What You’ll Learn

With a large workforce spread around remote parts of Alaska, Sabrena Combs and her team at Matanuska Electric Association use short video casts to communicate with staff.

Guest Speaker

Sabrena Combs

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What are some innovative ways that you can engage fellow employees? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Sabrena Combs, who is the Community and Employee — and you said this was a mouthful — Community and Employee Engagement Coordinator with Matanuska Electric Association in Alaska. Thank you for joining me.

Sabrena Combs: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it is a mouthful. It’s a long title.

Andy Johns: Well, it can only get better from here because I’ve already gotten the first mistake out of the way there. But thank you for joining me. We are here at the NIC Conference with NWPPA here in Portland. And so as always, if you hear any of the extemporaneous noise, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance. It’s what I like to say.

Sabrena Combs: That’s right, a lively crew.

Andy Johns: It has been a lively crew, for sure. So, Sabrena, thanks for taking the time. You had a session yesterday called “Internal Communication: Lights, Camera, Action.” And really internal communications is something I don’t think we’ve spent quite enough time on, quite enough episodes on in this podcast. But it’s a super important thing whether an organization is the size of your co-op or much smaller. Why do you feel like an internal communications is such an such an important thing for you guys?

Sabrena Combs: Right. Well, so I think that it’s super important just to keep people connected, especially in today’s world. People are working from home. Our service territory in Alaska is the size of West Virginia.

Andy Johns: Wow.

Sabrena Combs: So we have five offices spread out across a very large distance with 206 employees. And so making sure that everyone’s hearing the same message and getting the news in a reasonable time frame. Our internal communications, we try to keep them pretty consistent as far as when they come out in the month so they know when they can expect it. And we like to keep it fun. You know, there’s important things you have to convey to your employees, but you also want to do some personal interest pieces so they can get to know their coworkers. Because a lot of people if they’re working out at the power plant, they’ll never come into the office and accounting, and so they’re never going to meet each other. And so it’s really a great way to keep people connected and learn more about their co-op.

Andy Johns: So you guys were already — I mean, that’s about as spread out as I’ve ever heard anybody, uh.

Sabrena Combs: Alaska is big.

Andy Johns: I’ve heard, I’ve heard. What kind of impact did the pandemic have on a group that was already pretty used to working dispersed like that?

Sabrena Combs: You know, work continued pretty, pretty easily. But it was that sense of community that we kind of lost, you know? You know, whenever we had a new employee in the past, they got to do the tour of the whole company and go meet everybody, and that went by the wayside. And so working from home was a challenge as far as making sure people still felt appreciated. We were still keeping up on everything, but everyone’s mostly back in the office now for us.

Andy Johns: Got it. So let’s talk specifically. Your session yesterday talked about some ways that you guys are using technology to engage employees. And as we were talking about it before we hit the record button, I like the idea. Tell us a little bit about it.

Sabrena Combs: So we had done an email based newsletter with graphics and different interest pieces for several years, probably about a decade. And basically, the change came about when we got a new person in charge of PR as she came from a news background. And so she was really comfortable with video, and she said, we should turn this into a video newscast and, you know, make it look like you’re sitting at a news desk and, you know, we cut it the same way that you would watch a newscast at night. But just make it fun and more engaging so that people can not only read what they’re supposed to read, but see some fun stuff too.

Andy Johns: Got it. So what was it like making that happen, getting started? We’ll talk about each individual episode, but you make a decision like that, and I’m sure a lot went into getting ready for that.

Sabrena Combs: Yeah, first is getting people’s buy-in, you know. Sure, executive staff was fine with it. They don’t care what we do as long as we’re getting the consistent messaging out. But, you know, nobody wants a camera shoved in their face. There’s very few people that are instantly comfortable with that. So making sure that we were getting, you know, the trust of our employees that we’re not going to make them look dumb, and we’re going to film as many times as it takes so they can get a good shot, and they can get their message across. But yeah, I mean, I’m kind of loud and obnoxious at work anyway, so everyone kind of expects me to come by with a camera shoved in their face. So, yeah, it was a different transition, but also we started in January of 2020, and so in March, everything changed, and it was kind of a blessing that we had already started this because first viewership went way up. People were really paying attention to getting all the information because we were starting to transition to working at home, and we were closing offices, and so they were soaking up every bit of information they could. So it was kind of a nice thing that we were doing it because we didn’t get to see each other in the offices anymore. And so I would do interviews by Zoom or, you know, go out to the field workers that were outside and do some filming there. And it was just a nice way for people to actually be able to see each other versus just reading an email.

Andy Johns: Yeah, yeah. So what did you guys see? You launch it, and then I’m assuming that you’re looking at some of the metrics or you can see some of what’s going on in terms of readership and those kind of things. What did you see from folks? It sounds like in a weird way, it was kind of the perfect time to start.

Sabrena Combs: It really was without even knowing it. So we use MailChimp as our email platform for designing the newsletter, and then sending it out because of the metrics. They have some really great analytics on there. And we were sitting, I mean, easily the last 3-4 years at about 40-50% clicks on opens, which, you know, you have your field employees that are never going to check an email. You always have employees that are just never going to check their email.

Andy Johns: But you’d like for it to be higher.

Sabrena Combs: You’d like them to be.

Andy Johns: Yeah, you’d like them to be 100%. But yeah, you’re never going to make it.

Sabrena Combs: And so when we switch to video, that was kind of going to be the thing if people aren’t — because it is more of a time investment. So if people aren’t buying into it, we’re going to go back to paper or to email newsletters. But viewership is between 70-80% opens. And you could watch it spike, you know, in March of 2020. And then it stayed pretty, pretty steady in the 70% range as far as opens, and that is huge for us. So, you know, video is so easy to consume these days. You know, the videos are anywhere from 9-14 minutes. We try to keep it in the 10 minute range. People tend to lose interest after that. But you know, our guys in the field all have iPhones, they have iPads, so they can just click on a link and watch it as they can. You know, you see it up on people’s desks, and they just push and play when they have a second to watch it in between helping members and things like that.

Andy Johns: Nice. So talk us through the production of it. You know, was there some kind of software you had to buy? Was it pretty much already on the machines? And then on a on the regular basis, you said it’s monthly? 

Sabrena Combs: Monthly, yep once per month.

Andy Johns: So talk me through the kind of the process of putting it together.

Sabrena Combs: Sure. So it is a little bit more time consuming, of course, than writing an email newsletter. I would say that when I was writing one, I was spending 6-10 hours a month just putting that together. And with video, I’d say it’s anywhere from 9-15 hours a month for an episode. So it’s not bad. You know, I’m not making an Oscar worthy production here. So my interviews that I shoot out in the field, I do all with my iPhone, and we have a tripod for it, and a lav have mic. And a lot of them I’m just editing on iMovie, on your phone, which is just perfect software for making a quick video. And then for editing the entire thing and filming it, we use Adobe Premiere Pro, so that’s a little bit of investment if you don’t have the Adobe Suite, but it’s worth its weight in gold. So I’m sure that I’m not using even a fraction of the different things that Adobe Premiere Pro can do.

Andy Johns: Right, but you don’t need all of it for this.

Sabrena Combs: You don’t need all of it just for this. It’s something that’s just going out to your employees. But there’s also a bajillion tutorials on YouTube for any little thing. I’m like, I need to know how to make that look awesome, and so you can just go on, and it’s super easy to use. We had a nice camera that we had probably spent about $2,000 on for other projects that our cooperative that we were using to film initially. But since the pandemic, we weren’t able to go into the office and film. So I actually just use my laptop and open up a Zoom meeting. I use a virtual background that looks like a news desk and film it that way, and then edit it in with all the small videos that I make so.

Andy Johns: Perfect, that sounds like a smart way to do it.

Sabrena Combs: It’s easy.

Andy Johns: Yeah. And so then how far out, you know, this comes out roughly what time of the month. And then how far back are you getting started on this to start putting the pieces together?

Sabrena Combs: So one of our favorite features in it is called “shout outs,” where our employees can recognize each other for doing something above and beyond. And so that’s something everyone really looks forward to. And you want to hear your name, or you want to be able to see that, hey, I left that message for my coworker. So we send out an email asking for content about two weeks before we start filming. And so we get shout outs, people send in if something interesting has happened that we didn’t know about, they send us that. We do special interest pieces where we ask for specific pictures of like summer activities or back to school photos from the kids, things like that. And so we’ll solicit that. I do my interviews.

Andy Johns: That’s smart to get a family involved.

Sabrena Combs: Yeah, new baby announcements is like the number one thing anyone ever wants to see. And so I do the filming across about a week and then it takes about, you know, in between other work, I edit it over the next four days. And it has to get approved by HR. Make sure I didn’t say anything crazy. And yeah, and then we send it out, so we send it out mid-month.

Andy Johns: Yeah. Once you get it going, once it’s out there, you know, it seems to be very successful. Is this something — I know you said your coworker had some experience with video. Is this something that was remotely something you had done before? Or was this kind of learning on the fly?

Sabrena Combs: It was learning on the fly, especially the editing process. I mean, we’ve all made videos on our phones, but you know, as far as like adding graphics and adding text at the bottom or subtitles or anything else like that, that was all new. And so but, you know, with software today, it can just be so user friendly that it’s anyone can, especially using iMovie on your phone, anyone can do that. My kids put together a little movies. But yeah, I think like if I look back at the original two or three episodes, and now I look at what I’m doing now, it’s a lot cleaner. So you definitely get better. You get faster. You figure out new little tricks. But you know, it’s a worthy production that people want to watch.

Andy Johns: Yeah, we’ve talked a little bit about the metrics, but I don’t know if you’ve gotten any other feedback or, you know, things that you’ve heard or, you know, folks that have told you things about it. Or do you think it’s impacted the kind of the culture of the organization at all for for something like this?

Sabrena Combs: I think it absolutely has. You know, it’s something that people actually really look forward to. And with MailChimp, you can like legit, see who’s never opening it. And so I will straight up go, I’m like, what will it take to get you to open up this video and watch it?

Andy Johns: Warning to anybody as Sabrina’s co-op: she knows if you’re not watching.

Sabrena Combs: I know, I’m looking at it. But it is nice because if I see that there’s a whole department that’s literally never watching it, it’s like, what can we do to appeal to you? And so once I start, you know, when you get people down there that you just don’t think would ever go in front of a camera, and they see their coworkers are like, Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. And also just learning cool things about employees that you had no idea. Every month we have a Meet Your Coworker feature where we feature just one employee and go in depth with them about their job and their home life. So that’s really cool, and I think people really look forward to that. So we also do our best for special interest pieces to make it something that we can share externally as well. So that way you’re getting the most bang for your buck. So, you know, if it’s like a special month, we did a really great video for Native American Month and our Indigenous People’s Month, and we were able to share that to our social media platforms as well. So anything that we can do to leverage that.

Andy Johns: Yeah. So I know that you guys are 200+ employees, so a pretty good-sized organization. This is something, if there’s somebody, maybe that’s either, you know, along that size, a whole bunch of employees or even some of the smaller folks, what advice do you have for folks if they’re thinking, well, our email newsletter, it’s the same thing. We don’t get a lot of – if they’re doing a print hanging something up in the break room, and they’re just not getting the engagement, whether it’s doing a video like this or just thinking outside the box to engage folks. What advice do you have for folks who may be where you were last year when you just weren’t getting the engagement you wanted?

Sabrena Combs: You know, I think just definitely don’t be afraid to mix it up. You know, doing video can be daunting, but if you’re not super comfortable, there’s someone in your in your company who’s a superstar that sometimes you wouldn’t even know it. We have a feature every month with our HR director, and he’s hilarious. That’s not a common trait with HR directors.

Andy Johns: Not usually.

Sabrena Combs: And so everyone enjoys seeing that because he always makes little jokes, and it’s just really funny. So you have these superstars in your organization, no matter how big or small it is. And just so find them, and let them shine. We had a great idea from someone in the class yesterday that was like, you know, I don’t know if I want to do a ten minute video every month, but maybe we could just do like a one minute or a two minute power minute video once a week. And I’m like, that’s a great idea. So, you know, there’s ways to break it up. There’s ways to make it fresh, and you can get people involved.

Andy Johns: I like it. Well, Sabrena, thank you for taking the time to share the idea with me and with the folks who are listening.

Sabrena Combs: Thank you.

Andy Johns: She is Sabrena Combs. She is the Community and Employee Engagement Coordinator at Matanuska Electric Association. I got it right that time on the first try. I’m your host, Andy Johns. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Intro: You’ve been listening to StoryConnect: The Podcast, a production of WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company.