Why should you prioritize internal communications?
Communicating first or at the same time with your staff as external communications roll out builds trust. Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Fatima Jones, senior director of marketing and communication, at The Apollo, about what a high-functioning internal communications team can look like.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner, at Big Duck. So, when it comes to prioritizing audiences for communications and marketing, many nonprofits will name donors, volunteers, policymakers, activists, patients, program participants, the media, funders, ticket buyers, and other audiences often leaving out one, some might argue, is the most important audience: your staff. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Fatima Jones about why you should prioritize internal communications and your staff.
Farra Trompeter: Let me tell you a little bit about Fatima. Fatima Jones, she/her, is a cultural strategist, marketing, and reputation management leader. She’s the senior director of marketing and communications at The Apollo, a nonprofit arts, culture, and economic anchor, committed to Black artists and audiences located in Harlem, New York. Fatima is the former director of communications for the Brooklyn Museum, and before that, she spent almost a decade at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, also known as BAM, for those of us who live in Brooklyn. She’s been profiled by Essence, the Public Relations Society of America, The Network Journal, and many other publications. She’s a mother, wife, sister, friend to many. She lives in Brooklyn, and I get to see her sometimes. And she’s just overall wonderful. You may actually recognize her voice because she was on a previous episode of the podcast, episode 106, for those of you paying attention to our episodes, which she recorded several months ago about protecting one’s time: how wellbeing plays into decision-making. Fatima, welcome back.
Fatima Jones: Thank you, it’s great to be back.
Farra Trompeter: A few months ago, I posted a question on LinkedIn and then shared that directly with folks in my network, and I love what you had to say. In essence, I asked folks if they had staff that focused on internal communications and if they had any feelings about the pros and cons of having someone on your communications team, actually be communicating with staff. We then took some of the feedback we got and published a roundup of advice on our blog. We’ll link to that in the show notes. But for those of you who may not have read it, let’s start off with Fatima’s comments. Fatima, you spoke about how you try to communicate with staff before or at the same time as the media or ticket-buyers, for example, at The Apollo, and that by communicating first with staff or at the same time builds trust. Can you share a little bit more about that?
Fatima Jones: Yes. So, the way I look at internal communications is really a little bit for selfish reasons. I really think it’s important to keep your staff, keep your colleagues as part of the rollout of what you’re doing, meaning keeping them as key stakeholders in your rollout process. As you think about bringing news to your board, to your audiences, you also have to make sure that your colleagues, and when I talk about colleagues I mean across the organization, are also in on the information that you plan to put out there in the world. And I feel really strongly about this. I’ve felt this way since I started working in the arts, and it’s gotten even more poignant now because of social media. The worst is when you hear something about your organization from someone outside of it, and that can happen easily with social media, right? As soon as some great news hits, it goes like wildfire. When I’m rolling out things at The Apollo, specifically, when I press send on that press release, I’ve already pressed send on an email to my staff. Now, even if they happen to not look at it a little bit later, at least they know that we prioritized them knowing what was happening as much as we would prioritize people outside the organization.
Farra Trompeter: Now, I’ve also heard you say that everyone on staff is a marketer.
Fatima Jones: Oh, yes.
Farra Trompeter: How does that work at The Apollo or some of the other arts organizations you’ve worked for?
Fatima Jones: Well, that’s a little bit of an aspirational point there. I want everyone to be a marketer. Listen, I switched over from communications to just kind of managing communications to managing marketing and communications so I think I have a different way of looking at things. And so I feel really strongly about making sure that people are empowered with information. So it’s less about gatekeeping, and it’s more about the sharing of information so that I’m not the only one sharing out great news about the organization. Or, giving them the tools to talk about things that might be a little bit more tricky, right, so they don’t have to freestyle and perhaps make the situation worse by not having the information that they need.
Fatima Jones: So, one of the things I do is create talking points for big announcements. We’ll share talking points for the staff who are ordained to speak about the news and also talking points for people who may be asked about it. For a place like The Apollo, what’s interesting is we’re right here in the community on 125th street. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked outside of The Apollo and someone stopped me because they either saw me walking outside the door or they saw me with a badge on. And once you have that badge on, in my opinion, you’re a marketer. So, it’s really important to make sure that our staff has the information they need to talk about all the great things that we’re doing.
Farra Trompeter: No, that’s such an important point, and I do think, for many years in the world of branding, for example, the spokesperson of the organization or the world of PR, it was always, “Oh, that’s the executive director or the board chair,” but I really think, especially the way we see branding and the ideas of brand democracy, everyone should be a spokesperson and equipped to be able to tell your story and answer those questions so that if you’re walking out and they stop you and say, “What’s going on at The Apollo?” Or, “What are you all about?” that they have the information to do that because if they don’t, that won’t be good for anyone.
Fatima Jones: That’s right. And I think too, just not to keep bringing up social media, it’s a crucial part of this, right? So, you work at an organization, especially someplace like The Apollo or many of us who work in the performing arts area, you want to talk about that great show you saw or this upcoming thing that was just announced, right? And I think there are sometimes where you’re like, “Actually, here’s the way we’re framing it. Here’s why.” It’s really important to help people then take that information and then make it their own because sometimes you make it your own and it’s off-brand. And so we really want to give people the tools to do as much as they can to help support the organization, but then also just let them personalize it on their own after that.
Farra Trompeter: Big Duck has an area of work called Teams where we do a lot of work around communications planning, and we think about the structure of a communications team, how a comms team works in marketing or with fundraising or other departments, and I’m curious, how do you staff for internal communications? Do you see this as a full-time job or a department? Does it live in the comms team? Does it live in development? In the executive director’s office? Somewhere else? So, either at The Apollo or other places you’ve worked for, what are some structures you’ve seen that work for staffing for strong internal communications?
Fatima Jones: I think the nonprofit world should probably look at the way corporations work, right? In some organizations, they have a chief of staff who is pretty much dotted line to all the execs, works closely with the CEO perhaps, and perhaps they can be the person, the focal point, for sending out internal communications. So, I have to say, I haven’t seen it done right, honestly, in my 30 years of working in the nonprofit world, I just haven’t, and this is no disrespect to any organization I’ve worked at, but I will say that I’ve seen people take a good college try at it.
Fatima Jones: When I was at the Brooklyn Museum when Anne Pasternak came in, I really liked the way she kept the communication line open between staff and her office. At The Apollo I really appreciate our all-staff meetings. I think I mentioned to you once that we have a once-a-month all-staff meeting. Now that we’re, you know, in COVID times we’re doing it via Zoom, but in the before-times we met in person, and these meetings are two-way streets, right? It’s not just the execs speaking to the staff, it’s also about the staff giving feedback to the execs and allowing each department to share out about what they have going on. So in that way, I feel, on The Apollo side, I feel that that is a really great way of doing it, to kind of keep those lines open.
Fatima Jones: Honestly, I’m kind of the de facto internal comms person between the sharing of new news, between the press releases, and social media and such. We create toolkits. We’re always sending out information. So, kinda sorta, I am, I’m also the kind of chief activator so if something’s going on in the world and I feel like we need to speak out on it, I’m usually the one that goes, “Hey, we need to send something out to the staff.” But then also there are HR issues, right? HR needs to play a role in all of this as well. So, not a clean-cut answer to that question, but I will say that one of the things I want to share out to the listeners is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’d rather there be some communication than none at all. And I think one of the things that organizations do is that because it’s not perfect, they won’t share the information, and then that trust is kind of broken between you and your staff if they feel like they’re waiting for the information or that you’re stalling on sharing that out.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I can’t remember who’s the person who said it, but you’re making me think of the quote that I’ve definitely been embracing the past few years of, “Progress, not perfection.”
Fatima Jones: That’s right.
Farra Trompeter: Better to do something than nothing.
Fatima Jones: I think during COVID it became very clear that sometimes you’re not going to have all the information that you would like, and it’s better to share the information that you do have and even say like, “Look, we don’t have all the answers, but here’s where we stand, or here’s what we’re thinking.” I think that COVID just taught us a lot about internal comms. How much things were changing really brought into focus, how important it was to keep that line of communication open between the leadership team and the rest of the staff and vice versa.
Farra Trompeter: Now, speaking of keeping that line of communication open, what are some tools that you use or recommend that people use to strengthen internal communications or even to begin practicing it?
Fatima Jones: Well, I definitely think what I mentioned earlier in terms of just baseline talking points, bullet points for staff. Not just kind of sending out the press release but really kind of getting to your elevator pitch on the various pieces of news you’re putting out there. I love Slack, as long as it comes with rules. Slack with boundaries. Because I think Slack can be a little annoying if people don’t use it properly. And it’s a really great way of getting news out there pretty quickly.
Fatima Jones: I think you can also create private Facebook groups if people are into that. Like, that could be a way of sharing out information. You know, maybe not super high-level, important information, but team-building information, HR benefits, and such. And I also think that old school techniques like posters and letters and basic emails. One of the things that I liked that we did during COVID is that each of the execs took a turn to send out information about what was going on at the organization, and so you got a chance to see a different vantage point. So, instead of just hearing from the president, you got to hear from the chief development officer, from the COO, and each of them had a different way of looking at things from their perspective, and I thought that was really interesting. So, I would say a multichannel approach to internal comms because we all have a different way that we like to receive information.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I mean, what you’re talking about is just good general communications practices. Not just multichannel, but also meeting your audience where they are.
Fatima Jones: That’s right.
Farra Trompeter: If they’re in person and they’re coming to the space, have that poster up, send that email. If they’re gathering on Facebook, show up on Facebook because that’s where they are.
Fatima Jones: That’s right.
Farra Trompeter: So I appreciate you highlighting that.
Fatima Jones: You know, one of the things I’ve heard from some of the younger team on my staff, also, is just literally having face time with the execs. So, one of the things we’ve done is I’ve invited the execs into our team meetings just to come and see what we’re doing, to hear from them about what’s on their minds, and it just gives an easier way for them to kind of get to know each other.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, we’re not talking just about people having information and being able to answer questions, we’re also talking about culture and building relationships so I appreciate those ideas. Now, speaking of, when we were prepping for this conversation, you mentioned something called the “good catch.”
Fatima Jones: Yes.
Farra Trompeter: What is that? How did it start? Tell us all about it.
Fatima Jones: So I cannot take credit for “good catch.” We had a former general manager, his name is Joe Levy. Shout out to Joe. I think he’s at Usdan right now, which is by chance, my daughter’s old camp. He’s COO over there, I believe. He had this idea of creating a little game, which is another tool, gamify, sending out information and receiving information. So, that’s a nice little trick there. So, we gamified getting people to tell us when there were operational issues around the building. And essentially, we created a box and people can drop in things they saw around the building that maybe needed repair or any kind of security breaches or things of that manner. And you could do it anonymously, or if you put your name on it, you could get a prize at the end of the month. So at all-staff, he’d pull out all of the recommendations and give some information about what’s the best way to handle it. So, if you see something, say something, or if you see something, tell security or whomever, and we would gamify it, and the best “good catch” won, and usually, you’d get some merch or maybe a Starbucks gift card. And I tried every month, I never got one, but I think it’s just a nice, cool thing to do that actually was fun, but it also was really helpful to the organization.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, I love that idea. And I can imagine how it could be adapted to all different kinds of things, communications opportunities, branding moments, and all of that.
Fatima Jones: That’s right.
Farra Trompeter: Well, we spent a lot of time on this podcast dreaming of what a high-functioning internal communications team can look like and have talked about the reality, and I’m just curious if you have any parting words of wisdom before we say farewell for now,
Fatima Jones: Just to underscore that it doesn’t have to be perfect. The end game of all of this is that you want to continue to build trust, right? And we’re in such uneasy times right now. We spend so much time with staff, with our colleagues. It’s really important to know that we trust each other. And I think you say a lot by what you actually say and also about what you don’t say, and that part about not saying anything is really important. So I would just say, like, just get out there, start talking, think about those channels, and watch the culture grow.
Farra Trompeter: Great. Now, if you are interested in checking out some of the amazing performances and shows at The Apollo, go to apollotheater.org. You can also find them on Instagram, @apollotheater. If you’d like to connect with Fatima Jones, find her on LinkedIn or follow her on Instagram @lovejonespr, which, we’ve talked about, is in reference to a movie we both love. Also, great soundtrack.
Fatima Jones: Yes.
Farra Trompeter: Fatima, anything else you want to share before we sign off?
Fatima Jones: I’m really grateful to be back on the podcast. I listen to every episode. So it is always a pleasure to talk with you and just sending much love to everyone out there in these crazy times.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, well thank you for being a superfan and being, you know, one of our favorite guests. So, everyone out there be safe, be well, and get those internal communications going.