ICology: PRSA Connect Pt. 1

Ep #20, Steven Handmaker, Jeff Corbin & Cindy Crescenzo

This is a break from the traditional episode listeners of ICology might be used to. I attended and spoke at this year's PRSA Connect, PRSA's annual employee communications event. While there, I thought it would be great to catch some audio from a few of the speakers. 

This is the first in a three-part series of interviews I conducted while at the event. In this episode, you'll hear from: 

  • Steven Handmaker, CMO, Assurance
  • Jeff Corbin, Founder & CEO, Apprise Mobile
  • Cindy Crescenzo, President, Crescenzo Communications

ICology is available on iTunes as well as many other platforms and apps. Or you can listen to the media player above. 

Episode Transcript

Chuck: Hello and welcome to ICology, the podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this episode, you'll hear insights from speakers at this year's PRSA Connect conference. If internal coms is your passion then this is your podcast. Listen in.

For those who've listened in the past, this one is going to be a little bit of a different type of episode than before. I was recently at the PRSA Connect conference in Dallas. This is PRSA's annual employee communications event and thought I would take a chance to interview some of the more popular speakers from the event, as well as those that I think shared some really great insights for attendees. So you may or may not have attended, but regardless there should be some great information being shared here.

This is going to be part one of three episodes because there were so many great speakers at the event. In this one, we've got Steven Handmaker who's the CMO of Assurance, Jeff Corbin from APPrise Mobile, and then also Cindy Crescenzo from Crescenzo Communications. So I hope you enjoy these interviews. Again, they're not going to be perfect. You might hear carts going in the background, you might hear doors being shut. But they shouldn't be too destructing and should allow you to hear from some of the great leaders in the internal coms world. Hope you enjoy.
Chuck: I'm here with Steven Handmaker, CMO of Assurance. You just finished your session. How did it go?
Steven: I think it went really well. It was fun. Good. It was fun. 
Chuck: My big takeaway and it was a very succinct phrase that you used, was video crashes the written word. 
Steven: Yeah, that's true. That's painful for me to say because I love the written word. I'm a reader and a writer and it's hard to appreciate the fact that statistics show me time and time again that when I have information to share and I share with my employees, I know how many times they open and engage with what I'm writing to them, and how many times they watch the videos that I'm sharing with them. And there's something about seeing people's faces, hearing the inflection in the voice, gaining a deeper understanding that video brings than the written word does. Now, it's not true in every instance, and sometimes the videos need to be supported with the written word but you can't deny the impact that video has. 
Chuck: Well, I think the other powerful message you have around video, you guys aren't focused on it being perfect and polished. It's just about getting the message out. 
Steven: Yes. So whoever has that great expression about perfection being the enemy of...I buy that completely, because truly for us, the issue is we think there's an authenticity in being unpolished. I think that's okay. Sometimes you see these videos where a CEO or somebody in leadership is giving a message. And it's clear, they've got makeup on, and it's highly polished, and it's what...I'd rather know that it wasn't that well-scripted or that well-planned. Sometimes in those imperfect moments, you get to appreciate that it just seems more real and authentic. 
Chuck: Now I've heard you speak before, and one of the big takeaways I had from that was you'd share that...I don't know if you remember this or not. But kids don't grow up thinking and dreaming of being an insurance agent. It's not something...it's not being an astronaut, it's not being president. But you guys still, you celebrate them as individuals and successes. So talk about some of the things you do there that make the day-to-day life bigger than just being an insurance agent. 
Steven: Yeah. So that is true. Nobody wants to get in insurance. There's a few insurance colleges, and sometimes we meet those people and we question their sanity. So I don't get it. But in general, you have to make people appreciate what it is you're about, what is your mission as an organization. Ours is minimizing risk and maximizing health. And so what people do every day to do that and make that happen is stories and things that we are very comfortable sharing and appreciating. So we do that a lot, in a lot of big ways and then in a lot of very simple and subtle ways. So a lot of times our employees will get phone calls from other department leaders who have heard about their stories just saying, "Congratulations," and, "I heard what you did," and, "Thanks, way to go." Our CEO rather calls everybody on their birthday. 
There's personal touches that we always share with people that let them know we're thinking about them as individuals, and then we make it very easy for the rest of our employees to congratulate one another. So we have an awesome electronic high-five system which an employee can go on, congratulate, give an electronic high-five to one of their teammates or somebody in another department. They can make that high-five public or private, and if it's a public one that they are comfortable sharing that person not only gets a message which is a really fun and exciting message to get when you get a high-five, but we post that high-five on our intranet. We put it on the company LCD screens in our offices. We share it and we do something with that. And then a lot of times, we'll post them to social media just as a way of letting people know that they are well-appreciated for the work that they are doing for us.
Chuck: And you guys have been recognized as a great place to work by different institutions, and you mentioned about your engagement scores are really high. So how do you keep maintaining that? How do you keep building it versus just resting on your laurels? How do you keep pushing that?
Steven: Yeah, it's hard. And the truth is we have to work harder at it because there is a reality that with our increasing size as a company, inherently country-wide as you get bigger, scores inherently go down, sort of the law of large numbers really does start to work against you. So you have to work harder at it. And we do, but it's not easy. It's an effort. It's a strategic effort. If you just let it lie, it will fall. So it's coming up with new ideas, it's making sure you're constantly listening to your employees. Hey, are we been doing something for a few years that now just feels false to you? Because that can happen and that's okay; not everything is meant to be forever. So we're constantly listening and responding and learning, and I guess that's part of engagement as well. 
Chuck: Now one final thing, you're not the internal coms director. You're not the VP of HR. You're the CMO. So do you think that's what brought a different mentality there?
Steven: Yeah, probably. That started early on when I got to the company. This is now more than 10 years ago, but I have a general philosophy, and I'm sure there are many who will throw something at their computer or radio when I say it. But the general philosophy is that "God bless them, but there's nobody in the world who can give all employees a day off at work and make it sound like a punishment the way people in HR or legal can." I find a lot of times that communications falls within those two departments. So internal coms is, "Oh, it's a function of HR." Or, "It's a function of legal." Look, they do an important work, but nobody could suck the fun out of something at times the way they can. As a marketing group, we are paid to be the creatives and the messengers of the organization. You might argue that we spend just as much time, if not more time, marketing internally to our own employees than we do externally, and it kind of works in our organization from the inside out.
Chuck: Well thank you very much, Steven.
Steven: Thank you. Appreciate it. 

Chuck: Alright, here with Jeff Corbin, the CEO and founder of APPrise Mobile here at PRSA Connect. Jeff, you guys have been a part of this event several times, correct?
Jeff: Yeah, this is actually our third year as a sponsor. 
Chuck: So what keeps you coming back to this event?
Jeff: I mean, this event is made up of the ideal audience for us. Our focus is on employee communications, so all the people that are here today are focused just on that. And it's really incredible to see that this year there's more than 200 people all really excited to talk about employee engagement, employee communications. 
Chuck: And then you guys are focused on the mobile space. So what are you seeing from a communicator's standpoint with their attention and interest in mobile?
Jeff: Well I think it really comes down to when you think about how employees now expect to be communicated with. Everyone's mobile. Everyone carries a mobile device with them 24, 7 days a week. In fact, people kind of freak out when they don't have their mobile device. So there's an opportunity to engage with and communicate really intimately with employees through this very personal device. Our solution was created, the employee app was created to enable that to take place and to allow corporate communicators, employee engagement professionals to be able to do so in a quick and painless and cost effective way. 
Chuck: And you have a background in corp com?
Jeff: That's correct. Before founding APPrise Mobile, which was...I can't believe it was four years ago, I actually was CEO of a public relations consulting firm where I specialized in internal communications. 
Chuck: And then you guys also recently received really great, I should say cool recognition from Gartner. I want you to talk about that a little bit. 
Jeff: Yes. So, Gartner, every year has their cool vendor report, and this year, 2016, we were included as one of five cool vendors in the digital workplace category. Which has us totally pumped because what we're really focused on, when you think about the digital workplace, it's a relatively new area of technology. But it's real and it's not just about email and just about the mobile device. It's actually about solutions for facilitating technology or using technology to make for a better workplace. 
Chuck: Now I see especially when it comes to mobile, I see a lot of communicators inventing obstacles for themselves. We'll never do that because of this. Nobody would ever approve that because of this. Do you see this sort of imaginary obstacles or do you see there's real hurdles for people to overcome?
Jeff: So our development has been based on the actual requests of our customers. So we've never said, "Oh, we think this solution will work best." Rather, it's our customers telling us, "We need this. We need that." And then when we start to hear it enough to develop organically from the actual needs, so that when we go to launch new features and functionality, we know that it's going to serve a practical purpose in the workplace. 
Chuck: Wonderful. Thank you, Jeff.

Chuck: So one of the great things about coming to events like this is you get to meet a lot of new people. But another benefit is you get to reconnect with, not say old friends, but friends you don't see very often. And so Cindy Crescenzo is here at PRSA Connect speaking. I'll be introducing her a little bit later. She's talking about measurement. But before we get into that, I consider her the queen of the IC audit. And ss we talked before, audits tend to scare communicators, but to you, Cindy, why are they so important?
Cindy: It's the only way that you'll find out about your audience. And throughout this whole conference, we're hearing all of these communicators talk about the importance of breaking the mold. Trying to figure out how to cut through the clutter. You can only do that if you are in tune with your audience, know what works, what doesn't work, and can prove it to the leadership to get buy-in to do things differently. 
Chuck: I think for some reason, audits have a very negative connotation because people think, "We are going to find out all the things I did wrong." When in fact, you're probably going to find out some surprises that maybe you're doing really well. 
Cindy: Absolutely. It's about finding out what doesn't work. Of course, you're going to learn that. But it's also about finding a lot of great opportunities. Because if you go out and ask your audience, they will tell you. And internal communicators need to start thinking more like marketers. And I came from an external marketing background because I started employee communications. The most important thing was testing. If you didn't have a test and know what fails, you are going to fail. So failing is actually part of the deal. It's a part of growing. It's a part of learning, and you definitely need to get your head around what is not working in order to figure out what does. 
Chuck: And it's more not discovering failure as a failure because you're spending resources on something that isn't working. 
Cindy: Absolutely. I could not stress that enough. And people say how do we break the whole mentality of, 'Oh, that new way of communicating might work for a different company, but that's not the way we've always done it.'? You've got to show them that what you're doing is not working. There's not an executive in the world that will see data backing up that a specific communication effort is not working and tell you to keep doing it. Nobody has the time, money, or resources to waste. So that's why measurement is so crucial. 
Chuck: So you're not here talking about audits, you're talking about measurement. 
Cindy: Measurement, yeah. 
Chuck: So what are some of the basic strategies where somebody is just looking to understand...everybody knows it's important. I don't think they know where to start. 
Cindy: Exactly right. So hopefully by the end of the session today, I can really help people understand using three main tools, which is surveys, focus groups, and executive interviews. And it's something...there are great, quick techniques that we'll review on my session today that really help communicators, even if you're not a math person, and I hear it all the time, "I'm not a numbers person, I'm a communicator." I get that. So we're going to make it as easy as possible, but those are the three main tools you can use on an ongoing basis to always understand your audience. 
Chuck: Well Cindy, I don't buy into the math thing. It's numbers. It's business. Grow up a little bit. But three...of your three things, two of them are face to face. 
Cindy: That's exactly right. And that's again, the only way I think is going out and talking to people. And sometimes people discount focus groups when they think about measurement. They all want nothing but numbers, and I understand that. Clickthrough, metrics, that's great. The focus groups and interviews help you understand behavior and what the behavior means with those numbers synced along with it. So you need that one-two punch. You need your numbers and the anecdotal behind it to really understand the full picture of what's going on with your communications. 
Chuck: Now is this your first PRSA Connect Conference?
Cindy: It is. It is.
Chuck: Okay. What's sort of your general perception as a newbie?
Cindy: As a newbie, this is so exciting. I was really impressed with the number since it is employee-focused. I always thought that PRSA is more external. The participation rate is huge, which is awesome. There is a lot of energy. I...reading through and seeing some of these speakers, I am loving that everyone is touching on measurement in some way, shape, or form. I think that's a big sign. It's so, so important. But it is really so great to see all these different communicators and hearing the amazing things they are doing. It can be done. You can be creative in corporate communications. It's possible.
Chuck: Yes, you can. All right, thank you, Cindy. 
Cindy: Thank you. 

Chuck: I want to thank Steven, Jeff, and Cindy for taking the time at PRSA Connect to speak with me. And as Cindy said at the end, PRSA is way more than just external communications. I'm on the board for the employee communication section, so I hope more of you will be interested in attending PRSA Connect 17 in Denver next year. We had 205 attendees this year, and I hope to have even more attending next year.

And again, this is just one of three episodes with interviews from PRSA Connect. So if you don't want to miss those future ones, hit that subscribe button and hear from more leaders within the internal coms world. And also, follow along on Twitter @LearnIcology to pick up show announcements as well as other internal coms news. If internal coms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Thanks for listening.