Microsoft may know how to throw a party, but it’s apparently not so swift at talking about it.
In a singular email message addressed to the “BAE* Intern! <3” cohort, Microsoft managed to incorporate all of these phrases: “hella noms*,” “lots of dranks*,” “hell yes to getting lit* on a Monday night” and “Yammer* beer pong tables!” My 20-year-old college intern had to google “yammer beer pong tables” to decipher the email.
It was hard not to hear about this miscommunication. Microsoft is a legendary brand and with its recent acquisition of LinkedIn, the company is boldly reinventing itself, moving away from a traditional software company towards a cloud-based enterprise. (In fact, in releasing its latest quarterly results this week, Microsoft reported that sales of its Azure cloud computing service had more than doubled.)
Still, crafting an appropriate email can’t be solved in the cloud, and throwing around hip slang does not necessarily make a company look either authentic or credible to interns and other young people – or anyone else for that matter.
Microsoft apologized for the email, acknowledging that it was poorly worded and failed to reflect the company’s values. But the episode made me think about the challenge facing so many companies: how do you “get down” with millennials? How can brands stay hip and relatable? Even more broadly, how best do you communicate among different age cohorts?
Let’s analyze what Microsoft was attempting to do: use pop culture phrases to relate to a younger generation of workers. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with that. In crafting strategic communications, invoking popular culture can be an effective way to connect with employees on a common ground. But to do this effectively requires an understanding of diverse age groups and the varying ways they can react to culture.
Millennials are entering the workforce at a unique time. There is the new, relaxed work environment of start-up culture, the incredible technological innovation rapidly changing all industries and, sadly, the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Yet, millennials still face the same challenges as previous generations: beginning a professional life and struggling to be taken seriously.
Communications needs to address this desire for respectful professionalism. Whether or not millennials use “bae” endearingly or ironically with their friends, it’s not the messaging they necessarily want from their company or its human resources department. They could readily perceive this as patronizing, if not insulting to their serious career ambitions.
And Millennials do have a reputation for being ambitious. They have seen people in their mid-twenties start new companies or become C.E.O.’s, and they often imagine themselves following a similar path.
So how can strategic communications take all of this into account? In intergenerational communication, it’s important to understand what a diverse set of age groups wants. The Microsoft recruiter could have (and probably should have) sought out people in the HR department before sending out the party email; he or she also could have engaged the communications and marketing departments. Strategic communications almost never succeed through an isolated, singular effort. A company can best craft messages that reflect its values and that connect with as many people as possible by making sure that its communications department is filled with people with many different perspectives – that is, a group diverse in age, race, and gender.
* bae – before anything/anyone else; typically used as a form of endearment. Always said in acronym form
* lit – when something is “off the hook,” awesome, cool; Often used to describe events/parties.
* noms – food
* dranks – alcoholic drinks; an offshoot of “purple drank,” a combination of cough syrup and soda
* yammer beer pong tables – beer pong (a drinking game) tables branded with Microsoft’s social network platform “Yammer”