Thriving in the Dark


Corporate anecdotes are more colorful than official statements – they can also be more true

”Our employees are like mushrooms. They thrive better in the dark”

This quote is ascribed to a former CEO of the largest bank in my home country, Denmark. It was a long time ago and he may or may not have uttered these words, but they are a stronger part of his legacy than any official statement he ever made.

As a senior vice president in charge of communications I heard a lot of similar bon mots credited to the CEOFor example, the one about the naked man walking around in the hallway – he did not wear a tie. Or the story about the guy in the light coloured suit: ”Young man, are you going the beach?”.

Stories like these exist in most organizations – whether top management likes them or not.

To the employees they seem to capture the essence of the company. They are not only much more colorful than the official communication of the company – they are also more true. The unverified jokes and anecdotes made in the depths of anonymity are deemed true while official announcements are somehow less credible.

The reason for this apparent paradox is simple. The unofficial stories are perceived to be true because they are the uncensored version of the real culture of the organization and a natural reaction to the tidiness and boredom of official corporate speak.

The stories do not even have to be unique. When I switched from banking to head communications and corporate relations at the largest Danish conglomerate, A.P. Moller-Maersk, I heard many of the same stories, but now they were assigned to the largest shareholder of Maersk instead.

I wondered how the stories could be so similar when the culture and the official values of the two companies were so different. What I discovered was that the economic law of supply and demand dating back to Adam Smith was at play and shaping companies' internal narratives.

In all human relations there is a need for information. The employees spend a large part of their lives in the company and want to understand what’s going on. They also want to be heard and when this demand is not met they create their own supply in the form of stories and often jokes that capture the essence of their job experience.

Some companies step up to the challenge by producing a variety of statements such as values, missions and visions. In some cases each business unit has its own set of values along with a mission and a vision, usually produced by committees and obviously approved by top management.

It’s invariably bland words stating an embellished version of the organization. Words like integrity, openness, ambition, energy and trust.

Every sense of direction from management is in demand from employees and these statements are welcomed, but they cannot be expected to match the vividness, fun and truthfulness of the informal stories created anonymously in the depths of the company vaults.

These statements are, if not written in stone, then expected to live for many years. Otherwise they don’t make sense, but does is make sense to expect a few statements to meet this demand for information in the long run?

Human relations is an ongoing exchange of information, day in, day out. Lots of content is needed and every company has plenty of it.

With five partners I started the venture This Is Touch to meet the demand for engaging corporate content based on experience from my five year tenure as head of Group Relations at A.P. Moller-Maersk. We did this in the form of films and had them broadcast on television in 30 countries. An approach now offered to corporations around the world.

Photo: Aleksey Gnilenkov/CC

Steen Reeslev is the managing partner of This Is Touch – a company providing television airtime for corporations in the growth markets of Latin-America, Asia, and Africa. Previously he was senior vice president responsible for Group Relations at A.P. Moller-Maersk. This Is Touch is based on experience from A.P. Moller-Maersk. The company produced a large number of films on all aspects of the business. The high quality of the films gave access to airtime on television in more than 30 markets.