PR TECHNIQUE: Inside story: The role of employee newsletters

Once dominated by syrupy stories, employee newsletters have become multimedia forums explaining the relevant impact of company events on staffers.

Once dominated by syrupy stories, employee newsletters have become multimedia forums explaining the relevant impact of company events on staffers.

Not too long ago, company newsletters weren't much more than a place where you'd find short news items about the professional and personal lives of employees. A kind of local newspaper for the company, it'd be filled with promotions and retirements, as well as family news and community involvement, all conveyed in language too optimistic to be believable. For many companies, this is no longer the case. Technological developments have done anything but kill off the newsletter. Instead, the rise of e-mail and intranets have supplemented their print forbearer, making a well-conceived newsletter a multimedia experience that can be a vital part of the fabric of an internal communications strategy. "Newsletters have gotten a bad rap because they've been poorly executed," says Gary Grates, EVP for internal, financial, and executive communication at General Motors. "Newsletters have a place in internal communications if you have a very distinct understanding of what they should accomplish." The fact that most companies publish a periodical for their employees doesn't mean a publication is necessarily fulfilling a communications function. Many companies use newsletters merely to communicate the HR department's agenda - news about benefits and changes to company rules and regulations - a philosophy that, internal communications experts say, sells short the form. Even more ambitious publications - for instance, ones that delve into corporate strategy - can miss the mark. "Companies tend to do a better job communicating the business strategy and the overall picture of what's going on in the company, but then they fail to help employees understand what that means to them," says Monica Oliver, principal of Monica Oliver Consulting. "There's a real gap in making it relevant to employees." This relevance is crucial to ensure that the newsletter cuts through the clutter of an employee's inbox and mailbox. To do so, the content must engage readers with, for instance, profiles that highlight actual workers and how their jobs fit into the overall business. Another way is to use polls and surveys, or, in general, interact with employees through the newsletter by taking advantage of technology. In developing its training publication, Enterprise Rent-a-Car did just this. A quarterly e-mail newsletter, designed by I Make News, an e-marketing and e-newsletter company, offered links and surveys and, most importantly, a way to measure how the content was navigated. "What [Enterprise] wanted to do was refine their training needs by publishing specific content to audiences, begin to segment their employee base, and, each time, continually refine their search and delivery," says I Make News CEO Kathleen Goodwin. "They found a lack of need for certain training and an increased need in others. It raised the visibility of the training organization, which caused more employees to get engaged." Goodwin's company offers performance metrics based on how the content was navigated, back-end analysis that makes evaluating ROI easier than it is with print. But, even she allows, "You have to have multiple customer touch points. And there's something about a printed newsletter, there's a feeling and a tactile sensation that goes along with it." Different media can complement each other, with brief items in print and e-mail newsletters often drawing attention to larger stores of information on the company intranet. Technology is just one consideration in creating a newsletter; another important one is content. Internal comms experts recommend that the articles be free of corporate-speak, that the layout be inviting and not overloaded with text, and that it adhere to an editorial calendar. Moreover, the content, says Diana Pohly, president and owner of Pohly Partners, must strike a balance that yields both practical and emotional effects. "A practical effect is business news, industry news," she says. "The emotional effects are about having employees feel good about the company they work for, boosting morale, and giving them a sense of team and esprit de corps." The first step in achieving this, she says, is establishing objectives and priorities, which in turn comes from segmenting the audience. This is particularly important for her work with GM and DaimlerChrysler, for whom her company produces internal magazines designed primarily for workers who are members of the United Auto Workers union. Pohly recommends creating an advisory board that provides representation from both sides to ensure "that the messaging is appropriate for DaimlerChrysler's corporate management, as well as the on-the-line worker." Another side of GM's internal comms efforts for a very different segment of its employees is a series of management briefs designed for higher-ups. "It's a way for management within an organization to coalesce around what the issues are, the opportunities are, the problems are," says Grates. "It gives a contextual understanding." A less dramatic dynamic between labor and management, but one that can have a profound effect on internal messaging, is that between corporate communications and HR. "There's often confusion about who should own the newsletter," says Charlotte Forbes, SVP of Stromberg Consulting, a division of Ketchum. A lot of this has to do with the fact that corporate comms departments focus more on external messaging, which doesn't necessarily lead to collaboration. "If I'm going out into the world with a branded message, how powerful would it be to have my colleague, HR, internally support that message with whatever they do, and make sure that internal and external messages are aligned?" she says. "Corporate communications should be a wonderful conduit, but often times they shrug off that role." Oliver seconds this. "It always works better when there's collaboration between HR and PR folks," she says. Forbes says that though the newsletter form has benefited from the evolution of information technology, many still lag behind in terms of content and mission. "I don't think people stop and say, 'Wait a minute, why are we doing a newsletter? What are the objectives? What do we gain ? If we rethought this, what could it do for this company right now, given our history?'" she says. "Corporations need to think of a newsletter as something that can inform, educate, and hopefully drive action, as opposed to being a reporter of facts, after the fact." ----- Technique tips Do use print, e-mail, and intranet to get the company's word out Do make sure that content is relevant and jargon-free, and that graphics are plentiful Do interact with the reader through polls and surveys Don't overwhelm the reader with facts and figures Don't spend so much money on the newsletter's production that employees question the expense Don't treat all audience segments the same when shaping content

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