How the American Cancer Society Is Creating a Fun, Flexible Internal Comms Culture

 In Comms Heroes, Podcast

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Obviously, a lot of people know that I work for SocialChorus since I do this podcast, but what they may not know is that early on in my career, I worked for the American Cancer Society (ACS) in a communications and branding role. 

This was actually my second job out of college, and one of my favorite experiences professionally. I encourage communicators, at some point in your career, to spend time in the not-for-profit world. So it was really special for me to reconnect with the programs, the mission; and even see some familiar names and faces that are still there with the American Cancer Society.

Through public awareness and education, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has worked to remove the stigma associated with cancer and make a disease that was once only whispered about part of everyday conversation. So, I’m excited to have as today’s guest, Amy Hadsock, senior director of news channels for the American Cancer Society. 

From a public perspective, ACS had made large leaps; however the internal comms team realized it was time to take a step back and look at their own internal communication channels and what was on the horizon in the industry. We’ll chat about:

  • Mission driven culture that encourages innovation,
  • ACS’s success with push notifications and emails depending on an employee’s preference, 
  • Maximizing the benefits of executive videos that are relatable and easy to produce,
  • How they engaged employees with fun, creative, weekly questions.

“Even though a lot of people think it sounds like it’s just for fun, there’s so much more behind it and it was a real strategy and some real intent behind creating this. It’s a weekly question that we post on the same day every week. It has a hashtag just for fun so it’s easily searchable, and we just post a random question and then people respond in the comments. We’re giving the staff the opportunity to interact and build connections with their peers across the country since we’re all dispersed. It’s been super fun to watch and people have really embraced it.”

—Amy Hadsock

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #19 Transcript

Amy Hadsock: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to finally get to join the podcast.

Chuck Gose: I know sometimes it can be a bit challenging for culture when there’s so much emotion tied to a mission. So Amy, for you, I’m curious, what has your experience been with the culture [at ACS] and have you seen a change based on certain programs that are out there, geographic differences, or is it pretty homogenous throughout the organization?

Amy Hadsock: That’s a really good question. You know, the culture has definitely started to shift over the last couple of years. When I first started it was much more of a very traditional conservative type of environment, and more recently it started to shift towards a culture where change is encouraged. Staff are kind of being taught to expect continual change, and our leaders are really encouraging innovation. So it’s a little bit of a different culture than when I first started. And I would say we have six regions and our global headquarters is in Atlanta.

So when you get out to the regions, we also have local leadership teams. So that also kind of influences the culture across the country and the differences that we see. We also have a CEO who’s fairly new, a couple of years in on the job, and he’s set the tone for the culture he would like to see, moving away from that kind of traditional and conservative way of thinking and actually encouraging staff to have fun, which I think caught a lot of people off guard given our mission and the work that we do every day. So it’s kind of a tricky balance sometimes to have that like heavy mission and feel okay having fun while you’re doing the job.

Chuck Gose: So would you say the culture there is more top down with the new CEO driving things or is it bottom up with some of the legacy, or is it kind of a push and pull somewhere in between the two?

Amy Hadsock: I think it’s definitely, to me it feels more top down for sure starting with the CEO. He really kind of came in with a bang and just started in every meeting that we had with large groups of staff reiterated what he wanted people to get out of working at the American Cancer Society, that he wanted it to be a fun place to work. He wanted people to be happy about working there and not just because they feel really good about the mission, because that’s always great and that does keep a lot of people there, but he also wanted people to come to work and actually have fun and enjoy the work that they do. So I think he’s done a lot of really great work to kind of start setting that new culture from the top. It’s been really interesting to watch and fun.

Chuck Gose: Your job title is ‘senior director of news channels.’ That’s kind of a new title for me. We see a lot of job titles like ‘internal comms’ or ‘corporate comms.’ What does it mean to be the senior director of news channels for ACS?

Amy Hadsock: So essentially it’s just all the ways that we share news and information with our staff and leadership volunteers. So I manage all of those different kind of communications vehicles and tactics that we use to get the word out about whatever it is that we’re doing. So everything from our brand new employee app, intranet, E-newsletters, we have a monthly web talk show, so there’s all kinds of cool ways that we make sure staff are getting their news and information they need, and my team kind of manages all those different things.

Chuck Gose: No, it was 2018 is when I began working with your team on ACS2Go and a big part of this platform for the organization was the mobile app. Why do you think the app in particular has been so successful and so well received there at the American Cancer Society?

Amy Hadsock: I think staff were really just ready for something new and different and a little bit fun. So when you kind of pair that with our staff out in the regions, which makes up the large majority of our staff audience, they’re not at their desks all day. So while they do have laptops and spend periods of time at their desks, the bulk of their time is really spent out in the community at events or meeting with volunteers and donors. So the app is really a great way for them to kind of like quickly when they have a break in their day and they’re out in the community to just scroll and get the top news and information of the day anytime, anywhere. So I think that’s why the app in particular has been really so successful for us so far.

Chuck Gose: Yeah, and it’s an interesting thing to bring up because the whole topic of desk and desk-less workers in the world of internal communications, and there’s an audience who does have a desk, they have a place to go, but their job pulls them away from that and rightfully so. As you mentioned, they’re out in the community, they’re meeting with volunteers, running events, so even though they are desk-based workers, the fact that they’re on the go is where this app comes into play.

But you’ve also been using other parts of the platform including email and just given some of the legacy and history of the company, is the American Cancer Society still largely driven by email much like still a lot of other companies are? And has there been an effort to reduce the amount of email, focus on the amount of email? What is the state of email, I guess within ACS?

Amy Hadsock: So I would say for quite a number of years, we really kind of put a stop to sending emails about everything that we’re doing, or everything that staff need to know about and really made an effort to consolidate those into a weekly E-newsletter and use our intranet. But you know, probably like every other company, we face the challenge of just because it’s on the intranet doesn’t mean people are going to see it and they might miss something really important. And then we’re also faced with, well we only send an email once a week, so how do we supplement all of that and make sure there’s not a week between when breaking news happens and staff hears about it. So I think that’s where the app has been really helpful for us;  it’s given us this additional way to share breaking news with staff in real time instead of sending an email. So we’re really big on push notification, but I would say only about 50% of our app users have signed up to receive them.

So we have come up with a process where, when we have breaking news or an important reminder that applies to all staff, we do a campaign that’s a combination of push notifications and emails and you get whichever one you’ve signed up for, and that’s been working really well for us. So we use it sparingly. We don’t do them all the time, probably a couple a week, but it’s a really great way for staff to get breaking news.

An example would be annual enrollment, which kicked off this week; so on the day that it kicked off, we sent out a push notification and email from ACS To Go just to make sure staff didn’t miss the opening day. That’s been a great feature for us.

Chuck Gose: And what’s cool about that is as you said, that people who want push notifications do get those, but if you’re one of those people, which I’m not one of those people, but if you’re one of those people that don’t like push notifications, you’re going to get the email. But someone’s not going to get both. The system’s intelligent enough to send the right one to the right people.

Amy Hadsock: That’s right. Yeah, we love it. It’s a great feature. I would say emails, even though a lot of people assume that staff might get irritated by getting additional emails, they have on average about a 68% open rate among the staff that are getting it that way, so we’re pretty pleasantly surprised by that. They don’t seem to be irritated by a couple of extra emails each week.

Chuck Gose: And your leadership, you mentioned your CEO being new. They’ve been big advocates and publishers on ACS To Go. Whether they’re there at headquarters or they’re out in the regions like you are, how have you seen employees engage with leaders in new ways through ACS To Go?

Amy Hadsock: It’s been really fun because working at the global headquarters, a lot of us tend to forget that all of our staff out in the regions, they very rarely see our CEO or some of the other senior most leaders. Most of them are based in Atlanta. So it’s kind of like you get an email occasionally from this person and it might have a headshot within it, but because you never see them in person and interact with them, you don’t really have any sense of who they are or their personalities.

So ACS To Go has been really great to help [employees]  get to know [leaders], get to know who they are as people, make them feel approachable and real. They’re not just leaders sitting up in a big office. It’s just made them very relatable to staff. And our CEO in particular, he really jumped right in when we launched ACS To Go with his own channel. He kind of shocked some of us by doing some selfies all by himself without being told. So it’s been really fun to watch him kind of learn how to use it and make it his own.

Chuck Gose: And I thought it was cool too, he was part of your launch video. You guys created a very clever video at the launch of ACS To Go. And he was one of the central actors in the video.

Amy Hadsock: He was. So we kind of thought we had two leaders in mind, our CEO and our chief medical officer at the time. We thought  people probably think that people at that level wouldn’t have the time or know how to use something like an employee app, and so we thought if we could show them on video using all of the different features and interacting, that staff would feel like, oh hey, that looks super easy. If they could do it, I could do it. So that was the approach we took with this video. We just kind of showed them from beginning to end, all the way from  setting up your profile, to liking a post, to posting something themselves. Yeah, that went over really well. It was fun and it just kind of showed that he’s fully on board with the employee app and [it’s] super easy to use.

Chuck Gose: And since the launch of ACS To Go, how has internal communications in general changed at the organization? With ACS To Go in place, have you seen a shift happening with internal comms there?

Amy Hadsock: Yeah, for sure, and I would say it’s continual. We’re evolving as we go. Probably the biggest thing we changed within just the first couple of months was our general approach for internal communications is ACS To Go users get the news first. It doesn’t even have to be breaking news. If we have news to share with our staff, we’re going to post it on ACS To Go first by a couple of hours and then it will slowly make its way to the other ways we communicate, just as kind of like another way to entice people. We thought, especially if it’s breaking news, there’d be some word of mouth and someone’s going to feel left out of the loop and they’ll say, “Well, how did you hear about that?” And they’ll say, “Oh, it was on ACS To Go.” So that was kind of our first shift in how we do internal communications by incorporating ACS To Go.

Chuck Gose: And as someone who gets to get little sneak peeks into the backend of ACS To Go, there’s a couple of content questions that I want to wrap up with, and one that I thought was interesting from my standpoint was crisis communications. And ACS To Go has been an important news channel for the organization, specifically related to storms and natural disasters. Because again, you guys are coast to coast. Talk a bit about how the platform has played in those situations.

Amy Hadsock: Yeah. So funny enough, we launched in September, kind of right in the middle of hurricane season and I don’t remember exactly when the first hurricane hit after that, but it was within like maybe a month.

Chuck Gose: This was back in 2018.

Amy Hadsock: Yeah. So we just kind of created a pop-up channel, a hurricane channel. Sent the push notification to staff letting them know that there was this new channel to follow and it will be posting updates about how the hurricane was impacting our staff, our volunteers, and our offices in that area. And it was just a really great way in real time to give quick updates throughout that process about how people were doing and how they were impacted. And then after the fact we kind of pulled that channel back down, but we have it set and ready to go so that anytime there is something, we could just quickly like rename it to be appropriate to whatever that emergency is and launch it. And now that we have staff following it, you know, those people that were following it before are retained so there’s less people to try to get to follow it, but it’s been a really… It was super easy, super fast to do. It was a great kind of test for us right after we launched.

Chuck Gose: And kind of kudos to you guys for focusing on the news aspect of it. It’s not that different from how websites or news organizations will have a dark site that they can kind of light up very quickly with updated news. That’s essentially how you’re treating this channel inside ACS To Go, is that right?

Amy Hadsock: Yeah. It’s been fun. It kind of took some pressure off trying to figure out how to get the word out to the right people and timely. We figured a lot of times in that scenario, if you’re someone in the impacted area, you won’t have your laptop with you, but you usually always have your phone.

Chuck Gose: And there’s another piece of content that I’m really curious about that I think some organizations might struggle with, but you guys have just for fun content that you let people publish.

Amy Hadsock: Yes.

Chuck Gose: So explain what that is because I’m guessing you guys have gotten way more out of it than just fun. Like, what was the idea behind it and what has surfaced as a result of that?

Amy Hadsock: I mean this is just probably, in my opinion, the coolest thing we’ve done on ACS To Go. Even though a lot of people think it sounds like it’s just for fun, there’s so much more behind it and it was a real strategy and some real intent behind creating this. So essentially in old times we used to do things like an employee spotlight where you feature an employee on some sort of frequency. We just thought, “Okay, well how can we do this in a way that doesn’t require much staff time?” And our goal in doing this was really to bring more staff onto the app and once they’re there to keep them engaged and coming back every week. So there was fresh, new content and then while they’re there looking at this fun stuff, they’ll see the news of the day. So really an engagement opportunity, but a carrot to draw new staff into the app that aren’t there yet.

So it’s a weekly question that we post on the same day every week. It has a hashtag just for fun so it’s easily searchable in that app and we just post a random question and then people respond in the comments. So we kind of kicked it off, we wanted to make sure we had some really great questions up front to get things going. So the first question we posted was what was your last Amazon purchase, and it was just so much fun to watch people, people whose names you saw that you didn’t think would participate in things like this were responding, joining into the conversation.

Kind of the other goal was to give staff the opportunity to interact with and build connections with their peers across the country since we’re all dispersed. We feel like we’ve met all of those goals, getting new stuff on the app, creating a regular engagement opportunities, and helping people build connections with their peers. We do send an email every week when we post a new question just to make sure people know and those get really high open rates. We’ve kind of been watching that to make sure we’re not overdoing it. But yeah, it’s been super fun to watch and people have really kind of embraced it.

Chuck Gose: Well, my most recent Amazon purchase was socks, Amy, so I could have thrown that in there.

Amy Hadsock: Mine was skeleton gloves for my kids.

Chuck Gose: There you go. See that’s the beauty of Amazon there.

Amy Hadsock: Yeah.

Chuck Gose: Okay. So we talked about the culture within American Cancer Society and some of the comms activities there and the podcast is Culture Comms & Cocktails, so Amy, what is your favorite cocktail?

Amy Hadsock: My favorite cocktail is a vodka martini straight up and definitely with extra olives.

Chuck Gose: And is there a place where has made that perfect martini for you or some place you’d like to drink that martini?

Amy Hadsock: You know, I don’t… That’s a really good question. I feel like I’m pretty critical of them when I go out. A lot of times it’s based on the olives. Are they good? Are they stuffed with some sort of cheese or not?

Chuck Gose: Thanks again for being on the podcast and I’ve loved seeing the work you guys have done with with ACS To Go experimenting, having fun, testing, pushing boundaries, letting the culture drive some of the future growth. But also, as I said, it was truly an honor to reconnect myself back with the mission from my earlier professional career and see some of that terminology and personality and devotion that people have to the mission. This has been really great to see.

Amy Hadsock: Yeah, we’ve had such a great time working with you and all the other people at SocialChorus on ACS To Go.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed what you heard from this episode and want to check out others, find Culture Comms & Cocktails on Apple podcast, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture Comms & Cocktails, internal comm served straight up. Thanks for listening.

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