Facebook's VP of Tech Communications on Building a Bulletproof Comms Strategy
PR & Marketing

Facebook's VP of Tech Communications on Building a Bulletproof Comms Strategy

Strike a holistic balance between internal and external communications with this advice from Facebook veep (and OutCast co-founder) Caryn Marooney.

Caryn Marooney was a repeat presenter at First Round’s recent CEO Summit — but she was still nervous. After all, last year she’d spoken about external communications, the more glamorous side of comms. This year, we asked her to share the lessons she’s learned about internal communications since becoming Facebook’s VP of Technology Communications five years ago, and previously as co-founder and CEO of elite PR firm OutCast.

"I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can't talk about internal communications. It’s so boring. Nobody's going to show up,’” Marooney says. “It's really, really important, but it gets a bad rap.”

What she knows all too well, though, is that internal communication isn’t PR’s dull cousin. They’re actually two sides of the same coin, and none of your messaging will be effective in the long term if you don’t think about them in tandem. So Marooney took to the stage to share a guide to common pitfalls and strategies for keeping your internal and external communications coexisting harmoniously. Here are the key lessons she relayed.

Getting Your Bearings

Marooney began with a refresher on the hallmarks of good branding and external communications, the “RIBS” framework she’d introduced at last year’s Summit. To effectively manage your internal communications, you need to have a firm handle on what’s going on with your public messaging, which should look something like this:

  • R – Relevant: “The audience that you have to reach, do they care about you? Can you answer the question, ‘Why should this group of people care?’” says Marooney. It’s a simple point, but a crucial one to nail. “If they don’t care, that’s it. Game over.”
  • I – Inevitable: “Do you get the feeling that, ‘Yeah, the world should work that way. I should be able to order a car service from my phone. I should be able to rent software instead of buying it. Yeah, I could picture the world working that way’?” says Marooney. If so, you’re building a product that the world will accept as inevitable, too.
  • B – Believable: Your next challenge, then, is to convince the world that you’re the company to deliver that advancement — and that’s no easy feat for an unknown startup. “You start with zero believability. Maybe a little bit if you've done something in the past, but close to zero. Again, and again, and again, and again you have to chip away at believability.” Your external communications need to convincingly tell the story of why you’re the one who’s going to deliver car service by phone or rentable software.
  • S – Simple: But you’d better keep that story straightforward and to the point. “I'm like a lot of people. Not only do I have the attention span of a gnat, I have a family, I have a job, and I'm on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and soon I'm going to have Oculus strapped to my face. You’ve got to keep this simple or nobody's going to hear you,” says Marooney.

There’s your formula for successful external communications. Easy enough, right? Until you remember that that’s only half of the equation. Trickier still is the fact that your internal messaging and external messaging are likely to be at odds. “What's really difficult, and why your jobs are so hard, is that they're often in conflict with each other.”

"What the world of external communications wants can be the opposite of what you need internally.”

Make no mistake: you have to have them both, and they need to be in balance. A company that’s great at external communication, with no real internal messaging to speak of? “Think of them like a one-hit wonder. You've heard of them, but they don't last that long. They haven't been able to get the whole package,” says Marooney. Strong internal comms with no external messaging, on the other hand, is like a pot that never quite reaches boil.

Internal Communications: Tuning out the noise so your team can hear the signal.

If “RIBS” is the key to external communication, then, what’s the secret to successful internal communication? Here, too, Marooney has developed an acronym. “It’s the four-letter word that begins with F. My mother taught me never to say this word. It’s completely inappropriate in a business setting.” The word? FAIR. “It will only bring you heartache if the word fair is used liberally in your organization. It's not fair that Apple announced the iPhone sales when you were planning an announcement. It's certainly not fair that the global economy took a nosedive when you were trying to raise a round.”

Hopefully, though, it will serve as a memorable acronym. In crafting it, Marooney selected four words that represent the mindset changes you’ll need to effect as you hone your internal communications:

  • F – Fail
  • A – Attract
  • I – Intense
  • R – Rearview

Each of those mindset changes intersects with the communications going on outside your organization — and not always synergistically. Here, Marooney describes the four tenets of the “FAIR” framework, how each one is likely to bump up against your external messaging, and how you can resolve the disconnect:

1. Fail: Don’t make your success contingent on the competition’s failure.

There’s perhaps no more canonical example of turning a company around than Steve Jobs’s return to Apple. It was at the height of Microsoft’s dominance of the market, and the Apple team was convinced that they couldn’t win — because Microsoft wasn’t going to fail. “Steve said, ‘You're right. Microsoft is not going to fail, but it doesn't matter. The question isn't if Microsoft is going to fail, it's how are we going to win? That mindset shift is so important, because every startup faces this truth:"

"There’s no reason for you to succeed. There is somebody out there who’s bigger than you, who has a million more resources. That’s always how it starts."

It’s all the more critical, then, that you make your team understand that success need not come as a result of the competition’s failure. They don’t need to scale that towering mountain all at once; they just need to start figuring out how they’d get to the other side.

Over in external communications, though, you have to paint a very different picture. Remember R for relevance? “The first question on the road to relevance is, ‘Who's going to fail for you to succeed?’ If your answer is, ‘Oh, nobody's going to fail. It's a win/win,’ you've just flunked Relevance 101. Nobody's going to write about you,” says Marooney. “I don't even know who you are, and you're not giving me any frame of reference.”

So give reporters and industry watchers what they’re looking for. Speak to the competition. It’s okay. “Salesforce had Microsoft. Netflix had Blockbuster — and an industry. You’ve got to pick, because if you give me no frame of reference for who's going to fail here in external land, I don't care about you. You have to feed the beast,” says Marooney.

RESOLVE IT: Of course, your team is going to read that same press coverage. “It's important that, internally, they have different milestones and different markers and different modes of success. Otherwise, everybody believes what's written externally, and all they see is the mountain in front of them.”

2. Attract: Resist the attraction of bright, shiny objects.

Startups are a little bit like kids’ soccer. There's one ball and everybody runs to it, right? If your startup has three people, that's totally fine. If you have five people, that's totally fine. If you have even ten people, and that's no longer fine,” says Marooney.

It’s human nature to be drawn to bright, shiny objects — but a successful internal communications strategy needs to redirect that attention where it will have the biggest impact. Because, ultimately, your success will come from people working on different projects over time. It will come from staying the course on key initiatives, and from small, non-newsworthy adjustments. It will be a matter of “two steps forward, one step back.”

Over in external communications, however, waxing philosophical about how businesses really grow is the quickest way to squelch external interest — and it’s not going to help your believability. “There are three kinds of news: The first is good news. ‘Things are going generally well.’ Nobody’s going to write that. Nobody cares. The second is bad news. You got hacked, a key employee left, maybe something happened with a competitor. That's not what you want, but they're going to write that anyway.”

“The third one is new news. That’s the bright, shiny objects that the world is attracted to, and you've got to feed that new cycle,” says Marooney. In fact, you’re going to need to feed that news cycle again and again — and the result will likely be a clear imbalance between what you’re actually working on and what you’re talking about. “They're not going to write about the boring stuff, and you've got to make sure that they're writing about the interesting stuff.”

RESOLVE IT: Your employees want to work on the things that will have the greatest impact. So within the office walls, you need to clarify that the shiny objects aren’t really what matter to a company in the long run. “How much of Amazon's business is working on drones, right? If everybody needed to work on drones? No way,” says Marooney.

She recommends establishing — and clearly articulating — how much time and energy your organization will actually give to those shiny objects. She likes a 95% - 5% split; depending on the size of your organization, that might end up 98/2 or even 80/20. The objective is simply to combat what your team is hearing with explicit prioritization. “If employees read what's going on externally, they're going to think that ratio is flipped. It needs to be very clearly set on the inside.”

Then, once those priorities are set, live by them. “Celebrate the core — the things that really matter to you. At Facebook we celebrate long-term employees and bug fixes. Nobody's going to write about that stuff, and it's really, really, really important,” says Marooney.

Caryn Marooney on stage at First Round's CEO Summit.

3. Intense: Cultivate intense moments of focus — they rarely happen on their own.

“You know those moments when you have just crazy laser focus? Where a group of people comes together under some kind of deadline, and the odds are against you? But because you're working together as a team — because there's a deadline, there's a mission — everything else fades away?” says Marooney. “You get stuff together that never should have happened. People are so proud of it, and amazing things happen.” But you’ll have to wait indefinitely for those moments to unfold organically—so how can you go about creating them?

Over in external communications, it’s actually pretty easy — for a big, public company, that is. Quarterly earnings calls are a surefire way to rally the team (particularly if you’ve ever had a bad one!). Then there are press conferences, or marquee public events: Dreamforce, Oculus Connect, Google I/O. “If I’m a big company, I have a lot of those moments that force intensity. You better believe that the company is making sure that they're going to have some good stuff to talk about, and then a year to figure it out.”

RESOLVE IT: Startups don’t have those forcing mechanisms. “You either play off of somebody else's calendar, which is an option but not a fantastic option, or you have to make your own,” says Marooney. Consider Facebook’s mobile issue, for example. “Mark Zuckerberg clearly said, ‘I'm not going to look at one more product unless it's on mobile.’ Well, that was a super awesome forcing function. Everybody became a mobile engineer really quickly, because they needed to ship product.”

Hackathons are another good way to manufacture the intensity of a deadline-driven all-nighter. Marooney recalls the origins of Facebook’s “pride-ify” feature, which enabled users to add a rainbow filter to their profile pictures in celebration of Pride. “Two engineers who have nothing to do with profiles stayed up all night and made it happen. They were really passionate about it.

“What are you going to do to create those moments of intense collaboration internally? Because they're not going to happen naturally.”

4. Rearview: Keep your eyes on the road—not on the rearview mirror.

“Does anybody drive staring at their rearview mirror? You know that if you did that over a period of time, you would eventually crash,” says Marooney. So, too, with running your business. “The tough stuff is in front of you — the shift to mobile, for example. It’s like ice forming on the road, and you don’t want to miss it. You may be in the wrong car. Maybe you need to pull over and put on some snow tires.” You have to know what’s coming to drive well.

Over in external communications, on the other hand, the buzz is — almost by definition — about things that have just happened. “The information you get from Techmeme or other outside sources is going to try to make you drive staring in your rearview mirror,” says Marooney. And that same buzz is making its way to your team, who might be wondering where to look. “Where are we going and how do I know if we're on the right path to get there? Are we supposed to be looking for a landmark?"

RESOLVE IT: “It's your job to provide those landmarks,” says Marooney. If your team’s gaze drifts to the rearview mirror, it’s likely because of an information vacuum — so keep them focused on the road ahead by fostering a culture of goals. “How's it going? Are we going to the place we said we were? Are we not? Are we doing well? Are we not? What is it that I should be looking for?” It’s crucial that you answer those questions regularly, or your team will go looking for the answers elsewhere. And be specific. Dig into metrics and measurements.”

Finally, always close the loop. “How many times have you been in a company where it's like, ‘Oh my God, it's a new goal.’ Every quarter you get yourself a new goal, but you're not quite sure what happened to the old goal. It's fine if you didn't reach it. It's just really important that you close the loop,” says Marooney.

Goal setting plays out every day, in ways big and small — and you’re messaging those choices to your team whether you realize it or not. External communication is crucial, and it will always be the flashier half of your holistic approach. When it makes sense to make that your priority, think RIBS. But when it comes to making decisions that will shape your company culture, think FAIR. If your VC emails you what a competitor’s doing, don't your team to look in the rearview mirror for days. Respond quickly—you know what you’re doing—and move on. When you’re setting goals for the year, focus on how you’ll win (not how others will fail), then make sure everyone understands how you’ve prioritized.

And there’s another crucial reason for emphasizing both sides of the communications coin:

A comprehensive comms strategy isn’t just smart management; it’s a recruiting advantage, too. “The very best talent is not only going to want that whole communications package, they're going to demand it. Getting that balance right is your job. It’s hard but it’s worth it.”