Use transmedia storytelling to communicate with frontline workers
You’re already a comms superhero, but if you need something to make your internal communications more inspirational than Wonder Woman, transmedia storytelling could be for you. This article outlines how internal communicators can use multiplatform communications and intranet software to connect with frontline workers.
What do Star Wars, The Matrix, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have in common? In addition to being among the most successful examples of communication ever (the dollars do the talking here), they all rely on transmedia storytelling to generate excitement and engagement in their audiences. These juggernaut franchises create multichannel communications campaigns capable of reaching people on a wide range of technologies and content touchpoints.
However, the multichannel communication strategies used by these entertainment behemoths is even more specific than their availability on different formats (for example, in videogames, TV shows, movies, social media, mobile apps, and merchandise). They all also utilize transmedia storytelling to connect with audiences.
Transmedia storytelling doesn’t mean simply showing the same content on different devices — by remaking a movie as a videogame, for example. It is a way of breaking up a narrative into pieces and then making those pieces of information available across different media.
The scholar Henry Jenkins describes how disaggregated transmedia storytelling techniques work:
Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.
This kind of communication inspires what has been called “additive comprehension”. Put simply, the more media you consume from all sources, the more information you gain about the characters and storylines.
Transmedia storytelling examples
One of the most lauded examples of a transmedia universe is Star Wars. It’s easy to pick out the thousands of different media that contribute to the Star Wars story — the games and toys that give a separate life to minor characters, for example — but perhaps the most notable example is The Mandalorian.
No spoilers if you haven’t seen Disney+’s hit show, but The Mandalorian tells the story of a lone bounty hunter plying his trade after the fall of the Empire. In terms of the timeline of the Star Wars narrative, The Mandalorian takes place after the fall of the Empire in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), but 25 years before the emergence of the First Order in Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015).
It’s this dating of the show which is crucial. For an audience who wish to discover more about the world beyond the films (such as how the First Empire rose in the first place), they can’t rely on going to movie theaters to learn this backstory. Instead, they have to go to novelizations, games, comic books, animated series, and The Mandalorian. By telling a complete story across all these different media, the franchise owners build a tale that wouldn’t fit into a two-hour movie, but also that lives a life of its own — with its own unique characters, artwork, and feel.
Transmedia storytelling and internal communications
Yes, I know what you’re thinking, internal communications is a completely different field with different goals and channels. But who says that we can’t learn something useful from communications that consistently generate devotion in an audience?
The goal of internal comms professionals in recent years has been to balance ‘push’ messages that inform and engage colleagues with the creation of environments where employees can also participate through social intranet tools and features which allow users to ‘pull’ information towards them.
In a modern digital workplace, not every communication is a comprehensive email, so communicators also now use mobile app alerts, digital signage, and intranet banners, and more, to generate this balance of push and pull. In effect, many organizations are already running transmedia (or multichannel) strategies. If you aren’t already doing this though, please read on for some techniques.
This internal communications strategy is different in every industry and every organization. A good comms plan — and thus its ability to generate employee engagement and improve the employee experience — will depend on the split between desk-based and frontline workers, compliance and regulatory issues, shift patterns, tasks, global dispersal, and much more. Perhaps the biggest difference though is managing to connect with frontline workers just as well as if they were at a desk eight hours a day.
How to communicate with frontline workers
Communicating with frontline workers in the same way as desk-based employees has been a challenge for decades.
Typically, non-desk staff have:
- Dispersed locations away from HQ or on the road
- Infrequent visits to a regional or head office
- Limited or no access to a computer
- No corporate accounts for email or cloud-based storage
- No access to vital documents or information on-the-go
- Difficulties connecting or communicating with peers from other locations or departments
- Lack of visibility of company news and updates in real-time. The cascade of information through traditional channels such as newsletters, manager cascades, and noticeboards is infrequent and unengaging
These problems have been magnified by the pandemic, which has piled pressure on frontline workers at the same time as it has increased their need to receive clear, consistent communications.
It’s partially the gap caused by employee pressure (resulting in stress and burnout) and the feeling of disengagement from an organization that has generated The Great Resignation and its accompanying talent shortages. Recent data suggests that in the UK, 41% of employees are considering quitting their jobs, with the greatest intention to leave being felt in industries such as hospitality, social care, retail, and healthcare, all of which rely on deskless, frontline workers.
So, how do you reach the hard-to-reach and empower frontline workers who may be feeling more disenfranchised? It’s possible to develop a multichannel communications strategy that, much like transmedia storytelling, relies on a mix of push, pull, and personalization, to reach workers in ways more likely to engage them.
Below, I set out one scenario for how multichannel communications can work: crisis response. The goal is to create a universe of comms that frontline workers can rely on for everything they need. By using all these methods, you can create a mode of additive comprehension without simply piling all information into one or two dense emails.
Using transmedia storytelling for internal communications
#1: Use online repositories to store emergency protocols, procedures, and policies
Whether it’s your company intranet or a designated SharePoint site (no, they’re not the same), a centralized data source has a key role to play. If you want to empower frontline workers in times of crisis, you need to give them an instant, easily searchable platform that contains everything they need. In terms of transmedia communications, think of this as your company’s wiki or subreddit, the place where all fans know they can go to get updated.
Your intranet can also take crisis comms further because you can use tags and keywords to ensure the right information is found efficiently. In some situations, the use of Mandatory Read functionality to confirm receipt of critical information supports compliancy and ensures frontline employees are reading what you need them to.
#2: Embed employee knowledge early
It’s tempting to think of crisis policies only in the moment, but by building a process whereby employees learn what to do in an emergency before anything bad happens, you can reach staff and build resiliency.
Many organizations integrate policy overviews into onboarding; but ask those new hires six months down the line, and the chances are, they’ve already forgotten the details. Integrating regular check-ins and testing staff knowledge can help keep those details front-of-mind and embedded. Use quizzes to check knowledge retention against policies, and pulse polls or on-the-spot questions on your intranet to keep the information fresh.
#3: Multichannel alert system — Interact Broadcasts
Unique to Interact, Broadcasts enable a centralized team to compose messages within the intranet and broadcast to staff via SMS, mobile app notification, email, a blocking notification within the intranet, and/or a display banner.
By creating a single message that can be distributed simultaneously across multiple channels to hundreds or even thousands of users, you can communicate with frontline workers and ensure speed and consistency of message, a risk often seen with manager cascades.
The ability to send a text message to personal devices or use push notifications on a mobile app can be crucial. 90% of SMS messages are read within three minutes, which closes the potential communication gaps created by unread emails.
Critically, the message doesn’t need to contain every piece of information as it may just be a QR code or weblink that asks users to pull information from the intranet or website.
#4: Provide frequent updates using timelines, @mentioning, and digital signage
Depending on the nature of the crisis, we often don’t have all the necessary information upfront: situations develop and evolve rapidly.
If you want to ensure that staff get real-time information and alerts — with quick links or QR codes to further information if required — you can use @mentioning of individuals, teams, or locations to alert staff to relevant policies, pages, or areas on your intranet.
For frontline workers who don’t have the chance to check computers constantly, alerts can be sent via email and push notification to keep them informed. If staff are on-location and don’t have constant access to mobile devices either then digital signage can be a great multichannel way to issue timely comms.
Empowering frontline workers needs a multichannel approach
Communicating with employees is central not just to business success, but also to employee experience and engagement. Whether you’re issuing crisis comms to healthcare professionals or celebrating success with warehouse workers, you want everyone aligned and connected. Different employees have different responsibilities and access though, so it can be a challenge to know which channels to use and when.
Assessing what works best for your employees will only come with time and experience, but if you want to communicate in an authentic way, avoiding a “one channel fits all” approach is key.
Maybe you won’t have the global reach of Star Wars, but with a multichannel approach you can at least show all of your workforce that they’re equally important when it comes to communication.