Making the most of the inside scoop

Employee publications are good tools not just for disseminating information, but also for talking to staffers in a way that makes them feel appreciated.

Employee publications are good tools not just for disseminating information, but also for talking to staffers in a way that makes them feel appreciated.

Keeping workers informed, motivated, and happy in a fluid business landscape is a challenge that keeps both internal communications and human resources staffers awake at night.

Yet even as the professionals agonize over the exact phrasing of a companywide e-mail or memo, they often neglect to fully exploit the one tool ideally suited for employee communications - the internal company magazine or newsletter.

Diana Pohly, president of custom-publisher Pohly & Partners, says that's because in many cases companies begin producing an internal publication without quite knowing its purpose.

"People are often not really clear as to their objectives or the expected outcome - what they hope to get back," she says. "If you can be very clear about your goals, that should end up driving quality and implementation factors such as tone and frequency."

Fred Petrovsky, SVP of publishing at Phoenix-based custom publisher McMurry, adds that, first and foremost, an employee publication should be something people want to read.

"You can't take for granted that just because that person is an employee, they're going to read everything you give them," he says. "They'll make their own decisions as to whether they should take their time to read it, and they will if they feel there's value in that publication."

One way of ensuring that is to get input from workers. "Don't just sit at your desk and think, 'I want quality paper,' or, 'I want it to be eight pages,' or, 'I want it to be quarterly,'" Petrovsky says. "Get together with your staff and show them different newsletters and employee glossies, different paper - two-color, four-color - and ask them what they like."

Dennis Cook, senior account manager for custom publisher DCP, says that, above and beyond keeping employees informed about what's going on within the company, internal publications should provide a glimpse into the company's role not only in its own industry, but also the world.

DCP publishes the employee magazine Next for medical-device maker Boston Scientific's neurovascular division in Fremont, CA. "This is a site with 1,500 staffers, many of whom don't have conventional offices or access to e-mail at work," Cook explains. "But it wanted to show staff that its products actually save lives, so it created this magazine that includes not only regular company news, but also doctor and patient stories from the real world."

Because this involves sending photographers around the US to take pictures of doctors and patients, this process may cost a little more, but Cook argues it's well worth it. "The cover is usually a picture of the doctor's patient. The feature story shows a lifesaving procedure that their equipment performed, which lets the guy on the assembly line tap into the greater vision of the company," he says.

Eric Williams, marketing communications manager for Boston Scientific Neurovascular, adds that the company is also able to leverage the editorial for other purposes.

"We also provide these stories to a physician education website for the largest doctors organization that treats aneurysms," he says. "So they end up being a great tool for building relationships with top doctors."

Williams is blunt when asked why he decided to outsource this publication. "Originally, management wanted to get some of the administrators to write it and just Xerox it off," he says. "But I told them, 'This is competing with people's jobs and lives outside of work. If you don't make it compelling, they just aren't going to read it. You're just going to be creating landfill.'"

Kenna Simmons, senior account supervisor for Edelman's custom publishing division, concurs, noting that while it's tempting to turn some of the writing over to employees because they know what's going on inside a company, most simply don't have the time or the background to produce quality journalism.

"Most workers are used to reading Time, Newsweek, or the local paper, so you're competing with all that for their attention," she says, adding, "One way to get that quality along with the employee insight is with a ghostwriting situation, where you get a reporter to talk to a person and interview it out of them."

Jane Ottenberg, president of Washington, DC's The Magazine Group, notes that custom publishing houses can also help determine frequency and keep the publication on schedule. "With intranets doing the timely communication, I don't think it's necessary to do more than a quarterly magazine or newsletter" she says. "But it is important once you start to keep it going on a regular basis or else the workers will feel devalued."

Many people only think of print when considering an employee publication, but you can use e-mail or company websites to provide the same content.

"It's important to make sure you allow your employee base to have choices in the amount of the information they want and give them different ways to choose how they bring that information in," Pohly says. "Some of them may want an online daily brief with just the top-line news they can read at their desk, while others may prefer an eight-page print newsletter because the only way they'll read it is on the train ride home."

The content of an employee magazine can vary from pictures of the company picnic, to health and benefit news, to profiles of workers along with messages from management that reinforce the company's goals and mission. But Simmons stresses it should never be the first place a worker hears bad news about their place of employment.

"It might be the place where a company might want to discuss how it's addressing some ongoing issues," Simmons explains. "But I wouldn't want to open up an employee magazine and find a bombshell that nobody knew about."

Technique tips

Do make sure you have a clear understanding of the purpose and goals of your employee publication before you figure out what should be in it

Do look to localize the content for company offices in other parts of the country or world if your budget allows

Do leave the writing to professionals - even if it's just a small newsletter, it is still competing with consumer and trade magazines, newspapers, the web, and TV for the employee's attention, so make sure it's compelling and well written

Don't let your employee magazine simply be one person's vision. Talk to coworkers, as well as rank-and-file employees, to get their input on what should be in it

Don't drop the ball. Regardless of its frequency, once you begin producing an employee magazine, newsletter, or e-mail news brief, it needs to come out on schedule or workers might end up feeling devalued

Don't let your employee publication be the first place workers hear about negative company news

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