Brenton Miller is an Internal Communicator who has held strategic positions at Financial Engines, Legal Zoom and The Walt Disney Company. With a diverse set of skills and experience, including an education in computer science and business, he brings a unique perspective to employee comms.

 
Chuck Gose: You were in Denver for PRSA Connect in June, but we didn’t get the chance to meet. What did you think of the event?

Brenton Miller: It was incredible. It was my first conference ever and I was a wide-eyed kid in a candy store, trying to learn as much as I could — lots of knowledge and experience all around. I even got to describe my work and provide some suggestions to a few fellow attendees.

CG: Did you return back to work with some fresh ideas?

BM: Absolutely. I have a small booklet of ideas and a page of to-do’s that I’ll be taking with me wherever I go. I’m particularly interested in trying to get social and more creative elements into my work.

CG: Think back through the booklet of ideas and the page of to-do’s. Is there one that excites you the most?

BM: I was really inspired by Kristin Hancock’s method of employee spotlights. I do written versions of that right now, but her use of video was something I was considering, especially as it gets across so much more in less time. So I actually have gone out and bought a gimbal, microphone, and resurrected my old iPhone to use as a proof of concept.

CG: Cool. It’s obvious there’s a ton of value in communicators doing more video, BUT I’d like to see communicators get more creative with video. Are there any types of videos you’re looking to do?

BM: One of the ideas I had for my current company is to create some videos of our client/customer experiences with our product. When it comes to our product, we as employees don’t always get to interact and see the result of our work - so bringing that to life through video, as a kind of VR experience for in-person customers or by giving better tours of those customer experiences, would be great. Additionally, the company I’m going to next week is a global company and there would be great opportunity to provide ways of better connecting offices through video, like VR or office tours.

CG: Let’s go ahead and bring this out. You’re being coy because you’re leaving one company and joining another. So rather than hurt feelings, we’re just leaving company names out.

BM: Haha, that’s right.

CG: I did some snooping on your LinkedIn profile and noticed that you do not have your degree in comms, PR or journalism, which is rare. Your degree is in business and economics. Some might find this strange, but I think it’s a huge asset to have.

BM: That’s right. I didn’t go to college with a degree or future in communications in mind. Truth be told, I was very quiet and introverted all throughout high school. I originally went to college for computer science, hoping to design video games. I switched to business after a few years and found that my experience and knowledge of computer language has really helped me to be a better communicator with technology teams. It was my time at Disney that brought out the extroverted communicator in me.

 

"I think many Internal Communicators could learn from classic games like the old Final Fantasy or Earthbound that focus heavily on the story to bring those characters to life."

 

CG: We’re going to get into the Disney stuff later, but here’s what I love about Chuck Chats, other than my name being on there. You never know where the questions are going. I had no idea you wanted to design video games. And now I’m going to jump all over that. Ready?

BM: Bring it on.

CG: A huge part of video games is storytelling. And that’s also big in the internal communications world. What do you think comms people could learn from video games?

BM: It’s funny you mention that because that’s what I look for in the games I play — the story and how it draws me into the world. I think many Internal Communicators could learn from classic games like the old Final Fantasy or Earthbound that focus heavily on the story to bring those characters to life. As in, taking a look at how they build the world around those characters and their relationships in game.

CG: And so what’s your platform of choice? PC? PS4? Xbox?

BM: I tend to be a PS4 and Xbox gamer. Console generation but lately I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIV online again. There’s actually a really great documentary on how the game launched, failed, and relaunched itself, which is a great way of storytelling and is responsible for bringing me back to the game. I might be applying some of those techniques in my internal communications in the future.

CG: Have you seen the documentary called “Atari: Game Over?”

BM: I have! Watched it last month. What’s funny is that Atari is now launching a new console.

CG: And here’s where I’m going with this. I love that the documentary focused on this very benign but borderline-conspiracy theory rumor about ET game cartridges being destroyed in a landfill. It seems like any communicator could take this same approach with rumors/theories in their own companies.

BM: They certainly could. It also serves as a reminder to get out ahead of the rumor before it becomes legend. The small details of how we report and communicate make a difference. For instance the rumor about ET game cartridges isn’t entirely true as seen in the documentary because there were many more cartridges in that landfill too.

CG: Could be seen as like an internal version of Myth Busters or something.

BM: Now that would be an interesting mini-series to do internally.

CG: Employees could submit myths and communicators could venture out and prove them true or false.

BM: I like it. You can take that in many directions and add a lot of good humor while getting an important point across and providing clarity through communications.

CG: Now let’s jump into your background at Disney. It’s one of those organizations that’s held in such high regard when it comes to culture. So my first question is simple. Is it as great as everyone says it is?

BM: That’s a question I get a lot. Like any company, Disney is only as great as you are passionate about the product you create. I met folks at Disney who definitely hated working there, and I met folks who liked it at first but it diminished over time. Then there were people like me who liked it for four years straight and still think about going back. It’s because Disney does a great job of providing fun perks, and instilling their culture and values into their cast members (employees). I used to lead orientation for a time at The Disneyland Resort and it was my job to get people to remember one thing: “We Create Happiness”.

So what I would tell folks is this. If you can remember what you’re providing and the difference you’re making to the guests/customers/clients, whatever you call them, then that’s what will keep you passionate about working there. So I might be a little biased when it comes to how great Disney is, but for me, it was incredible and I owe a lot of my professional experience, personality, and ethic to them.

 

"Wearing many different hats is something I really carried on from Disney and it’s given me the courage to try out a lot of different internal communications techniques."

 

CG: I’ve never worked at Disney but know people like you who have, but in various other roles. One thing that always impressed me was the attention to detail. (Spoiler alert.) For example, all Snow Whites had to sign their name exactly the same so that some kid didn’t catch on. You’ve had several jobs since then. What are some things you learned at Disney that you’ve carried on through other roles?

BM: Here’s another quick spoiler - I used to know how to sign for the princesses and many Disney characters too. On that point, Disney was great about being able to cross-utilize and try out different jobs. Wearing many different hats is something I really carried on from Disney and it’s given me the courage to try out a lot of different internal communications techniques. It was the reason I had no fear when I walked into my internal communications role at LegalZoom and got asked to redesign the intranet. I said “ok” and set about teaching myself HTML, Javascript, SharePoint, etc. to do it.

Beyond that, I definitely brought my sense of networking, relationship building, and fun to my roles. Networking was huge at Disney and it’s made being a communicator easier because I build relationships with the people I need information from.

CG: To date, what has been your greatest internal comms accomplishment?

BM: Always a tough question. I might have to say this would be organizing a client visit to a company. What makes it an achievement is that I did it within three months of my start at Financial Engines. We had never had clients in the office before, I was fresh onto the team, didn’t even know the product that well, but I saw an opportunity to do something different and push the boundary there. When we finally got them in front of the 700+ employees there was a standing ovation for them. That’s how much the employees care about the clients here and what made it really cool and special.

Since then our CEO has wanted to bring customers in every time. There’s some challenges there but I know it’ll happen again.

 

"It makes it a lot easier for our employees to work hard and put more effort in if they know they’re making a tangible difference."

 

CG: Well done. There’s a lot of talk in the IC space about linking employee experience with customer experience. But for a lot of employees, they never hear from customers.

BM: That’s right. It’s challenging when you don’t get to see the result of your work for the customers. That’s what made Disney so easy too. All you had to do was go play in the park and see the families, or experience it for yourself. It makes it a lot easier for our employees to work hard and put more effort in if they know they’re making a tangible difference. It’s hard to do in internal communications to get that point across sometimes.

CG: There’s pressure on companies to have a culture like Zappos. Or Disney. Or Southwest. Or whatever company is being lauded. But I tell them you can only be you. And only they can be like them. I think you did a great job of making that improvement to the all-employee meeting but still letting the culture be who the company is.

BM: Knowing our company culture and the individual cultures of each office is important. You make a great point in that each culture is different and you have to find what’s special for them. What works at companies like Zappos, Southwest, Disney, etc. may not apply broadly.

CG: I saw an interview that author Malcolm Gladwell gave recently. He talked about how we now focus on what makes us different and unique. But in reality we’d be better off if we talked about how we are alike. I think that’s a great mantra for communicators to use to help unify companies when politics/the world are fracturing us.

BM: I think there’s a balance there. People want to feel unique and different but bringing together some unifying characteristics really help us feel connected. One of the things I do in my employee spotlights is ask them for a fun fact they’d like to share - as random as possible. So I’ve heard people mention that they make moonshine in their bathtub, run 100 miles in a month, throw beads in a mardi gras parade. It’s always been the most commented on part of our spotlights. The unifying trait there is we all have an unusual fun fact about ourselves.

CG: And so what’s yours?

BM: I once had 6 cats. I made the mistake of picking up a stray one day when helping a rescue and she happened to be pregnant. It was definitely not something I was expecting to take on less than a year into having cats at all. Another one could be that I’ve now visited every Disney park in the world.

CG: That last one is a great one. We’ve mentioned you’re switching gigs. What excites you about the next opportunity?

BM: I’m really excited for the opportunity to flex my global communications muscles. It will be the first time I work at a company with offices outside of the United States and there’s a lot of new and unique challenges there that I hope to learn from.

 

"Every company I’ve been in an internal communications role has been a new venture for the company."

 

CG: Global does present some unique challenges, some more easily overcome than others. Is it a new role in the company or are you replacing someone who left?

BM: It’s a brand new role in the company. I’ll be part of the Human Resources team in particular. Every company I’ve been in an internal communications role has been a new venture for the company. That’s what made the PRSA conference so valuable. It was the first time I got to see and hear about effective ways to communicate outside of a Google search or online forum.

CG: That’s exciting being the first. You’re not inheriting any legacy systems or a “this is how the other person did it” environment. You get to put your own fingerprints on the role.

BM: Absolutely. It’s both exciting and terrifying, but important to know that they see you as the expert in the role so you can create your own path. That’s something I try to work on with the new college grads I mentor. It’s something I definitely struggled with coming out of school because I didn’t feel like the expert. But now it comes down to acting like the expert even if you aren’t at times.

CG: Since Connect this year was such a great experience, I hope to see you in Nashville in 2018.

BM: It’s marked on my calendar.

CG: Great. And let’s wrap up this chat with the same question others have received. Describe your thoughts on internal comms via an emoji.

BM: Only one? 😎

CG: Well done. Thank you Brenton.

BM: Thank you Chuck!