How Storytelling at Petco Strengthens Internal Communication

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Communicating to a span of employees across platforms, while balancing empathetic messaging through difficult times, is not for the faint of heart.

PRNEWS recently caught up with Diana Kowalsky, Senior Director & Head of Internal Communications at Petco, to discuss how internal communications has changed from the pre-pandemic to now.

PRNEWS: What were the most important internal communication learnings from the height of the pandemic? Are you applying them to this day?

Diana Kowalsky, Sr. Director & Head of Internal Communications, Petco

Diana Kowalsky: The pandemic proved that internal comms is a critical part of a company’s skill set. It was definitely a high-value and high-stress time.

Two of my biggest takeaways during this crazy time were:

Fast, frequent and honest is usually best. There was so much happening so fast, and we had to move quickly. It was scary to short-cut some of our processes, but given the situation, employees really valued comms that were timely, shared what we knew (and in lots of cases, what we didn’t) and kept lines of communication open.

Repetition is a good thing. Workplaces became places that could offer a sense of stability when much was uncertain. Sharing simple messages and reiterating things again and again helped people gain their footing.

PRNEWS: Before COVID, internal communication was often considered less important than external communication. How is it treated at Petco? Is it as important as it was during the pandemic?

Kowalsky: Luckily, I’ve not worked at companies that treat internal communication as a second-tier discipline. Instead, it’s seen as central for many messages, and Petco is no different.

Our 29,000 employees (partners), particularly those in our 1,500 Petco Pet Care Centers (stores), are the face of our brand. We launch a lot of big news and changes from the inside out—giving partners context and a chance to provide feedback. They're critical to our success.

PRNEWS: How do you create messages for staff in retail locations and company headquarters? What are Petco’s main internal communication vehicles?

Kowalsky: One of the things I love about retail is the richness of the employee base. You have people with many different experiences—at our headquarters, in our Pet Care Centers and distribution centers, vets in our hospitals—and their experiences, needs and careers are different.

Effective messaging is a mix of “all Petco” stories, which act as the glue, bringing us together in mutual understanding of what’s important, while also customizing to make sure messaging resonates given the different experiences of partners.

The way we get messages to folks is just as important as what we say. We have broad communication vehicles—email, intranet, etc.—but also areas where we can target: Workplace, our social employee tool…town halls, quarterly meetings and more.

PRNEWS: What do you do with those vehicles to keep so many varied constituencies engaged?

Kowalsky: We tell compelling stories that show how Petco’s partners and culture are unique… We recently launched a “partner spotlight” where we highlight people with interesting roles or who have been at the company a long time. It’s a basic concept, but people love it...

Little moments matter to build culture, too. For example, at one of our headquarters, a lizard had escaped its enclosure. We did a series of “Where’s Waldo” messages that got people up and looking, and then celebrated when the lizard was found, safe and sound.

We also try to build a sense of community. Sharing content that gets people talking, celebrating and helping each other furthers bonds across locations and is a reminder of how team-focused Petco is. Whether it’s a personal congratulations when a partner hits a milestone anniversary, or our CEO sharing his heartfelt experience when he lost his 14-year-old lab, common experiences bring people together, no matter their role.

PRNEWS: How do you measure the effectiveness of your internal communication? What metrics do you use?

Kowalsky: Our comms tech stack—including Staffbase (our email creation tool), our intranet and Workplace—all have back-end metrics for us, including views, clicks and comments, that we weave together to paint a picture of engagement.

Each month, we build a simple dashboard that shows us highlights of all of those things, so we can get a clearer picture of the ebbs and flows of engagement, and it teaches us what works and what doesn’t.

PRNEWS: What’s the most difficult part about internal communication, and how have you overcome that hurdle?

Kowalsky: The perennial challenge doing this work is not only reach and access, but also relevancy. We are always looking for ways to increase access to information, particularly for our part-time store and distribution center partners. At the same time, the conversation isn’t only about getting the message to as many people as possible, but making sure that people get the right message—when and how they need it. It’s a delicate balance, and we’re always trying to get the mix right.