OP-ED: Continual staff education goes far in fortifying any comms message

A local retailer recently received terrific press about a new product launch. So when I walked into one of its stores, I asked about the campaign.

A local retailer recently received terrific press about a new product launch. So when I walked into one of its stores, I asked about the campaign.

"Oh, we don't know anything about that," the clerk replied. "That's just headquarters PR stuff." Many PR organizations do a terrific job of external communications. But they fall woefully short in extending that diligence to internal audiences, and lose a golden opportunity for strengthening messages in the process. "Keep all of your constituencies in mind when creating a PR plan," says Jennifer Gehrt, director of business development at Waggener Edstrom in Bellevue, WA. "Since employees represent the front line in customer contact, it's essential that they understand key messages, and have the skills they need to deliver those messages with anyone they come into contact with." She recommends including internal communications managers in development and roll-out activities, and sending them demos to become familiar with the new product or service. Provide them with a marketing toolkit that can be tailored for internal audiences, and which includes customer testimonials. Employees are bombarded with material, however, so delivery must be fast and easy. Like any effective press release, internal communications must pass the "What's in it for me?" test. Best results come when messages are proactive and require a response. Structured properly, electronic communications can be an ideal vehicle. E-mail. It's fast and free, but your message can get lost. Write a catchy subject line that uses your campaign slogan. Try something like "Got Milk? Why Shipping Clerks Should Care." It will engage the reader and personalize its importance to specific groups. Or send an e-mail from your president to guarantee it gets read. Choose e-mail only when you can fit all the information onto one screen. No one will scroll down to read endless pages. Because text is often not formatted attractively, absorption can be low. People read e-mail the way they surf the web, scanning for pertinent points rather than pondering every word. So bullet-point information whenever possible. End the e-mail with a clear call to action: "Forward this with a friendly note to all your customers and vendors," or "Practice explaining the new product features and benefits to at least three people this weekend." Intranet and extranet. Net postings are not good for outbound communications because you can't guarantee readership. Instead, use them for inbound queries and topics with known interest. Drive traffic to net sites through links on e-mail, but never assume that they're being accessed unless you include a feedback device, such as a survey or request for feedback. Try to find a way to verify traffic and reward people attracted to the site, if only by asking them to sign a visitor's log. Scheduled webcast. Webcasting combines many of the benefits of conference calls and in-person communication. Everyone logs on to their PC or views a large group screen at a specified time to watch a web presentation with audio delivered over the net. The audience can interact via e-mail or telephone, or respond to polling requests. Without some type of interactivity, webcasts run the risk of all passive forms of communication, namely audience members zone out. Web learning. Online learning is appealing for employee communications because it can be customized so easily. Each person can be exposed to the messages that match their role in the company. Individuals can then learn at their own pace, in their own time, minimizing the time they will have to take away from their duties. Online communication can be interactive, enhancing user appeal. Employees might do an exercise practicing articulating messages. They could click on the CEO's photo and hear him deliver a short audio clip, almost as if he or she had stopped by their cubicle. Or they might play a game requiring specific content knowledge. In other words, learning can actually be made fun. Another great benefit of e-learning is that it's quantifiable. You can verify who took the program, and test absorption with quizzes. This lets you justify investment dollars - a big boon for PR consultants. "We view online communications as being an important component that PR managers should consider, particularly for internal audiences," says Gehrt. "Not only can technology help streamline the overall delivery process, but it also allows for continuous improvement when you build in measurement tools. Few other mechanisms offer these advantages." Whatever delivery format you choose, don't make the mistake of assuming that someone in HR or the product-development group will do internal communications for you. Carefully review program goals, available technology, audience skill level, type of message, and economic parameters, then take responsibility for implementation. That way you'll be certain that the company treats employees like an extension of the PR team. And you'll know that everyone, from the IT and finance group to maintenance and R&D, has the information they need to be fine company spokespeople.
  • Charlie Gillette is president of Knowledge Anywhere, an interactive communications firm headquartered in Bellevue, WA.

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