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Employee communications - fracture for success and security.

Employee communications have lost their way. Without the sobering reality of circulation figures and advertising dollars to guide them, employee communicators have become too engrossed with the 'look of the book' and too often neglect the specific needs of their readers for real, useful information that will increase their productivity. To get back on track, communicators should examine what's happening in consumer publications and adapt these exquisite techniques to communicating with employees.

Fracturing is what is happening with astonishing speed in publications for consumers. (It has always been the mode with trade publications.) Successful editors and publishers of consumer publications have been skillfully directing the content of their publications to appeal to smaller, more defined, homogeneous segments.

Today, there are magazines for the most finite populations. Some publishers can customize issues to each subscriber, even eliminating perfume samples from those issues sent to a few subscribers who object to the odor. Other magazines produce 15 to 20 different editions of each issue slanted to various regional and ethnic audiences.

Much of this fracturing has been encouraged by advertisers who are demanding a higher penetration of actual prospective buyers. Why, advertisers ask, waste dollars to reach 1,000,000 readers when only 10 percent are interested enough in the product to buy it? Advertisers want to be able to spend a lot less money and still reach that important 10 percent.

With this fracturing happening with such speed and fury, it is dismaying that more managers of employee communication departments of companies haven't heard it and joined in. Many companies still publish one magazine/newspaper for all their employees and retirees. (Some of these productions are beautifully and professionally designed, written and printed extravaganzas; others are embarrassingly amateurish.) Justification for this "one-size-fits-all" communication is that it creates a "family feeling" among employees.

Wake up, communicators!

Why should a group of people, just because they happen to work for one large company, be seen as a homogeneous mass with the same interests, goals, wants and desires? Why expect a company's employees to relate to just one type of communication? There are about 225,000,000 Americans, yet they don't all think or respond alike just because they are Americans. Witness their rancorous political elections on federal, state and local levels.

All-employee magazines/newspapers that portray employees as "family" may have had validity when comfortable, colossal business had no real competition in the world. But we all face competition, rising up from the West and the East. By continuing to cultivate the "family feeling," communicators are promoting an outdated, bankrupt myth. Business has to become more productive. Improving this vital statistic requires that communicators respond sharply to why employees work.

Wise up, communicators!

Employees work to earn money to provide a good living for themselves and their families. Employees may rank money third or fourth, when they are asked why they work, but I suspect they don't put money at the top because they think it's not proper, or are practicing a willful self-denial. I would bet that if employees were asked this question: Would you work at your present job if you had a private income and didn't need the salary? The response would be an overwhelming NO!

Helping employees to earn more money for themselves should be the prime goal of employee communication. And by achieving this, of course, the employer earns more, which in turn increases the pay and job security of employees. A meaningful employee communication program must furnish each defined employee audience with enough of the right kind of information at the right time in the proper form to increase productivity. Employee communication products should be directed to definite employee segments of the organizations and written and designed to engage those readers by selecting specific information that will have high interest for them in a pleasing, inviting package. Further, by directing communication to fractured employee segments, there is more bang for the communication buck.

How to do this?

* First, clearly define the many segments of a company's population by job function -- managers, line workers, clerks, assemblers, engineers, underwriters, sales/marketers, computer operators, secretaries, claims adjusters, et al; it does not matter that the employees in these groups are from different departments, divisions, even companies within a corporation -- a computer programmer is a computer programmer is a computer programmer, a la Gertrude Stein;

* Second, by intensive, honest and expensive surveying, determine each group's lifestyle, education, values, leisure activities, information sources and household type to name just a few. These data will determine in what style information has to be packaged to be accepted and acted upon by each group;

* Third, ask and ask again, then verify what specific information each group really wants that will enable its members to do their jobs better; their requests may be very technical or simple, but if that's what they want, give it to them;

* Fourth, create fresh, effective methods of delivering information in the most effective and economical fashion to which that specific audience best relates and will motivate them to increase their productivity -- magazine, newspaper, newsletter, E-mail, video, direct mail, interactive employee benefit station, special promotion, bulletin boards, group meetings. For example, if only a small number of an employee audience reads Fortune, why put out a magazine like Fortune? Conversely, if a large percentage reads Fortune, then that's what a group's publication should read and look like. And (this will be difficult for professional communicators to accept) if a significant number of a niche audience reads the National Enquirer, then that's what its newspaper should resemble, short of sleazy accounts of the chairman's off-duty activities, though this would certainly rocket readership 100 percent.

* Fifth, follow up by regularly surveying employees -- do they find the information improves their productivity? If not, what do they want? These surveys replace circulation figures and advertising dollars as gauges of success. Keep taking the measure of your communications' efforts until there are definite rises in productivity, then hone your communications to keep productivity up.

Finally, if employee communication is ever to achieve a secure place in any corporate structure it has to swallow hard, step up to the line, and accept direct responsibility (as every line function does) for positively affecting productivity. Until that happens, employee communications will remain essentially outsiders.

One means of achieving success and security is to fracture employee communication. One size does not fit all.

Ronald G. Mullins is with the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.


Lifestyles have changed and the need for a portable, easy to read at any time information piece has become more important than in the past," says Karel Laing, president of K. L. Publications. "As a matter of fact, MPA (Magazine Publishers Association), has done some research on this point that reflects a population growth of 22 percent in the 10-year period prior to 1989 and a 43 percent per issue circulation growth of audited consumer magazines during the same time." Laing adds that today's reader wants more specific information that fits his or her immediate needs. "Fewer people today have the luxury of time to read much general interest information. The self-selection process is key to an effective publication program." Laing also notes that a dramatic change in company-sponsored magazines has resulted in using the publication as a hard-hitting marketing tool (from the previously positioned public relations tool). "Part of this has been possible because of the advancements in computers, which in the past decade has allowed the development of a well-tuned data base. Then, with the target market defined, a publication can be precisely directed to a specific market."


'Even the largest corporations have been reducing the size of their in-house publication staffs and relying more and more on outside suppliers," says Jack McIver, editorial director of Zaxis Publishing, Inc. of Toronto.

"I think several factors account for this trend. Among them: rising employee salary and benefits levels have dramatically increased the costs of maintaining in-house communication staffs; it is frequently more efficient to hire outside consultants on a needs basis." McIver also adds that despite early predictions that desktop publishing would open up the world of publishing to virtually anyone with a PC, the opposite seems to be happening. As desktop hardware and software have become increasingly sophisticated, the skills and talents required to take proper advantage of their capabilities have also had to increase. "The old story still holds true: a piece of electronic equipment on your desk does not render you an editor, or a designer, or a production specialist -- any more than did a dictionary or an X-acto knife in the past."

McIver feels that corporations have become more demanding, more sophisticated in their approach to communication. The universal quest for corporate quality has rendered obsolete the mediocre, the inferior, communication vehicle. Corporations recognize that honesty and integrity truly do sell, and that their audiences will see through anything less."

McIver predicts that the future may also bring an increased use of sponsors or advertisers within corporate publications to help offset the cost of producing the publications. "You will also see an increased use of multimedia packages. What you won't see, for sure, is a reduction in corporate communication and information vehicles: the effective dissemination of information is and will continue to be a corporation's greatest sales tool."


'We have noticed a strong uptick in what we call business-to-business magazines. These publications portray their sponsors to the sponsors' clients, rather than to the public at large. At the beginning of 1989, our company was producing five consumer, two business-to-business, and two employee pubs," says Bill Hampton of the Aegis Group Publishers. "Specific titles come and go, but right now we produce five consumer and seven business-to-business publications. So our experience suggests business is increasingly attracted by the targeted nature of custom publishing. And it seems most interested in publications that are very specifically tailored to small and highly selected business (as opposed to consumer) audience. Circulation for these pubs tends to be under 10,000 -- and sometimes only a few thousand -- compared to the range of 500,000 to 1.9 million we see in consumer publications." Hampton expects this trend will continue driven by the desire of sponsors to enhance their image among current and prospective clients as leaders in their fields, and the need to deliver that message in an extremely focused fashion. "But the quality of audience being exposed is considerably more specific. And targeted publications provide the room needed to explain and highlight complicated subjects," adds Hampton.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Mullins, Ronald Gift
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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