If you’ve ever attended a conference featuring Mark Ragan, you’ve probably heard him pose two questions to the audience.
He’ll ask people to raise their hands if they like to be bored. Nobody does, of course. But then he’ll follow up by asking if they, in their roles as corporate communicators, think they regularly bore people.
“The whole room shoots up their hands,” Ragan said.
That’s because internal communicators are waging an age-old battle to create interesting stories that will capture the attention of employees. Often they’re fighting leadership teams that prefer they write stodgy, jargon-filled messages about leveraging synergies, optimizing results, and blah, blah, blah.
“I tell communicators that the No. 1 rule is ‘Thou shalt not bore people,’” he added. “If you bore them, they’ll go right over to their Facebook or Twitter accounts. Content has to be riveting. It has to be human. It needs an emotional center. If you write boring content, then don’t complain to me that nobody is reading it.”
No one would ever describe Ragan as boring. He’s an experienced mountain climber, a pilot, and a Shakespearean actor who recently launched his own theater company. But he’s best-known as the CEO and Publisher of Ragan Communications, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He coaches communicators on techniques to connect with employees and the outside world – as well as how to earn credibility within their organizations.
“It’s fair to say that Mark is the last word in communication,” said Becky Graebe, Senior Director, Communication Expert at Dynamic Signal. “Everyone in our profession is familiar with his work. Mark has been a champion of valuing the role of the employee in the company’s success. He preaches the importance of: ‘Talk to me like I’m a real person.’ He breathes life into the traditional corporate communication approach.”
For decades, Ragan has been leading the charge to break away from that traditional – OK, dull – approach. Today’s best and most innovative organizations, he said, understand that internal communicators are an integral part of the profitability equation.
“It’s no coincidence that every single organization on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list has a stellar and bold communication operation,” Ragan said. “They do not fear bad news. They embrace candid conversation. They have tools that enable employees to talk back. Let me be clear: that old, horrible approach still exists. But I’m saying that the most successful companies have moved away from that.”
He always tells students in his writing classes to find that “emotional center” of stories by searching for the epiphanies. Those are moments when everything changes – and can hook readers.
Ragan remembers when he had his own epiphany. He had spent nearly two decades as a newspaper reporter after he and college roommate Jim Ylisela – his lifelong best friend and Ragan business partner – decided they wanted to be journalists. Ragan climbed the media ladder from papers in small towns like Williston, N.D. and Anderson, S.C, to the top as a political reporter for Copley Newspapers, covering three presidents and Congress.
But one day in the newsroom, he saw an older, tired-looking reporter tucking a notebook into his worn-out jacket, trudging away to cover yet another White House press conference.
“A light-bulb went off in my head as I thought: ‘Do I really want to be doing this at age 50? Wouldn’t it be nice to be in control of my destiny?’” Ragan recalled.
About that time, his father broke the sad news that he had been diagnosed with ALS and wanted to know if Mark would take over the company he had founded – Ragan Communications.
Lawrence Ragan is a legendary figure in the corporate communications world. An internal communicator at the Ford Motor Company, he launched The Ragan Report newsletter in 1970, and it became required reading for comms executives. When he died in 1995, Mark Ragan began running what then was primarily a content organization. Over the years, the company has been nimbly reinvented to meet the changing market and today is renowned for its conference series.
“He always tells the story of how when his father started the business, he was thinking about putting clever ideas on bulletin boards,” Graebe said. “Well, Mark has taken it from that to using technology to create an employee experience in ways that have an impact on the customer experience.”
For Ragan, it’s about making sure that everyone is always informed. He notes that Ylisela constantly reminds communicators why that’s important with this simple phrase: In the absence of information, people will make up their own stories.
They practice what they preach. Ragan remembers how in 2007, as the Great Recession was looming, they gathered the staff together and warned that they couldn’t promise everyone they would have their jobs in a year.
“An old-style communicator would have said, ‘We can’t tell them that!’” he added. “But not a single person left us. That’s because people want honesty. They want frequent updates. Smart communications departments constantly confide in employees.”
That’s why, he added, you can’t have high employee engagement without great communication.
It helps if it’s not boring, too.
Role: CEO and owner of Ragan Communications, largest conference company serving corporate communicators and PR professionals in North America; publisher of ragan.com and PR Daily; member of the Dynamic Signal Board of Advisors
Home: Gilpin County, Colo.
Family: Wife Jamie Shaak, a Juilliard-trained pianist; daughters Cate, Juliet, Olivia. All are named after Shakespeare heroines. “I’m kind of like King Lear, although they’re much nicer to me.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from DePaul University
Career: Worked for 17 years as a newspaper reporter, including covering politics in Washington, D.C., before taking over the company from his father
Interests: Climbing, flying, Shakespeare, reading history books
Theater work: Performed on stage, off and on, since high school in roles that include playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman” and Curly in “Oklahoma!” Founded Peak to Peak Players theater company in Colorado focused primarily on children’s shows. Will stage their first major production in May with “Romeo and Juliet,” which Ragan is directing and appearing as Lord Capulet.
Favorite Book: “The Last Lion,” the Winston Churchill biography series by William Manchester
Favorite Movie: “Chinatown”
Favorite TV Show: “Breaking Bad”
Fun Fact: Got his pilot’s license in 2004 and he flies an “an old, beaten-up, bucket-of-bolts Cessna 182 built in 1964. I do a lot of mountain flying, landing on grass strips.”
Advice He Gave Himself at 16: The biggest sin you can commit is to waste your life away. “I try to spend every single minute doing something. You’ll rarely see me sitting in front of a TV. I’m almost incapable of it when I know I could be climbing a mountain or soaring over one. I can always hear the clock ticking in the background.”
Follow on Twitter: @MarkRaganCEO
Five Questions with Mark
Why is employee communication important?
“Communication is absolutely the bedrock foundation of business success. If you’re not communicating with your people in today’s world, employees aren’t going to stay with you for more than a couple of years. We see this with the lily pad generation of Millennials who stay at a job for two years and then hop to the next company. Well, you can keep Millennials. You just have to give them a sense of empowerment and knowing how they fit into the company at all times.”
How has technology changed communication?
“It’s changed everything. When we have our Leadership Council roundtables, the most active discussion is always around technology. Almost everything we do today is impacted by the solutions that we choose for the intranet, newsletters, video, and mobile platforms. That certainly couldn’t be said as recently as 10 years ago. I don’t have a single conversation with a communicator that doesn’t somehow morph into a discussion about a solution they’re exploring for communicating with employees.”
Why are mobile devices integral to employee communication?
“Everyone lives on their smartphone now. People depend on it for everything from ordering groceries and tickets for the movies to dating. And you’re not going to communicate the important business of the company to them on the smartphone? What, are you losing your mind? This is why what Dynamic Signal does is so important. It’s insane if you’re not trying to communicate with your employees on mobile devices.”
Isn’t communicating with employees just common sense?
“People often ask me why so many big companies are headed up by CEOs who have no idea how to communicate, and I think that’s because many of them are entrepreneurs. They’re focused on creating stuff and not thinking about how to communicate what they’re doing. But those are precisely the people who need a great communication leader to tell them how things are going throughout the company.”
When we talk about “activating” employees, what does that mean to you?
“You want to give people information that motivates your workforce to take the action you want. If you don’t tell them anything, they’re going to think that everything is absolutely fine when it might not be. Communication, when done properly, activates employees to be more engaged in the strategy of the company. Doesn’t it seem so obvious?”
Hear more from Mark Ragan about the importance of employee communication by listening here to a recording of our recent webinar “Why Activating Your Workforce Matters.”