How a series of crises flipped Target's internal comms strategy on its head

Inspired by The Skimm, Target began reaching out more proactively to its employees with a daily newsletter.

Target's Dustee Jenkins.

Between late 2013 and early 2015, Target dealt with a data breach, a CEO transition, job cuts, and significant challenges in Canada. Its employees also felt like they were out of the loop, learning more about their company from the media than they did at work, said Dustee Jenkins, SVP of communications at Target.

"One of the key complaints from the team is that they were hearing so much about our own company in the press, but not hearing anything directly from the company in real-time about what was happening," she explained.   

Target’s internal communications consisted of a few stories posted on an intranet each week, covering mundane topics such as how to sign up for benefits or an employee’s experience in a target store. Each day, the intranet received an average of 2,000 visits – not many, considering the retail chain has more than 350,000 staffers.

"Our readership on our intranet was incredibly low, and by the time the content was posted on the intranet, the story to the team was old news and had been scrubbed a few times," said Jenkins.

Target also published a corporate glossy magazine four times a year called Red, which was mailed to staffers. However, it, too, had drawbacks. Jenkins noted it was expensive to produce and had a long lead time.

Most importantly, staffers felt they weren’t getting "straight talk" from the company through the intranet and magazine, Jenkins added.

In January 2015, Target chairman and CEO Brian Cornell asked Jenkins to take over internal comms. Former Target CMO Jeff Jones, who left the retailer this summer to join Uber as president of ridesharing, went through its internal comms strategy with Jenkins, assessing the performance of each platform.

Cornell’s input: Target’s internal voice needed to sound like its public-facing persona: "chic, fun, edgy, optimistic and upbeat," said Jenkins, adding that employees needed to be the first to know about company news.

"We wanted to make sure we were talking to team members in real-time," said Jenkins. "A group of us started talking about how one of the things we most enjoy reading every morning was TheSkimm, so I met with one of its founders and talked with her about the process and approach they take."

Jenkins and her team set out to create Target’s version of the morning email newsletter. She also met with peers at other Fortune 50 companies, who told her their internal newsletters have an average readership of 30% to 40%.

Christening the newsletter "Briefly," Jenkins wanted to make sure it was bold, accurate, and that her team would be accountable for the content.

"Briefly is meant to be an honest conversation we have every day with our team," said Jenkins.

Its content includes information about the retailer’s strategic roadmap, transformation, and even stumbles along the way, mixed in with fun facts about products and pop culture and the occasional positive story about Target or even a competitor.

Making sure it lives up to its name, Jenkins’ team made sure the newsletter was no more than a five-minute read, cutting out the "mumbo jumbo" and "corporate speak." Its average read time is 40 seconds, she noted.

Jenkins is the last person to sign off on the newsletter, which is not approved by the company’s legal or leadership team – Cornell didn’t even look at the first edition before it was sent. Three staffers are dedicated to the newsletter full-time and five give it a last glance before it’s put to bed around 10 p.m. CST. It hits employees’ inboxes at 6:30 a.m. each morning.

The first Briefly went out to 14,000 staffers on March 23, 2015, and the first-day readership was 81%. Jenkins said that number is still above 80% more than a year later, when it reaches 28,000 staffers. (She noted that although Target has more than 350,000 workers, not everyone is using email on the job).

Putting together the newsletter is not without challenges, in particular how to discuss executive departures, Jenkins explained. Jones’ exit was announced mid-day, and the next day Briefly focused on his role, what it meant for the team, and how Target plans to tackle the holiday season without him.

"A lot of corporate comms doesn’t work," said Jenkins. "Briefly works because we have permission to talk about topics that don’t show Target in the best light because we have committed to this notion of transparency and authenticity with the team."

In August, Target brought in analytics provider Quantified Communications to analyze the response to Briefly. It scored 99% for clarity, 89% for authenticity, 89% for engagement, 47% for confidence, and 79% for trust.

"They are good at clear and engaging internal updates that really connect to what is going on internally," said Noah Zandan, CEO of Quantified Communications, adding that he often sees clients treat internal comms as a secondary priority. "They use a lot of simple and emotional language, so it is fun to follow."

What’s next for Target’s internal comms
Target’s internal communications strategy goes beyond newsletters to include events and experiences. For instance, Target launched Spot On in March with an emphasis on employee advocacy.

"We tell product stories to our team," Jenkins said. "We take over a common space and bring in all the new products related to a particular area of the business."

A recent Spot On event for kids’ clothing brand Cat & Jack included connected nursery items and the team behind the products, including the designers and buyers. It also holds events called RED Talks – the company’s version of TED Talks – to discuss what leaders at Target are working on and Outer Spaces, which invites renowned external speakers to talk to staffers. Up next: a foray into podcasts and video.

At the start of last month, Target also launched an Instagram page dedicated to employees and leveraged the hashtag #WeAreTarget on all of its social media channels. As of October 3, more than 2,000 posts used the hashtag on Instagram with that number more than doubled on Twitter.

This story was updated on October 4 with metrics from Quantified Communications.

Does your role require you to seek innovative ways to engage your employees? Learn how to empower employees and put them at the heart of your organisation at PRWeek's Strategic Internal Communications conference in November. Click here to find out more.

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