How Not to Let the Grapevine Choke Your Organization


Motown legend Marvin Gaye scored his first No. 1 hit with the song, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” back in 1968. The title of that song has lessons for business communications that are relevant today.

“I heard it through the grapevine” is a common phrase – in fact, hearing it on the streets of Chicago in the mid-’60s inspired the writer of that Motown hit. Every organization has a “grapevine,” an informal and often twisty channel on which information flows. When we hear things through the grapevine, we mean that we didn’t hear it directly from the source.

Not hearing information firsthand often has a bad result: the original message gets misinterpreted or not fully understood. Omitting a word here or there in the retelling can change the meaning 180 degrees – and that’s a real danger for critical messages. A grapevine also tends to filter messages through the biases of those on it. A funny illustration of this is in a scene from the 1984 comedy, “Johnny Dangerously.” 

Businesses need to careful that the messages they send are clearly heard. It’s hard to shorten or straighten a grapevine; information is always going to flow through word of mouth in any organization. If your employees or customers “heard it through the grapevine,” chances are pretty good they didn’t quite get the same message you intended to deliver. How to fix that problem? Ensure that other communication channels are readily accessible.

Large, distributed organizations struggle to communicate with big audiences simultaneously. Getting everybody on the same page to hear an important message and make sure they understand it is a continual challenge.

Technology available today enables businesses to get their critical messages out widely, and listen to what their audiences are saying about it. That is one of the amazing advantages ofdigital broadcasting.

Here are examples of different ways to communicate with a big group of people. Let’s say a CEO wants to make a big announcement internally about a change in the company leadership. One way to do that is to have employees dial into a phone line and hear the message. But there’s a potential problem with that: our ears hear information in a linear way. If by some chance a listener missed part of the audio message, he or she could be confused. The listener might be able to go back and hear a recorded version afterward, but by then the office grapevine has probably started to circulate interpretations of the message.

Another, better way to get that big announcement out to employees is through live video. Using this medium, the audience not only can hear the message but also see elements that reinforce the message: the CEO’s body language and perhaps written information on screen. In combination, audible and visible components make for a clearer and stronger message. The fact that the CEO is delivering the message on air also heightens the audience’s attention level. Announcements on TV tend to make us sit up and take notice.

Business should seize every advantage today to make sure their communications are heard and understood. Don’t let grapevines get in the way.