it available to everyone at the company?

Melissa Murray: I liked this question because it made me take a look back at where we were, and it’s been almost a year, which I actually can’t believe. It feels like we’ve had this app for so long now, which is a really wonderful way to feel about it, but I think looking back, we had wanted this pilot program because we were nervous about this change, and I think that’s just natural, and we had assumed that we’d be coaching a whole bunch of our user group to learn how to use an online tool for communicating.

But truthfully, I think what the pilot helped us do was the people who were in charge of publishing the content and whether that was our communications team or other content users that we had identified in the organization. It just allowed us to become more comfortable with the publishing side, and then really make this a habit in our day-to-day role so that when we did eventually roll out to the broad-based CP family, it was already something that we were doing.

I’m really happy that we had the support to do that pilot and to grow that comfort with how we were building content. It made us really ready to go when we did that, that broad-based launch, and we were excited for it, and we weren’t nervous about the content side of things, so that really did help us.

I think my advice to anybody looking to run a pilot would just be to do it transparently. We found real success by… When we launched to our small group, our pilot users, we were pretty upfront with them that this is what we’re doing. “This is new to us. It’s new to you, and we really want your feedback, and we might make mistakes, so bear with us as we sort of iron out all of the different kinks here.”

They were so great, but we also… In the pilot, we invited all of the members of our executive committee, so a lot of our vice presidents and senior members were in that pilot group, and we were upfront with them as well that this was just… “We are working through this new thing. We’re excited about it, but we’re not totally ready to go forward yet, but we really want your feedback too.”

I think by bringing on those senior leaders so early and making them part of that, the foundation of our CP XChange app, they… It just was… It’s like a top-down approach, which is really important because we had their buy-in from the get-go, and then they were also very well-versed in the app when we started to communicate it broadly to the organization, so that would be… I would advise anyone if they are going to take the time, and make the room, and be… given the rooms for a pilot program too. Just be transparent and maybe invite some people who normally would shy away from… when you’re making some mistakes.

Chuck Gose: You mentioned something very interesting. You talked about how during that pilot period, the impact or you got to discover the impact that would have to your day-to-day role and day-to-day activities, so how… Since it’s been about a year since you’ve started using the platform, how have you seen your day-to-day activity change with the CP XChange, or has it changed much at all?

Melissa Murray: Just today, I was on the phone with our vice president of human resources, and we were just talking about an announcement that’s going to be going out to him, and he said, “Okay. When it’s ready, we’ll get it up on the Internet and on CP XChange.” My heart was just singing because it… For them, it’s also become naturalized. It’s just another communication channel that we use, and people are aware of that, and it did take a little bit of time.

I mean, the program itself is built so it’s so user-friendly and it’s built beautifully that it’s not difficult to use itself. In fact, it’s quite intuitive, so I prefer using the SocialChorus tool versus our own intranet tool, but it’s just… Again, it’s just one of those additional channels, so it was never meant to replace anything that we did. It was just simply meant to compliment what we already were doing as another way to share information with our employees, and it’s doing exactly that. We’re really happy with it.

Chuck Gose: During the time I got to be there with your team in Calgary last summer, I know that measurement has been a challenge for CP at least related to internal communication, but now, with XChange, you can now measure the success of this impact for the first time. What does that mean to you as a communicator, and what does that mean to the business that now you guys have data to help tell this story?

Melissa Murray: I think for any communicator, it’s just so valuable to see how things are performing, and you just then can say, “This worked, so let’s continue to do this, and this, we thought it would work, but didn’t so let’s not.” If things aren’t resonating with your audience and it’s not engaging for the people that you’re trying to get to, then why waste your time? I mean, everybody is busy day to day, and we say around here, “Work smarter, not harder,” because we have… We’re a fairly lean team, and we have a lot of things on the go, but whatever we’re doing, we really want to see that return on our time investment.

The measurement that you can get out of the SocialChorus on the back-end is, again, like I said, really, really user-friendly, so you can just click on that content card and everything you could possibly want to know about your ROI is right there in front of you. It’s also nice to be able to validate with other people outside of the communication realm why you would make a recommendation and why you wouldn’t, and then to have those proof points so to say, “Hey, a four-and-a-half-minute video, traditionally, it just hasn’t been performing really well and here are the numbers. But if you did a 45-second video, it’s going to probably improve by X percent and we can show you those proof points.”

It just makes us, like I said, work smarter, not harder, and also, it’s just been really wonderful to have that information so quickly available to us even… And you know what? Even something as simple as the the heart button to like a story, that really does tell you a lot about how engaging that was or if someone read it and they thought, “I liked this enough that I’m going to click the heart.”

Just the other day, I was out… We do something called a safety walkabout across our networks, so you go out into the system, and then you get to see people doing their job, and then you talk to them about safety. It’s a really important part of Canadian Pacific and our culture, and I had asked this one fellow if I could just do a quick video of him and put it on the app, and he said, “Oh, what’s the app?” Great opportunity to explain it to him, and he is purely a union employee.

He comes to work, and then he’s out on track all day long, and then he even works at night, so he is not with his… Anyway, the story that I would have been asking him was, “Can I video you and your response to why safety is so important to you?” He said yes, which was wonderful, so I held up my iPhone and took a really quick clip of him, and he genuinely expresses that safety is important to him because he has night shifts and he’s working at night. The reason he wants to be safe and wants his colleagues to be safe is because he has a family at home sleeping, and he would hate for them to wake up in the morning and for him to not be there.

I got to capture that on video and then post it to the app. It just had wonderful engagement and so many likes, but what I really was really, really proud to see is… This gentleman, his name was Jerry, and we just called it Jerry’s Reasons, that video. I checked on who actually did like the post, and he was in there. He was one of the people who liked his own videos, so that meant that he went home after our conversation and made the effort to go to the App Store to download this app. We have two-factor authentication that wasn’t any… It wasn’t a barrier for him.

Chuck Gose: Well, as you told that story and him talking about working at night, and his family sleeping, and then coming home the next morning, it almost gave me chills. Talk about personalizing a safety story and that becoming a culture. Kudos to you for capturing that.

Melissa Murray: Yeah, and we were out there… Thank you. I was out there with some operating folks, and they probably wouldn’t think to do that initially because it hasn’t really been part of our culture, taking video and putting it on our app. We do have to take certain safety precautions, but I’m just glad for them to see me do that, and then to further see the engagement. Everyone that was with us that day was on the app, and they saw this video, and they can see the impact. The app has helped us do things like that more in-the-moment, genuine communication to our employees because while that story would be great on paper, it really is phenomenal once you hear it and see it from the person who said it.

Chuck Gose: Now, another great story is that… and this is something that I’ve learned about your organization, that every year, you guys operate this thing called the Holiday Train that’s this huge community event or series of events I guess that runs across Canada and US, and it’s one of the cooler company activities I think that I have heard of given its scope, and reach, and impact. I know you got to ride the train and part of the US this year, so what does Holiday Train mean to employees there? Maybe explain a little bit to those that aren’t familiar with Holiday Train, and what was it like for you to ride that train?

Melissa Murray: The Holiday Train is… We are entering our 21st year in 2019. The Holiday Train is… Gosh, how do I even summarize this? Such a wonderful program, and we’re so proud of it at the company. It started in 1999. It’s just an opportunity to give back to the communities where we operate, so it has never gotten away from that. That is the intent of the Holiday Train is to give back, so we will travel through 160 or more communities between the end of November and through December. The trains are decorated. There’s two trains. They both originate in Montreal, and one will travel west across Canada, and the other will travel sort of southwest through our network in the United States, and then back up into Canada.

Both trains are decorated with hundreds of thousands of led light, so it’s really fantastic to see at night, and in every community where we stop, we put on a free concert. There’s a train car that’s retrofitted with a stage that pops down. We’ve got some smoke and light effects, and we usually have some pretty well-known music acts. They’ll put on a concert, and then CP will make a donation to the local food bank or food shelf, and then anyone who comes to these events, we ask them to bring us food or cash donations to just keep in their community. That time of year, people really are struggling to make ends meet sometimes, so that’s the intent of the program.

I have had the pure pleasure of riding on the Holiday Train, so we allow… We let our employees travel from stop to stop. It’s a way for us to give back to our employees too. These are some of the hardest working men and women that you’d ever meet, and they don’t have those opportunities day to day to really be treated. There’s just so many people across our network, and it’s just a giant… geographically dispersed, so it’s really nice to get out there with something like this.

Employees can get tickets to ride the train, free tickets, with their families, and we’ll take them from one stop to the next stop, and they get to listen to holiday music and sweet… give them some small giveaways, and we treat them with cookies and hot chocolate like it’s just a really nice experience for everyone.

But the past winter that you’re referring to, we had gone all the way down to Kansas City, which is sort of our southernmost point in the United States, and we hadn’t done that before. In the 21 years that we’ve been doing this, we just haven’t really gone there. There’s reasons for that. Kansas City wasn’t always part of our network, but what have you… our first chance to go down there, and we took pictures.

This is during our pilot of our app, and we were taking some pictures of our employees on the train in those southernmost points and posting them to the app, and what it really helped do was remind people about the scope of our CP family and that you might be living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan running a train, but there is someone who’s living in Davenport, Iowa or Kansas City, and they are doing the same work as you, and you all care about the same things.

At this time of year too, it was just a nice way to just connect our employees in a fun way with photos and comments, and I’m really looking forward to… Now that we fully launched the app, I’m really looking forward to this year and seeing the engagement. I will be really surprised if it’s not… if it doesn’t sort of help us grow our user base, and I think it’s going to be really fun.

Chuck Gose: I think you guys will be amazed to see… as it matures in the organization as it is a… not as intentional, but people just default to it because it is the channel to go to. It will be interesting to see this year’s Holiday Train, what type of content gets curated up through there from employees that you guys maybe not… wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.

Melissa Murray: Right.

Chuck Gose: Which I think will be amazing, so you’ve given us some great insight into the culture there, whether it’d be the Holiday Train or that amazing safety video and safety story you shared. We talked about the comms activities at CP and how you guys continue to grow there despite having that lean team, so culture comms. The rest of the podcast is about cocktails, so Melissa, what is your favorite cocktail?

Melissa Murray: I mean, this is the hardest question on your show. It really is. Like narrowing it down, you mean my favorite cocktail today or always? Have you ever had a Caesar?

Chuck Gose: Okay, so no, I have not. Not a true Canadian Caesar. No, I have not.

Melissa Murray: Right. Similar to a Bloody Mary, but very much Canadian made with Clamato juice in place of the tomato juice, and we referred to it as a meal in a glass because it’s thick and salty, and some people call it a hangover cure. It’s perfect for patio season, but the reason that I am going to name it my favorite today is the Caesar was created… Its origin is right here in CP’s headquarter town of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. That’s where the Caesar originated.

Chuck Gose: Now, I know that people who are fans of Caesars are big fans of Caesars, but I did not know that it was born in Calgary.

Melissa Murray: It was born in Calgary, and I mean, if you… Just the word of caution. Like if you’re not going to garnish your Caesar with the pickled green beans, you just shouldn’t bother.

Chuck Gose: Well, there you go. That’s the ultimate tip then. I didn’t know that as well.

Melissa Murray: Right.

Chuck Gose: Well, Melissa, thank you again for being on Culture, Comms, and Cocktails. Keep up the great work with CP XChange and look forward to hearing more great stories from you.

Melissa Murray: Thanks, Chuck.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms, and 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, and Cocktails. Internal comms served straight up. Thanks for listening.

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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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