As Assistant Vice President of Culture and Communications at Foresters Financial, Russell Evans is leading an award winning team focused on global internal and executive communications, while becoming known in the communications world as an influencer pushing for more authenticity and fun in internal comms. 
We tracked him down at IABC World Conference 2018 and asked him all about his team's award-winning project and the role memes can play in keeping employees engaged. 



Video Transcript

Chuck Gose: So we're back with the next Chuck Chat. I'm here with Russell Evans, the AVP of Culture and Communications at Foresters.

Welcome to Chuck Chats.

Russell Evans: Thank you.

Chuck: We first connected on LinkedIn.

Russell: We did.

Chuck: It's a pleasant surprise to see you here and also learn you won a Gold Quill while you're here so congratulations for doing that.

Russell:  Thank you.

Chuck: I think it's an interesting thing that you won four so why don't you just tell a little bit more about the Gold Quill.

Russell: Awesome. Before we do that, I want to say that I'm amazed with what you do. I love the focus on internal.

Chuck: You shouldn't be amazed.

Russell: There's actually this thing happening right now that has to be mentioned which is that a lot of communications gurus say, "Internal is dead. It's all about the convergence of internal and external and we can't think about internal. And internal's not that different."

In my view, internal is very different so I love that you're sort of putting the magnifying glass on that and exploring internal as its own discipline.

Chuck: Awesome. Well thank you for that.

Russell: Because it is.

Chuck: Thank you. Yeah. Now about you and your Gold Quill.

Russell: My team and I lead this campaign and I guess if you go a step back, we work for Foresters Financial and Foresters Financial is a really cool organization actually. It's like insurance, annuities and investments but we don't have shareholders.

We're actually a fraternal benefit society like the Masons. When you buy a product with us, in most cases you become a member and you kind of help us make the world a better place. So the more money we make, the more money we give to charities and we have an amazing organization, amazing history over 140 years, but our problem is that it's really hard to talk about Foresters because we're kinda a life insurance company and we're kinda not.

Chuck: Right.

Russell: And we're kinda the Masons but we're kinda not the Masons. So we're kinda a co-op but legally we're not a co-op, so our marketing department spent a lot of time last year developing a new sort of core story, a new way to talk about us. I was on that sort of team but they lead that.

Then they came to my team and they said, "We want your help making sure all forces in place know this core story. So it's about twenty words and they wanted every employee to know all twenty of the words in the right order, basically be able to recite it.

But at the same time, they said, "We want employees to make this story their own. We want the story to resonate with the employees, we want it to feel authentic and real and we want both of these things. So we want them to be able to recite the words in order but we also want these words to feel meaningful and real."

To matter to them.

Russell: Yeah.

So they gave us kinda carte blanche and said, "You figure out how you want to do that. How do you want to launch this to employees to achieve those two objectives."

And we threw a lot of ideas around and what we came to was, okay so it has to be something that kind of forces them into the box of these twenty words, but it also has to be something cool that sets their creativity ablaze. So what we kept coming back to was this idea of a video contest.

Wouldn't it be awesome if we could kind of set employees free and say, "You film a video. Do whatever you want. Make it funny, make it poignant, make it sort of a tearjerker, make it ridiculous, make it a music video, make fun of Russel. Do whatever you want to your video. You have to use these twenty words but other than that, there are no rules."

So that's the campaign we ended up running. It was a global campaign for all two thousand employees and it was: tell Foresters' story, use these twenty words. The rest is up to you.

Chuck: So sometimes when you do a video contest, which I think are great for employees, sometimes it's hard getting those first few in, getting them, encouraging them to be creative.

How did you encourage them to contribute, to be a part of that?

Russell: The first video was actually my video.

I made a video that was like not eligible for the contest but I made a video to show that you could make the video. My video was straight up terrible. It was me after hours, I was tired and of course I made it alone so I had to use a selfie stick. The whole video was basically me going, "Hi, I'm Russel, blah blah blah."

Just no. Nobody liked it but what was great about my video was, it lowered the bar so employees of all stripes from all locations saw my video, and it was a contest so we didn't pick the winners.

Employees themselves voted on the winners and the top three winners got really lucrative cash prizes and then matching donations for their favorite charities.

So there was a lot of skin in the game so employees saw my video and they were like, "Russel's video's terrible. If all I need to do to win is beat that, the money's already mine."

Chuck: So about how many videos did you have submitted?

Russell: That's a good question. I don't know the number off the top of my head. Something like twenty-five.

Chuck: Oh, okay. Very good.

So you said the employees voted on the top three, right?

Russell: The employees voted on all entries. Everything was eligible and the employee votes sort of added up to the top three.

Chuck: What made those top three? 

Was there a collective theme? Were they all different? What did those employees do that you thought was maybe even a bit creative or caught people off guard or that you thought, "I didn't know our employees would ever think that way or be that way."

Russell: Yeah, so the videos were actually awesome.

They were like across the board. So one great idea was sort of referencing Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood because Mr. Rogers is obviously the ultimate kind of philanthropist, community-minded individual.

A group of employees sort of acted the story of Mr. Rogers using a former employee of mine, Denzel, this very handsome, sort of like lovable, older, distinguished gentleman to play Mr. Rogers. They sort of acted out Mr. Rogers on his daily routine but his daily routine, instead of putting on his slippers, was doing good work in the community because that's what Foresters is all about. 

Another great video which was an ex-boss of mine, he had his kids act as Foresters' life insurance agents telling Foresters' story which was hilarious.

Another great idea actually had the CEO's dog talking. It was basically like told from the perspective of the CEO's dog and the CEO's dog, that dog's understanding of our strategy, our purpose, our culture. Which is obviously a little bit wrong but the dog got enough right that it was bold, humorous and educational.

And then finally the winner was somebody from our legal compliance team.

Imagine that.

Russell: Amazing as well that these were the people that we were most afraid of knowing about the contest.

We were sure they were gonna shut us down. Somebody from compliance ended up winning and her story was basically, she was the whiteboard to sort of depict visually, different elements of who we are and that core story I mentioned.

When the marketing people saw the contest and when it all worked out, the marketing department loved the results, but in particular they loved her winning video.

What they said was-- they reached out to her, they reached out to my team-- "What if we recreate that with kind of better graphics and use that to launch externally?"

So that's what they did.

Chuck: That's pretty remarkable.

Russell: It was cool, yeah.

Chuck: It is really cool.

So you won the Gold Quill for that and I said before that we connected on LinkedIn. You're an active contributor on LinkedIn and unfortunately there's a lot of internal communicators that don't invest the time in LinkedIn and other social networks.

One article in particular that you wrote, that I really like, is all about bringing fun back into communication because God forbid we have fun at work while we're working. You and I are very much in agreement that gifs and memes and emojis like that have a role to play.

Russell: Memes. I love the memes.

Chuck: Right?

Russell: People comment.

Chuck: Was that a bit of a risk for you to start throwing those in there or how did you begin approaching that at Foresters?

Russell: I used my attitude overall, comms, particularly internal comms, would be we need to innovate.

My perspective is that in internal comms, there's a lot of communicators who feel that employees are a captive audience.

Chuck: Right.

Russell: You know, they're there, they have to listen to us 'cause we pay their salaries and if they don't know, it's their fault because they didn't read the memo.

And that's not at all my perspective.

I guess my perspective would be we're competing against external media. We're competing against their actual day-to-day work. We're competing against the demands of family. We're competing against whatever cool is happening on Twitter. We're competing against the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

We're competing against everything, so we have to earn and keep their attention.

Chuck: 'Cause if anything, you're gonna draw their eyes 'cause this is gonna be something they don't expect to see at work.

Russell: Yeah, so I mean I guess the article on LinkedIn in particular you're talking about was some of the ideas my team has utilized to try to win their attention.

One of the pieces was, we did this story about one of Foresters' first presidents and CEOs.

This amazing guy named Dr. Oronhyatekha, who was a native Canadian way ahead of his time, complete genius. So inspirational. He was one of the guys that really made Foresters a much more forward thinking institution.

Members within Foresters, we actually extended the vote to women and minorities before women and minorities could vote in Canada, the US, and the UK. So we were considerably ahead of our time because of this gentleman. That was his forward thinking, not ours.

We wanted to do an article about him to sort of share his story with the employees and say, "Hey, if you're a Foresters employee, you're part of this tradition of stewardship that began with this gentleman, Dr. Oronhyatekha."

For a lot of long time employees it's a bit boring, right? Like they know about him, they've heard about him. If you worked at Foresters for thirty years you probably heard about him thirty times, once a year, same kind of article.

We wanted to do it in kind of a cool way so we did a BuzzFeed version of this story.

My team said, "What if we covered this story the way BuzzFeed would cover it? What if we did like a cool kind of top five, top ten list?"

We did the BuzzFeed kind of emojis like OMG and that kind of thing. We covered this as if we knew nothing, especially because our new employees, they don't know anything. We kinda decided to cover it that way and we used a lot of that signature BuzzFeed visuals and what we heard from our employees was, "This is an amazing story." Even many longtime employees were like, "I wasn't aware of this story. I knew something about it but--"


They just didn't pay attention before.

Russell: They didn't. Exactly.

So I think we thought that we told this story many times before, but we had not in a way that actually resonated. Then the other thing you're talking about is the memes.

So memes are something that I wanted to use for a long time. I mean in your presentation, this morning, you were talking about "99 Problems", the Jay-Z song. You said this is an idea, that you have this idea, but you haven't found sort of a home for it.

So similar for me, memes, especially for younger generation, I'm not a millennial but I've worked with them. For them, there's a lot of value in memes I think because they convey very quickly and easily, in some cases, complex and nuanced feelings and emotions. Right? It's a shorthand.

If you're not a millennial, to dismiss it and be like, "Ah, it's funny or it's silly," or whatever but it's actually not. There's actually interesting things being said there if you're willing to listen. We decided, hey, we wanted to use memes and I don't know if you read the article I--

Chuck: I did.

Russell:  --but it was basically to talk about some of the reasons you might volunteer with Foresters using memes. When we had Justin Bieber in there, "What do you meme?" and some other fun stuff.

What we heard from employees again was, "You made this matter by kind of talking to me in my language and relating to me, not as an employee but as an individual. And by finding a way to kind of win and keep my attention, you made something that I kinda needed to read feel like something that I wanted to read."

To me, that's the challenge that we all have as internal communicators.

Chuck: Well it's like when people say a picture is worth a thousand words.

RussellEvans Screenshot


Chuck: I guess an animated gif is worth a bajillion. Right? Cause it sort of the same thing. It sort of expresses that extra emotion or that nuanced emotion that you're not gonna pick up or try to even articulate.

Russell: I also feel strongly about authenticity.

I wrote a LinkedIn article a little while ago about the like authenticity in general. To me authenticity is about not just sort of speaking to people in a real voice, not a corporate voice, but in a real voice, but authenticity is also about acknowledging where you're not doing things the right way.

As an organization it's great to talk in your annual report all of your successes, but I would say you should be talking about the things you didn't do well.

Chuck: Right, right.

Russell: You should be saying really up front.

Chuck: When you dropped the ball on things.

Russell: 2017 was an awesome year but there's some things we didn't get to. And that perfectly sets the stage for what you're gonna do next, right? Because presumably you have your 2018 objectives but as a part of your 2018 objectives, you're gonna tackle some of the things that went wrong in 2017.

Why not just say it? But so few people do.

Chuck: Right.

Russell: What I've found in my career is when you talk that way to employees, you get instant credibility. When you say to employees, "There's somethings we did well. There's some things we didn't do well," immediately it's like peoples' ears perk up. You can see them.

They're on their phone, they're doing whatever. Swipe left, swipe right and ya know like, "Ya know what? 2017 was a great year but we had some screw ups."

Chuck: Right.

Russell: People immediately are like, "What? Did he just say? Did Chuck just say they had some screw--?"

Chuck: You said it. You said it.

Russell: You know what I'm saying, right?

Chuck: Yeah, yeah.

Russell: There's something incredibly powerful about that kind of authenticity of acknowledging.

Another thing is I'm giving the example of acknowledging things you did poorly or gaps or screw ups is the word I used, and that's kind of an extreme example.

A softer example would be saying, "I don't know."

Chuck: Absolutely.

Russell: So, as an internal comms team or when you're doing comms for an executive or even somebody as senior as the CEO, when you're helping the CEO with communications, you may advise the CEO, "Hey, if you don't know, you can say, 'I don't know. We're working on that.'" And again, instant credibility with your audience.

Chuck: So speaking a bit of credibility, that's a good segue.

As I mentioned I applaud internal communicators who run that day-to-day role, sharing their ideas, publishing content on LinkedIn, which you have done. You're not doing that as part of Foresters, you're doing that as part of Russel.

Russell: Yeah, absolutely. I think I have this disclaimer, I don't speak for free.

Chuck: I applaud that type of activity so why is that important for you? Why do you take the time to do that where other internal communicators don't take that time?

Russell: I guess--

Chuck: I do it for ego, but I don't know why you do it. What's your motivation?

Russell: My girlfriend would say my ego's very healthy and that's not why I'm doing this.

Why don't people do that?

I think one of the reasons employees may not do that or one of the reasons internal communicators may not share their thoughts, is they may feel that there is some sort of implicit rule against it.

Probably no one's telling them, "You're not allowed to do this," but they may believe, "Ya know what? I'm involved, I meet with senior executives and I know the way the sausage is made and I'm probably not supposed to talk about that. No one's told me that I'm not supposed to talk about that, but I sense intuitively that I should keep my mouth shut about the influences, the things that happen, before the email is sent out or before the speech is delivered."

My attitude would be completely different. Obviously there is confidentiality but obviously I think I know where the line is, what is and what is not confidential. I think my perspective would be I want people to know some of the decision making that goes into what gets published and what doesn't, what makes the speech and what doesn't.

I also kind of want advice. I want insights from people in terms of how do I do my job better and I found if I'm seeking advice, the advice I get is a lot better when I'm transparent about what the actual project is and what I've worked on in the past and where I think I've done well and where I think I haven't done well.

To me, part of a community, and that's what this is, we're at IABC World Conference right now, this is a community. I only get from the community as much as I give to the community so that's part of the reason I'm posting that.

Another part of the reason is I feel kind of junior, right? I feel like I have a lot more to learn, I have a lot more to grow as a communicator. I hear, I don't know. You know Mike Klein?

Chuck: Absolutely.

Russell: That guy's super impressive. I'm not Mike Klein.

Chuck: In a way he should probably hear this, but he's not around.

Russell: But you know what I mean? I will be honest with you, I'm not Mike Klein.

Chuck: There's only one Mike Klein, by the way.

Russell: I'm just like, I'm not at that stage of my career. He has skills that I don't have but the only way I'm gonna get there is if I'm transparent about what I'm working on today.

Being transparent, publishing these articles, has allowed me to meet Mike Klein online and he contacted me on LinkedIn and said, "Ya know what? You're on the right path. I like what you're doing." I was able to sort of win him as a mentor but only by being sort of willing to put myself out there first.

Chuck: Absolutely. All right, well thank you.

Russell: Thank you.

Chuck: That was awesome.