Contract publishing has taken off. With expenditure in this field rising by around 12 per cent year on year, according to the Direct Marketing Association, corporate publications are clearly regarded as effective marketing and communication tools.
But how can in-house comms teams and PR consultancies become involved in producing this particular form of communication? Can their writing skills and understanding of key corporate messages play a vital role in producing a magazine for a client, alongside other methods of communication - and will PR practitioners increasingly take over the role of contract publishers?
Corporate publications allow companies to communicate company policy and news to either customers or employees. And Simon Finn, internal communications controller at Safeway, which produces glossy magazine Team Safeway for its employees, says publications are key for any retailer or multi-site operator.
A magazine is more effective than an intranet, as employees on the shop floor don't have access to computers. 'It's engaging, they can read it in their break or on their way home,' Finn says. 'We do use intranets, email and conferences as part of our internal comms strategy, but the publication fills the gap for the 90,000 people who work in our shops and don't have access to the other forms of communication.'
Furthermore, publications allow precision targeting of key messages to varying audiences. Catchline PR and Communications MD Pamela Caira says they can help to prevent communications confusion when the media interpret a company or organisation's actions and come up with the wrong conclusions.
PR consultancies have long been involved in producing corporate publications but, according to Edelman joint managing director Stuart Smith, agencies are being asked to play a different role than, say, a decade ago.
'The agency's main role now is creating the content for publications,' says Smith. 'Clients have changed their purchasing patterns, and PR agencies are often asked to work with designers and printers that are on their clients' approved supplier roster.'
Conversely, there are consultancies that still retain a specialist in-house creative services division, while others have a symbiotic relationship with one supplier, who may even share office space with the agency. And there are those that will only be involved as far as making sure the strategy for the magazine - and the messages it contains - is consistent with the overall communications strategy.
Burson-Marsteller's advertising arm, Marsteller, produces corporate publications, and managing director Mark Rollinson says the key benefit of outsourcing to consultancies lies in improving the quality of the content.
'While design groups can produce a nice bit of styling, they generally don't have such a deep and all-encompassing relationship,' he says. 'Add to that the writing skills at PR agencies, and you have a resource that understands the critical issues and challenges faced by the business and the skills to put them into words.'
Weber Shandwick, too, has an in-house division to handle client publications, such as Woolies for Woolworths staff, plus internal publications for Visa International and Powergen. Weber Shandwick Visual Communications account director Martin Hindmarsh says the main strength of using a PR consultancy to manage publications is cross-fertilisation.
'If one of our PR clients needs a publication, they don't have to go fishing for an outside person to help, as we have an entire department devoted to it in the same building, ' he says. 'Confidentiality can be kept on sensitive issues, and in terms of costing, we can share information with the PR teams.'
All eminently logical stuff, but are there downsides to a consultancy producing corporate publications? For example, if clients need to produce an internal publication, it's crucial that the consultancy has solid internal communications expertise. If it has a dedicated team, it will be cost-effective; if not it will be prohibitively costly for most companies, warns Caira.
Similarly, while Kaizo director Rosemary Brook is convinced that the entire publishing process should not be taken on by PR consultancies, she does think that PR still has a crucial role to play.
'Communications professionals should identify where this type of regular targeted publication has a place and what it is trying to do, as publications should be seamless with the comms strategy,' she says. 'They should understand its role within a communications programme and contribute strongly to the brief - the tone, type of content, and take-out they want the audience to have.'
Elsewhere, publications are kept strictly in-house. Brighton and Hove City Council, for example, produces its City News entirely in-house as an integral part of the council's press and PR activity. There is no dedicated team on the magazine, and the whole department pulls together to produce it on on a tiny budget.
Council press office manager Diana Barnett believes that public sector organisations might be a trickier proposition for an external supplier than private companies.
'There would be a huge learning curve,' she says. 'We provide hundreds of different services that the team is familiar with, from collecting rubbish to providing care for elderly people to planning and leisure facilities - it's not the same as a PR consultancy going into a firm with a minimum number of products.'
Finn, who produces Team Safeway with a dedicated contract publisher, says there has to be a good balance between internal company knowledge and external publishing expertise, and stresses that a good relationship between the two organisations is crucial.
There is certainly a role to play for both in-house comms teams and PR consultancies in producing corporate publications. The message seems to be that if a consultancy has a dedicated division and is committed to providing a virtual contract publishing operation for its clients, with design teams and ex-journalists on board, then it can be a cost-effective option. Contract publishers need not be worried just yet about PR practitioners taking over their domain - but it does provide corporations with an alternative option.
Whatever route clients choose to go down, one thing is clear: corporate publications are powerful communications tools when they are done properly, and the content and style must be consistent with all other marketing and comms activity. If the media unearthed a complete contradiction of public messages in a harmless internal magazine, clients may have more questions on their hands than they would want.
DOS AND DON'TS OF CORPORATE PUBLISHING
- Do make sure you know why you are producing the magazine - what you want it to achieve and how you will measure its success.
- Do your research. Ask the readers of the publication what they would like to see. It builds expectation of and involvement in the publication.
- Do make sure you have something interesting to say, and have either a great cover or a big lead story to draw the reader in.
- Don't try and second-guess the client if you are a consultancy producing a publication. Everything written and designed has to be seen by the client and signed off before it is printed and distributed. The tiniest detail can produce the biggest legal problems.
- Do be prepared to spend time in the client company or organisation and really get to know the business and the company culture inside out.
- Do make sure the publication reflects the nature, philosophy and feel of a company, and the style and tone reflects the subject matter and the target audience. A comic book style is obviously inappropriate if discussing a life-threatening disease, and single-colour printing on cheap newsprint will be inappropriate for a bank communicating with high net worth individuals.
Similarly, the medium used for an internal audience can be vastly different from the one used to talk to customers.
- Do check the credentials of any PR consultancy or contract publisher you engage to produce a corporate publication, and make sure they have a track record in quality publications that hit the right mark for your audience.
- Don't let the graphics and layout overpower the content. After all, you want someone to read it.
- Don't forget about the cost and logistics of distribution. Are you going to have to distribute the publication to hundreds of branches around the country?