Known affectionately by many as the 'Godfather of Internal Comms' Shel Holtz is an influential communications strategist, speaker, author, as well as an IABC Fellow. His work in the industry spans five decades, including over 20 years of strategic consulting for large organizations through Holtz Communication + Technology.

 
Chuck Gose: You’re widely recognized as an influencer in internal and employee communications, making all sorts of top 10 lists. But I’m curious. In this profession, who do you admire or who influences you? 

Shel Holtz: Well, to begin with, there’s you. I’m a fan! Others: Rachel Miller, Barbara Fagan Smith (and her team), Mike Klein, Paul Barton, Sharon McIntosh, Lise Michaud, Mark Dollins... There are a lot of great, smart people out there doing internal comms.

CG: And when it comes to internal communication, you’re kind of all over the place. What I mean is that you speak at events, you have clients, you podcast, you judge awards. . . How do you keep it all straight? 

SH: Who says I keep it all straight?

In all seriousness, I just keep a simple to-do list. Today, I have Ragan awards to judge (healthcare communication), and I’ll block out half-hour segments to get through as many as I can.

CG: For those who have never judged awards, it’s a lot of work. I did it a few years for IABC and it’s a lot of time and effort. What do you get out of it?

SH: It does take a lot of time. People who put in the work to craft an entry deserve to have it considered. Unfortunately, there are too many that are easy to dismiss, mainly those that begin with clear, meaningful goals, then list only impressions, reach, or (worst) AVEs as the results. But it’s worthwhile. I get a good overview of the state of work people are producing in the field — not just day-to-day work, but the programs and campaigns people are most proud of. It keeps me on top of what the industry standards are (and where the industry needs work and help). It also gives me some good case studies to work with. I’ve even had a few on my podcast.

  

"In most organizations, there aren’t a lot of communicators, which means there aren’t a lot of peers who understand what qualifies as excellent work."

 

CG: Why do you think some communicators always submit for awards? And then others don’t? For those who do submit, what do you think they get out of it?

SH: A few reasons. It’s validation that a communicator can show to a boss. In most organizations, there aren’t a lot of communicators, which means there aren’t a lot of peers who understand what qualifies as excellent work. Getting that validation can be meaningful to a supervisor or executive. In other cases, with the right competitions, it’s the feedback that’s worthwhile. IABC uses a 7-point scale and requires commentary from judges, so it’s more than entering a contest. It’s a full-blown evaluation. In some cases, I’m sure it’s just ego gratification.

CG: You mentioned your podcast and so let’s spend some time there. I just saw on Facebook you shared your 101st episode of For Immediate Release (FIR). How much time a week do you dedicate to podcasting?

SH: About 1-1½ days per week to do FIR. A bit more time if I have an FIR Interview, which is a separate show. I spend an hour or so setting up the podcast a week before recording, creating the promotional art, and creating the story hopper (a Google Doc). During the week, I add stories to the hopper as I come upon them. On Sunday evening, I create the final rundown. Monday morning, I put the contents together, set up the recording sites, record, produce, publish, and promote, which takes from about 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then I do a little promotion during the week. 

CG: So it’s quite a bit of work. Plus you do the sessions with IABC Fellows, too.

SH: It’s work, but it’s fun. Podcasting is my hobby. The IABC Fellows show takes much less time. Another Fellow does all the prep work (lining up the panelists, for example). It’s a live broadcast too — no editing, as Mitch Joel says.

CG: If you had to estimate, knowing it would possibly be a ballpark guess, how many hours of podcasting have you produced?

SH: A SWAG — Scientific Wild-Ass Guess — is 1,500 hours.

  

"Employees will have little tolerance for long-form content unless it’s really entertaining and not just business."

 

CG: That is impressive. I was at a client site this week and one of the internal communicators there talked about wanting to start, or at least interested in starting, an internal podcast for their company. What advice would you share with them?

SH: I think there’s huge potential for internal podcasting, especially in companies with production or remote workers who aren’t at desks all day. I’m convinced we need to take a multi-channel approach with employees, whose non-work media consumption habits have splintered into multiple devices and channels. To start a podcast, you need to take a couple of preliminary steps. What’s the focus? Is it proprietary content or will it be okay if it’s shared externally (for easier access by employees and use by secondary audiences for employer branding)? What’s the format? One host? Two? Interviews? Field segments? Come up with a format and generally stick with it (though some deviation keeps it fresh). How long will it be? Employees will have little tolerance for long-form content unless it’s really entertaining and not just business. And how will you keep it entertaining? You’ll also need a good marketing program to create awareness.

Finally, know what success looks like. How many employees downloading and listening will you consider worthwhile? I’d also suggest listening to a lot of podcasts so you know what standards you’re up against. Steve Crescenzo points out that employee publications compete with Sports Illustrated and Cosmopolitan. Ditto podcasts. Why should I listen to yours when I can listen to Unorthodox or On the Media? I’m not saying you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars, but you have to keep the entertainment element in mind.

CG: Steve needs to update his examples. Probably more like Tasty Videos and Buzzfeed now. You mentioned On the Media. I’m a big Freakonomics podcast fan. What podcasts do you recommend communicators listen to, not ones about communications, but for style and substance?

SH: I’m a Freakonomics fan, too. I suspect a lot of communicators came to podcasts via Serial. It’s not one to emulate; they spent a fortune and the host read her copy. Not that reading copy is necessarily bad, but conversation works better, especially for internal podcasts where one of the outcomes is greater authenticity (the ability to hear the spontaneous reactions or responses from executives and others).

If you’re looking for shows that are more structured and address specific issues, I like Reveal, 99% Invisible, Lore, Criminal, and a few others like that. I also recommend Mitch Joel’s show, Six Pixels of Separation. He’s a brilliant interviewer. Also, just for kicks, Lexicon Valley, if you’re a language or grammar geek like me. It’s not quite as good since Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo handed the mic over to a linguist, but it’s still fun.

CG: A healthy variety is good because they will get the gears moving. Like with Freakonomics, their tagline is “The hidden side of everything.” That’s a great approach for internal communicators. Or another podcast I like is Adam Ruins Everything, where the host debunks commonly held beliefs. Both styles could work well internally with the right approach.

SH: Exactly. I think too many internal podcasts are dull recaps of the week’s news with a dull interview of a dull exec. That’s not something I’d choose to stick in my ears. You need to find an angle that will resonate with employees.

CG: I listen to the “Life at AT&T” podcast, hosted by Doug Magditch. It’s not strictly an internal comms podcast but essentially serves as one. So, produce something that you yourself would enjoy AND simply get started?

SH: Exactly. Consider a podcast for employees that outsiders would also find interesting. Slack did one that was wonderful (though it was short-term).

 

"The idea behind my model is to cover what a typical department needs to be doing, and needs to be focused on, that isn’t too complicated but would deliver value that a senior leader would be able to recognize."

 

CG: Earlier this summer you launched a New Model for Employee Communication. I think it was right around IABC World Conference or shortly after. Explain its beginnings. Was this something you’ve been mulling about for a while?

SH: Yeah, it was gelling in my mind for a couple years. It started when I read Gerry Corbett’s contribution to “Spin Sucks,” suggesting we needed to drop the “employee” (or “internal”) from employee communication. Then the former head of employee communication for BBC said something similar. It wasn’t long after that that I started hearing from communicators who were either out of work or had been absorbed into a corporate comms department because an incoming CEO or some other exec couldn’t figure out why the company was investing money in a discrete employee communications department.

I’m a passionate believer in the value of communication focused on employees, and having been in the field for 40 years, I started listing some of the things communicators weren’t doing that employees need, issues they weren’t addressing. What I find is too many departments focused exclusively on content production, one-way distribution of articles and videos. The idea behind my model is to cover what a typical department needs to be doing, and needs to be focused on, that isn’t too complicated but would deliver value that a senior leader would be able to recognize.

CG: How many different drafts or iterations did you go through until you got it right? Or is it always a work in progress?

SH: Dozens. And even after I presented it at the IABC World Conference in June, I got feedback that led to further revision. One person, Caroline Keely, asked about alignment. I had alignment as elements of other parts of the model, but after listening to her, I agreed it needed its own call-out. And Angela Sinickas asked about (of course) measurement. I just assumed everyone knew that all this all needs to be measured, but then I remembered what happens when you assume, and added measurement. I’m still open to further tweaks and adjustments. It’s a living thing.

CG: How do you envision communicators benefitting from it?

SH: I hope they’ll consider the parts they’re not currently using and figure out how to incorporate them into their existing strategies. One of the four inner circles of the model — the areas of focus — is on the customer experience, for example. I see few internal communication programs that keep the customer in mind. Employee communication can go a long way to creating more awareness of the customer and help employees who never see the customer figure out what they can do to help or to make the experience a better one. So just knowing that, a communication team can start thinking about how to bring the customer into the mix given the tools and channels they’re already using.

CG: When I was at Rolls-Royce, internal communications led the Voice of the Customer program. And it was an amazing thing to be a part of because you’re right — so few internal communicators ever get to interact with customers.

SH: Indeed. When I was at Allergan, I rode with a sales rep at least once a quarter, going in to meetings with doctors. Between listening to the docs and spending time with the reps, I heard things I never heard inside the walls of the organization. I started featuring a customer in every issue of the company magazine — what they liked about doing business with us, what they didn’t like, where they thought our competition was doing a better job. It wound up being one of the most-read columns in the magazine.

CG: It puts things in context for other employees. One of my favorite Voice of the Customer events was when an Army general came and spoke. No Powerpoint. No script. But he spoke for 45 minutes straight. And then answered every question openly and honestly. That’s true leadership and employees got to see customers in that light.

SH: That’s the kind of thing I recommend. I wrote a post about how to bring the customer into the employee communication mix a year or so ago, and I’ll refine it when I get to that point in the series I’m writing on the model. Brown bag lunches and face-to-face sessions, those can’t be beat.

 

"[Internal Communicators] are still producing one-size-fits-all communication in a larger communication environment in which personalization and relevance is getting more and more refined."


CG: When you do work with clients, what are the simple mistakes you see communicators keep making over and over?

SH: First, they’re measuring the wrong things. Too many communicators are focused on outputs and not on outcomes. In fact, I talk to far too many communicators who question whether communication can actually achieve outcomes. Second, they’re fixated on a single channel, usually the intranet (which, as most people define it, is all but dead as a preferred source of news and information). But I think what bothers me the most is a failure to link the department’s efforts to business strategy in a way that’s relevant to employees. We’re still producing one-size-fits-all communication in a larger communication environment in which personalization and relevance is getting more and more refined.

CG: Personalization. Relevance. Even context. Those are all pretty easy things to accomplish. Why do you think so many communicators are missing out on them?

SH: Could be a number of reasons. One is resources. I worked with one employee communication team that spent all its time putting out fires. Another is the “this is how we’ve always done it” syndrome. Another is a belief that communication IS mass-media, one-to-many. Finally, employee communication is rarely the best-funded communication function in the company. And I suppose I’d have to add that there are some communicators who just don’t understand that relevance matters. I worked with one company that had just added social media to the intranet (bolt-on commenting, liking, and sharing). Nobody was commenting on the big-picture strategy stories; everybody was commenting on the cafeteria and parking lot stories. Leaders took that to mean employees didn’t care about strategy. In a focus group, one employee said, “The fact that we’re doing X is interesting and I’m sure it’s important to the company. I’m glad to know about it. But it has nothing to do with me. So what kind of comment am I supposed to write? ‘Wow, that’s interesting’?” But the parking lot and cafeteria? Those are relevant to the employees who park and eat there.

CG: Great points Shel. We wrap this up the way all Chuck Chats do. Share your thoughts on IC in emoji form?

SH: 🤦🤳🕵😆

That is: frustration at getting resources, the shift to mobile, and the need to sleuth out the kinds of content and delivery mechanisms that will resonate with employees. Finally, if it’s not fun, you’re in the wrong line of work.

CG: Thanks for being on Chuck Chats!