The Whole Truth

 By Paul Matalucci, ABC

I interviewed an impressive young woman from Norway this morning. She was applying for a PR scholarship from the San Francisco PR Round Table of which I’m a member and volunteer evaluator.

In addition to emailing to say thank you shortly after we met, she picked up a thread of our conversation and asked a follow-on question, demonstrating in a single gesture three valuable characteristics: careful listening, good follow through, and the importance of building relationships.

She wrote, “I am really curious to see how PR will change over the next few years and it got me thinking of what you mentioned with internal communication. How do you see this changing in terms of social media and transparency in the upcoming years?”

Here’s what I wrote her back:

My view has long been that employee communications differs from Marketing and Public Relations in one very significant way. We know that Western “best practices” call for transparency and timeliness, but in Marketing and PR, there’s a strong pull toward what I call cheer-leading, and tendency to focus on the positives and ignore or minimize the negatives. (Practitioners debate me on this, but my response is to say, “If your product has flaws, you don’t write about them in your brochure.”)

In employee communications, however, you’re trying to build a relationship between workers and leadership, which hinges upon trust. Employees have a more urgent need than customers or external stakeholders because their livelihood depends on the relationship. Also, as I tell my clients, “If you’ve hired the smartest people you can find, believe that they’re smart enough to know when you’re not telling them the whole truth.”

When long-time Marketing and PR practitioners attempt to communicate internally, they invariably try to sell the workforce on a strategy or vision. Employees smell it a mile away. At best, they ignore it; at worst, they resent it.

You ask about social media, which some have described as a Truth Machine. Leaders have fewer places to hide. Bad news is harder to bury. Smart communicators know they have to build stakeholder trust long before there’s bad news to share.




On Chocolate and Noble Failure

 By Paul Matalucci, ABC

I just returned from two weeks in Europe where we made a stop at the factory for Zotter Chocolate in Reigersberg, Austria, and their amazing edible zoo and farm restaurant.

Zotter has turned a small patch of countryside into a paradise of cultivated nature and cleverness.

Entering the park, guests pass through The Cemetery of Ideas, with glossy brown tombstones that took us a minute to register as large chocolate bars.

The inscriptions are in German, but our hosts translated. One dead idea was for “Peanut Butter and Ketchup.” Another was for “Beetlebean-Roulade with Coriander.”

(I’m good with not knowing about beetlebeans.)

Another was for “Hempcake,” the inevitable and efficient pairing of hemp and chocolate. (Was that really such a bad idea?)

Sweet Potato, Coffee, Rosemary (2007–2009)

The cemetery is full of tombstones, and freshly moved earth suggested that new ones are added from time to time.

What a great way, I thought, to honor noble failure. How many companies can actually laugh at the ideas that didn’t work out, let alone share them with visitors?

In hindsight, I wish I had stopped to ask an employee what it was like to work for Zotter. But even without confirmation, I saw evidence of a culture that encourages risk-taking with a sense of wit and humanity.

More like Zotter, please!


Cigarbrandy with Cognac, died as an idea because tobacco is unhealthy (1998); Strawberry-Lobster, the idea had to die so the lobster wouldn’t (1994)


Chocolate-inspired art for some visual dessert.







Push-Back Encouraged

Daniel in High School

My brother Daniel in high school

 By Paul Matalucci, ABC

I have a horrible memory from grade school. My brother was a boy scout, and one year he made a rocket to earn a merit badge and left it to dry overnight. I found it in the garage and became convinced that the fins were misaligned. I gave it my “fix” and told no one.

The next day, we stood around the launch pad and watched Daniel’s rocket spiral off the pad like a North Korean experiment gone wrong. I never told anyone at the time, but I’ve always been keenly aware that my best intentions can sometimes lead to failure.

When I consult with clients on both a tactical and strategic level, I overemphasize that my role is to support them in bringing their ideas and vision to its most powerful effect. They have to own what I deliver, and I encourage them to push back.

My unique value?

I want them to take credit.

I also stay away from the fins.




Wordwright Wins 2012 Hermes Gold and Communicator Awards

Wordwright Awards 2012

Wordwright was engaged to develop a relocation campaign, which the company dubbed work+place. Typically, when a company moves to a new office, communications focus on the nuts and bolts of relocation: packing boxes, installing work stations, and finalizing move schedules.

But that can often be a lost opportunity.

Office moves are part of a company’s comprehensive real estate strategy, which in turn is tied to its business goals. Physical environment is important to employees and is one of many factors that can promote employee engagement.

With our award-winning Welcome Kit, we challenged conventional wisdom by consciously situating real estate changes within the company’s goals, articulating the ties between design decisions and company mission, and encouraging employee-management dialogue around moves and other real estate questions.

To learn more about how you can benefit from our communications expertise, call us.


Recognizing Employees During the Holidays: 5 Ways to Make your Appreciation Count

By Patrick Castrenze and Paul Matalucci, ABC

The holiday season brings an opportunity to let people know they are appreciated. But in the workplace, employee appreciation isn’t always top of mind. In addition to their own holiday planning, managers face pressing year-end demands like goal setting and performance reviews.

This season, consider these 5 tips when thinking about how to say “thank you” to those who deserve it most. A simple, timely and authentic gesture of appreciation can encourage and inspire your employees, and raise your bottom line.

1. Break with routine. If email is your typical way of communicating, use a different approach that employees will be sure to remember. It doesn’t have to involve writing their names in the sky. Just leave a brief voicemail message, or send flowers to a home address.

2. Be authentic and specific. To reinforce performance or commitment, let employees know the exact behavior or quality that merits recognition. Avoid the overly broad “Thanks for all your hard work,” and instead acknowledge specifics. Ideally you have previously recognized the employee on the spot, but even if you give an end-of-year acknowledgment, be sure to call out the highlights. “Thank you for bringing fresh ideas to our team this year, like the time you suggested we meet outside on the grass to brainstorm marketing approaches.”

3. Use your own words. Composing a heartfelt message can be difficult, especially under work pressures, but resist the urge to write as if Legal or HR will scrub your words. If you’re having a hard time coming up with a thank you that sounds meaningful, try recording a message on your phone and then transcribe your spoken words onto paper.

4. Write it by hand. Because everyone sends emails and texts, be revolutionary. Write with ink and paper. Writing by hand takes time, but because everyone is busy, taking that time can be the greatest sign of your appreciation.

5. Have your holiday party in January. Before the holidays, employees are preoccupied, so a December 20th holiday party might not always be welcome. Throwing a mid-January holiday celebration is a great way to start off the new year while also setting the tone for months to come.





Who’s Yanking Your Chain? Enlisting front-line managers in your communications strategy

By Paul Matalucci, ABC

God bless front-line managers.

They take heat from above and below: bosses pressure them to drive teams harder and deliver fast results while subordinates grumble, make mistakes, get sick, cut corners, and ask for raises.

In addition to their own work, line-managers have to write performance reviews, monitor timelines, give instructions, coordinate schedules, check quality, resolve conflicts, all while concealing their own doubts and anxieties. And in the end, they do all of this with less. And for less.


So why should communicators be surprised when we give managers our carefully crafted communication toolkits—our key messages, Q&As, presentation slides, and talking points—only to learn later that managers forwarded everything to their teams by email, and considered their job done?

Those rich manager-employee conversations that we had envisioned?
Never happened.

That well-informed post-meeting Q&A session?

A glimmer of employee inspiration? Or engagement?
Nada. And zilch.

So are toolkits a waste of time?

Not by a long shot. Our mistake has been that we don’t properly prepare managers to serve as links in the chain that we envision.


For more than two years, Wordwright has been developing business in Asia through our office in Hong Kong. And here in Asia, there has been significant interest among our clients and prospects to train managers.

Specifically, we’re being asked to develop their communication skills. And not just presentation and writing skills. We’re teaching managers how to facilitate company-wide communications.

Seeing an opportunity, we have developed a curriculum that includes:

1. How to develop audience-centric key messages

2. How to find the right time and the best channels

3. How to conduct a successful meeting

4. How to check the team “pulse” afterward
(and what details are good to share with the Corp Comms team)

When a message is owned and personalized at the line-manager level, it sticks. Employees hear something relevant and specific to their work and interests. Messages flow through the organization without being distorted.

Remember that childhood game called “telephone”? It’s a great metaphor for what can happen to the message you intend as it moves from person to person.

With trained managers as part of your communication chain, it’s unlikely that when executives say the word change, employees hear the word chance.


Wordwright Interviewed by the South China Morning Post

Wordwright's Paul Matalucci, ABC, talks about layoff communications.

Read online story.
Full text below.

“Up Close and Impersonal”
by Luisa Tam
South China Morning Post
Saturday, July 2, 2011

Communication strategist Paul Matalucci says he doesn’t envy what actor George Clooney has to do as a corporate downsizer-for-hire in the movie Up In The Air. And neither is he like Donald Trump in The Apprentice.

Clooney, in his role as Ryan Bingham, has to tell employees they have been laid off, acting on behalf of employers who are unwilling to do the job themselves, while Trump is brutal when he fires apprentices on his reality TV show.

“We never use the words `You are fired’ like Trump does. We always say `Your position has been eliminated.’ It’s important not to attach any blame to it all,” Matalucci explains.

As president of US-based Wordwright Communications, Matalucci helps companies communicate with staff and deals with senior leadership of big corporations with 5,000 to 150,000 employees.

Wordwright opened its office in Hong Kong in March 2010 and got its first client two months later.

The company is all about assisting clients to articulate their message, vision and strategic directions in good times and in bad, Matalucci says.

“Communication is prerequisite and fundamental to staff management and long-term staff development,” he adds.

Communication, Matalucci continues, has to be up and down in order to connect people and various business units throughout organisations.

“When the economy is good, much of my job is about strengthening a company’s communication capability both externally to expand the scope of the business, and internally to boost staff morale and rally support. When the economy goes south, a lot of communication will be shifted internally to reinforce and stabilise staff to give them a better sense of belonging.”

In really bad times, that means notification meetings and staff losing their jobs, a situation that has become more prevalent in the United States over the past few years.

When it comes to lay-offs it’s not Matalucci and his staff who do the firing; they train managers and companies how to relay the bad news.

“My training helps companies not to lose sight of the importance of doing it well when it comes to laying off people. And very often, people tend to forget that it is also quite an emotional journey for the manager who has to break the bad news,” he says.

“It’s never easy to lay off someone. We tend to tell our clients to limit the entire process to just four minutes because we need to give the employee the personal space to let the news sink in. But before we close the notification meeting, the manager will have to keep reinforcing the message to ensure that the message has been clearly understood because a lot of times it takes some time for the bad news to sink in.”

One important rule, Matalucci says, is that affected staff should be told the lay-off is not personal and no blame is apportioned, and that it’s merely a business decision. “We should never sugar-coat it because there is no better way of laying off someone. We must treat staff with respect and dignity,” he adds.

Going about the process in a professional way is also important to the company’s long-term interests.

“People remember how badly you treat your staff when you let them go and they will spread the word so good people will not want to join your company when the economy improves. Treat staff well even in bad times and treat them with respect when you let them go,” he stresses.

RJ Asher, former head of human resources for Asia Pacific at Avon Products, agrees that communication is critical to a company’s long-term growth and its ability to attract and retain talent.

“No matter how big or small a company is or whether you are delivering good or bad news, the message has to be communicated the right way,” Asher says, adding that clear communication is imperative especially when a company is handing out bad news because it can eliminate misunderstanding.

“When it’s done correctly and in a humane way, people will not feel abused and the company is less likely to be challenged,” Asher says.

Matalucci points out that it is also vital to communicate properly with “survivors” to explain how their colleagues were treated and what the future plans are in order to move the company forward and stabilise staff morale. If there is any silver lining to notification meetings, Matalucci says they help in the career development of senior managers who can deal with such an emotional process in a professional setting and learn how to handle negative situations.

Exit strategy

  • Treat them with respect
  • Get to the point
  • Stick to the facts and avoid sugar-coating your messages

Is Your Workplace a Community That Communicates?


By Paul Matalucci, ABC, and Patrick Castrenze

The following notes were collected on June 30, 2011, during a conference call with business communicators who attended the IABC World Conference 2011 in San Diego, California.


Is your workplace a community that communicates?

Presenters and attendees of IABC’s 2011 World Conference offered insights into the challenges facing communicators, summarized here as a series of tips.

  • Employee engagement through empowerment. As the effects of recession linger, many U.S. employees feel powerless in their search for job stability. Creating opportunities for dialogue gives them a chance to speak their mind and feel powerful. A discussion board, for example, is a great tool for employee empowerment that also creates an opportunity to listen to conversations, find the patterns, and address employee concerns proactively.
  • Dialogue isn’t always about solving a problem. We often resort to dialogue when we want to solve a problem that has already happened. But dialogue can also be a great tool for talking about possibility, and for creating across-the-board opportunities. In Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block refers to this as a transformative conversation, not the problem we simply want to correct.
  • Don’t get hung-up on participation. Leaders often look for 100% participation rates from their employees during dialogue. But people interact differently, and true participation is voluntary, so be willing to hear different points of view or sometimes nothing at all.
  • Successful communities are self-sustaining. Business communicator and IABC member Betsy Pasley compares employee-based community to the way flowers grow at home, and in the wild: A landscaped flowerbed is controlled and managed. It needs constant care and attention, but offers a predictable consistency. Wildflowers, on the other hand, are self-sustaining and self-nurturing, but they’re also less organized. While each environment has its strengths, it’s important to remember that wildflowers, like employees, can be trusted to take care of themselves and their communities.
  • Think small for group conversations. There’s a time and a place for the town hall meeting, but keeping the conversation at the level of small groups is a critical element. This is a space where employees can work closely with each other to speak and to be heard.
  • Ask Questions. Questions are more transforming than answers. When a senior leader asks employees a question, it demonstrates an interest in the employees’ well-being and demonstrates respect for the employees’ point of view.
  • Consider the amount of control that is appropriate to your message. Maintaining control over your messages can be essential when you’re announcing lay-offs, but in other situations, like the roll-out of a new company policy, having less control can go a long way.


Block, Peter (2008). Community: The Structure of Belonging

Bernoff, J., Charlene Li (2008). Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies



Using Volunteerism to Drive Employee Engagement

By Paul Matalucci, ABC*


As a communicator with new eyes to the complexity of reaching international employee audiences, one fact has been drilled into me: when considering the best program or channel, leave nothing off the table. Anything that employees touch (or that touches employees) is an opportunity to reinforce messages, encourage dialogue, or to inspire.

The topic of volunteerism as a communications tool is an excellent example. We often leave volunteer programs to Human Resources or Community Affairs. But they’re actually great opportunities to create dialogue with and among employees.

I have noted a few characteristics of how volunteerism can be used effectively.

1) Find a cause/organization appropriate to your Vision/Mission. One of Wordwright’s clients, a successful biotech company, researches, develops, and markets HIV and hepatitis drugs. Their annual participation in AIDS walks and blood drives is a perfect fit—clearly aligned with the company’s mission to provide lifesaving drugs for the patients who need them. The relationship, however, does not have to be so direct. Financial institutions, for example, distribute capital within the communities they serve. Picking a non-profit community arts program or sporting association makes good sense because they too unite a community and strengthen its cultural capital.

2) Make the connection visible, and then report back on the experience. The link between the activity and our company’s mission should be stated clearly (even obviously) in related communications: memos, press releases, intranets, etc.

And as a follow-up to the activity, be sure to have someone capture the event in photographs or video and include the stories in future company-wide employee communications. It’s particularly effective to capture first-person narratives or testimonials. Ask employees how they felt during their volunteering experience. Who did they meet? What did they learn? What did they contribute?

3) Select an activity that can deliver multiple benefits. Another Wordwright client has an employee-run Science Day on their campus in Fremont, California. They invite local high school students to present their projects to company scientists. Not only do the client’s employees derive huge satisfaction from interacting with students, they’re also indirectly boosting potential future recruits and generating goodwill with the local community. And parents love it.

4) Use volunteer activities to deepen co-worker relationships. Often the attention falls on the volunteer work itself without addressing the need for participants to socialize before and after the event. A kick-off gathering with drinks and food puts everyone at ease. If employees are socially introverted, incorporate an ice-breaker. If the event is particularly intense or long, perhaps a closing celebration is appropriate. Encourage employees to stay together during break times instead of letting them run away to check their Blackberries.


A Curious Characteristic Noted

As I learn more about the practice of employee communications in Hong Kong and across Asia, I am struck by the frequency with which incentives are offered to encourage participation (weekends in Macau or digital cameras). I would love to discuss this with other Hong Kong communicators. I am struck by the inherent assumption that people won’t give their time and talents without a tangible reward. If our goal is enhanced teamwork, higher employee engagement, and stronger relationships between employees, what are we saying if we keep holding out other carrots?

I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

*accredited business communicator


How to Succeed as a Communicator

By Paul Matalucci, ABC, and Ed Kamrin

The following notes were collected on June 18, 2010, at the tenth meeting of senior communicators who met initially on June 10, 2009, at the close of IABC’s World Conference in San Francisco.

Past meetings have addressed Social Media tools, pandemic communications, strategic communications planning, Social Media policy, courage of the communicator, manager communications, collaborative tools, and new tools.


Tips for Succeeding as a Communicator

2010 IABC World Conference presenters and attendees offered insights into the challenges facing communicators, summarized here as a series of tips.

  • Coach and facilitate with authority, trusting in what you know. Fulfilling expectations is easy; moving the bar is more difficult, but essential. Courageous communicators take risks to get their message through; we won’t be valued assets if we always play it safe and deliver what’s expected of us.
  • Talk to leaders in their own language. Mirror your communication style to your leader’s style. Explain how communication serves as a conduit pullquotes_april-4-2011to deliver business results.
  • Talk to employees in their own language, too. Don’t talk to engineers in marketing-speak; don’t talk to nurses in investor relations terminology. Mirror the language and values of your constituents.
  • Behave like an agency – even if you’re a department. Track your time and account for your hours. Make sure you’re spending time on the “billable” work and minimizing administrative tasks.
  • Learn from failure. Guy Kawasaki uses the term bozosity to describe stupid corporate behavior, using his own life as an example: Guy summarily rejected a job offer from Yahoo! due to commuting concerns, later realizing he forfeited a king’s ransom in stock options. His experience reminds us to look at the big picture and not reject a prospect out of hand.
  • Keep your data fresh. Audiences are constantly moving targets. Don’t rely too long on a single audience analyses; check in constantly to discover who your audience is.
  • Rethink your meetings. The conference featured an “unconference”: attendees came into a room and pitched discussion ideas, all current problems they face in their work. The attendees broke into smaller breakout groups and reconvened to share their insights. Consider a similar approach to your meetings, or starting an “unconference” with colleagues.
  • Don’t let pullquotes_april-4-2011bleaders send a message by not communicating. Leaders often prefer to be fully informed of all the facts before they communicate with employees. They underestimate the power of the rumor mill and the risk of delaying communication. Communicators need to help executives connect with employees – even when information is imperfect and a situation is evolving. Everything—what’s said and unsaid, what’s done and not done—communicates, including what you don’t say.
  • Don’t hide behind the corporate voice. With social media and the drive for dialogue, internal communicators find themselves becoming internal spokespeople rather than anonymous writers; it’s our turn to get out in front of the camera. It’s a new level of visibility for the many communicators who are more comfortable speaking in a corporate voice. With our visibility comes a pressing need to brand ourselves – lest our brand be built for us.
  • Don’t be afraid of unorthodox tactics. One company was caught in a Catch-22 scenario. Communicators wanted to roll out Yammer, but IT refused to procure it without a high adoption rate. Communicators started a teaser campaign featuring photos of yams, each linking to the Yammer site when clicked. Employee interest was piqued and IT agreed to the rollout.
  • Don’t be tempted to spin. Both employees and leadership need communicators to be real and to resist the urge toward positive spin. Employees are increasingly immune to persuasion; they want a conversation. We need to create channels to foster that conversation.
  • Don’t be afraid of an emotional appeal. Employees want meaning and impact from their work. One large hospital launched a nurse recruitment campaign, chucking the usual photos of women with stethoscopes in favor of a riskier approach: video clips with nurses telling deeply personal stories about their work. The campaign got attention and led to measurable results. Communicate with passion.

Writing in the Age of Social Media

At one session, communicators identified writing as the most-needed skill for our profession—sparking a spirited conversation among Debrief Group members.

  • Most communicators see writing as their most valued skill. However, we’re seeing the breakthrough potential of new media for internal communications. Our reliance on writing may be a crutch and a threat to our relevance.
  • Consider this: email may soon be a thing of the past. Studies indicate only 7% of teens send email on a daily basis. Texting and social media are their preferred tools.
  • On the other hand, people may write shorter messages and use social media tools, but they still read. Some research suggests most people prefer reading to watching video. A leading technology company makes a heavy investment in strong writing for their main intranet portal. Tellingly, 85% of its employees elect to make the portal their default browser home page.
  • Editorial content serves important purposes. Well-written articles tell the front and back stories of corporate initiatives with clarity and energy. One company links their feature stories to employee blogs, connecting corporate and individual voices. They also coach employees on how to blog well.
  • Writing well requires “deep thinking.”