Give ’em Something to Talk About: 10 Ways to Leverage Your Company’s Grapevine

    By Paul Facella
    February 19, 2009

    Tech tools are great for spreading information within your company, but they are only as good as the message they carry. How well and how consistently does your company communicate its core values? In a crisis, such as a public scandal, could you rely on any executive-”or any store-level employee, for that matter-”to tell your company’s story accurately and well, and to spell out and defend its core principles?

    McDonald’s provides a great model for growing and nurturing what I call “the company grapevine.” Great messaging starts at the top. In the case of McDonald’s, founder Ray Kroc worked side-by-side with his people-”from his circle of top executives to the staff at any random store he happened to walk into. There are countless stories of Ray jumping behind a counter to help during a particularly busy rush hour, or grabbing a mop to clean up a spill. Eccentric though it was, his love of work and lack of snobbery caught on with other executives and continues at McDonald’s to this day.

    Ray’s encounters with ordinary employees not only helped to spread his favorite messages-” “Never be satisfied” and “Those who work hard will be rewarded”-”but they showed everyone how positive messages are spread in a company. One person and one role model at a time.

    Here are 10 ways to get people at your company talking about what you want them to talk about.

    Create your story. Great companies have compelling stories that fill workers with pride. Employees pass these well-crafted stories down through the ranks and incorporate their messages. Examples of great legacy stories include Sam Walton, Lee Iacocca, Walt Disney, Henry Ford and Ray Kroc.

    Start from day one. Communicate your company’s goals, objectives, mission and values to every trainee-”from mailroom manager to newly promoted vice president-”in interesting ways. Don’t simply post them on a wall.

    Reinforce your core principles. Repetition is key to leveraging the grapevine. In newsletter contests, at company meetings and whenever possible, get employees to restate your company’s values in their own words.

    Plant a positive message. Employee gossip is a fact of office life. But rather than letting rumors and complaints dominate the grapevine, plant a positive message-”such as the newest green policy or a great product review-”and watch it spread.

    Hold rap sessions. Create staff blogs where people can air their ideas freely and informally. Leaders should contribute too, to let everyone know they are listening. Employees want to be part of the communication stream.

    Eat your words. Regular breakfasts, lunches and dinners with new mixes of people create an environment for camaraderie and sharing. Picking up the tab at such low-key events may be one of the most cost effective, performance-boosting initiatives you have in your arsenal.

    Plan some “windshield time.” At McDonald’s, windshield time was when executives toured the field with staff. Observe and listen to your employees often-”and let employees see you doing it.

    Make it fun. Retreats and conferences are great places to communicate your company messages creatively and to generate positive dialogue among employees. Messages “stick” when people feel happy.

    Get them talking. Nurturing and tending your company grapevine is all about fertilizing it with many perspectives. As often as possible, ask individual employees to offer suggestions on how to improve communication within your company.

    Say it without words. If you want to show employees that hard work, innovative problem solving and risk taking, for example, are attributes your company values, throw an awards ceremony. Showing is a more powerful way to shape company communications than telling.

    Paul Facella is a 34-year veteran of McDonald’s and now CEO of Inside Management ( He is author of “Everything I Know about Business I Learned at McDonald’s” (McGraw-Hill), named among USA Today’s Top 5 Business Books of 2008.