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Employee publications: achieving excellence is a high-wire act.

An excellent employee publication is produced by a combination of six interactive factors, according to a recently completed study of internal publications conducted by the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer, Inc. (see sidebar). A superior newspaper, magazine or newsletter is the result of a process that involves:

* Top management's commitment to open, candid communication, reflecting a belief that credibility is the foundation of a successful communication program;

* Line management's cooperation, based on an understanding that the publication helps them achieve their business goals;

* Communication management's unyielding resolve to overcome organizational and personal inertia;

* An appropriate level of proactive planning, and measurement of results;

* A high degree of employee involvement; and

* Time.

"The process that helped create a climate of credibility for us has been an evolutionary one," reports Dave Orman, manager of employee communication (1) for ARCO in Los Angeles, Calif. "It certainly hasn't come about overnight.

"I recall running a full-page cover photo of one of our refineries in flames in the mid-'70s. No one could deny we'd had a fire -- and some loss of life. But we convinced management that it would be best in the long run to confront that reality -- and stress the positive employee actions that prevented further losses." Note the date -- the mid-'70s. Nearly 20 years later, Orman and the writers of ARCO's Spark continue to approach challenging material in this same spirit.

Liz MacKay of Canberra, Australia, is editor of CoResearch -- the CSIRO staff newspaper. Commenting on the difficulty of satisfying both her paper's readers and management, MacKay also points to the issue of credibility: "The paper's power to influence staff is in direct proportion to their confidence that it is keeping them honestly informed, rather than operating as an organ of management, so that when the paper does support management initiatives, as it does by simply publishing material on them, it increases staff commitment and cooperation." MacKay acknowledges that maintaining the paper's integrity is a tough task.

"It's often hard to convince management that such 'freedom of the press' is in their own best interests. ... It remains a constant battle, and a constant temptation, too, since it would be so much easier to let the paper become simply a 'palace organ,' or to avoid management or policy stories whenever possible (because they are so much more difficult), and stick to 'folksy' stories, which always seem to please many and offend none."

An earlier survey (2) found that the folksy type of stories MacKay refers to make up about one-third (33 percent) of the content of many internal publications. The current study asked communicators what techniques they used to ensure that the content of their publication "corresponds to the needs and wishes of employees and management."

Responses to Requests,

Informal Contacts and

Surveys Are Predominant

Eight of every 10 respondents (80 percent) said they depend on regular informal contacts with employees and specific requests from managers to keep them on track. Nearly as many (76 percent) indicated they use reader surveys, although several communicators noted that their surveys are done infrequently -- about every five years. Seven of every 10 editors (70 percent) also respond to specific requests from readers, and 60 percent rely on face-to-face discussions with top managers. These are the only techniques used by a majority of those surveyed.

Fewer than half the respondents (46 percent) hold publication staff meetings; nearly an equal number (44 percent) attend top-level management staff meetings. Telephone interviews are used by many respondents: Four of 10 (40 percent) use the phone for reality checks with employees, and three of 10 (30 percent) call managers to discuss how well their publications are doing.

Respondents Wrote In

a Widely Varied List of

Methods They Use

Just over a third of respondents (34 percent) reported they use strategies not mentioned on the survey's list of 12 commonly used techniques. Susan Green of Fort Worth, Texas, manager of internal communication for Burlington Northern Railroad, sends advance issues of her magazine to all vice presidents and above, with a cover letter requesting written feedback. Dan Slothower, manager of employee communication at IDS Financial Services in Minneapolis, Minn., finds guidance in his tabloid's Letters to the Editor and Opinion Page. From Wellington, New Zealand, Alan Meek, manager of corporate communication for New Zealand Post Limited, reports that his organization uses both staff attitudinal surveys and reader surveys to evaluate internal communication. PRC, in McLean, Va., solicits input regarding its magapaper through a regular article and bounce-back box in the publication, notes Lora Bates, PRC's manager of internal communication.

Bill Hamilton, manager of employee communication for Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. in Toledo, Ohio, writes, "We do a lot of things to assure that our publication -- and everything else we do -- is addressing the concerns of management and employees." Hamilton sends out 100 reader surveys with each issue of his magazine, holds focus groups of readers, and uses six other methods to make sure he maintains close contact with both constituencies. In addition, Hamilton attends a quarterly planning meeting with other communication executives and the company's CEO. "We don't plan the publication, but we do plan key issues and messages," he says.

Tom Geddie, supervisor of internal communication for Central and South West Services (CSWS) in Dallas, Texas, is also proactive in planning his program. He notes that CSWS' employee communication goals for this year rely heavily on their monthly newspaper -- Connection.

Says Geddie, "Communication goals are based directly on written company strategies in five key areas: human resources, corporate image, business expansion, competitiveness and productivity, and marketing and economic development." His program for 1991 has six specific goals; for example objective #2 reads: "[We will] help employees understand and support ... CSWS' goals, direction and business plan by publishing at least six Connection stories that deal with internal business issues."

Geddie's program goals are followed by nearly two pages of "action steps" -- bullet points that outline three to five activities needed to complete each component of CSWS' internal communication program. These steps are backed in turn by three pages which list, under the five overall organizational strategies, what Geddie's program will emphasize or clarify to help support those goals.

Balancing Diverse Interests,

Need for Management

Support Are Stressed

Twenty-nine other communicators offered similar, if somewhat more abbreviated, descriptions of how they pursue excellence for their publications. Much of their commentary focused on the challenge of "serving two masters" -- employees and management -- whose needs and concerns often seem to be at odds.

"It's like having one on each side pulling at your arms," reports Wendy Conklin, assistant manager of publications for Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, N.J. "I work hard to represent both facets of my audience."

Kathy Allen, manager of organizational communication at Manville Building Products in Denver, Colo., uses seven methods to stay in close touch with people at all levels in the company. She even has a "dedicated voice mail line for people to call in stories [and suggestions for] recognition." But in the long run, Allen says, her success "appears totally dependent on where the CEO places communication on his priority list."

"It's a difficult balancing act, keeping both audiences satisfied with content since they do have such diverse interests," notes David Thompson, New York City-based editor of Continental Insurance's employee publication, "but it can be, and is, done here."

"The key to success is to be [continually] in tune with the key messages of management and search for ways to put people at the heart of each message," writes Jan McClure, communication manager for National Data Corporation in Atlanta, Ga. "I've seen a lot of exciting organizations out there -- unfortunately, you would never know it by looking at many of their employee publications."

Other Findings Underline

Employers' Reliance on

Print Communications

Several survey questions asked about the employee publication as part of an organization's overall internal communication program. It was found that:

* The employee periodical is the most costly internal communication channel for more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the organizations represented in this survey.

* Among organizations in which the publication is not the most expensive component, nearly half (46 percent) indicated that a video news show has the largest budget. The other 54 percent listed a variety of communication activities as the most costly, notably face-to-face meetings between management and employees.

* The most preferred design for employee journals is the newspaper; more than a third (36 percent) are produced in this form. Magazines and magapapers are also popular (23 percent and 21 percent, respectively). Currently, the newsletter is the least used format (19 percent).

* Four of every 10 respondents (40 percent) issue their publications 12 times a year. Just over one quarter 26 percent) go out six times a year; fewer than two of every 10 (17 percent) are published four (or fewer) times annually. Semi-monthly and weekly periodicals each account for four percent of the total; the balance of nine percent is published on some other schedule. (Five and 10 times per year were fairly common in this last group.)

* The department or division most likely to be responsible for an employee journal is corporate communication; nearly half the survey respondents (46 percent) report that the person responsible for selecting their publication's content is part of that group. This is followed by employee communication (29 percent), public relations (10 percent), human resources (six percent), and marketing (four percent). Four percent of those responsible for employee publications are part of some other group; public affairs was mentioned most often.

Many Feel They Are 'Fighting

the Good Fight' to Produce

Relevant Publications

"We continually fight against [our employee publication] becoming a 'propaganda' piece for management," says David French, employee communication manager for CIBA-GEIGY Corporation's Agricultural Division in Greensboro, N.C. "But we are sensitive to their needs to communicate leadership messages." Many communicators share French's dilemma.

Ron Palmer, employee communication specialist for Litton Guidance & Control Systems Division, Woodland Hills, Calif., writes, "Our evolving culture seems to be strengthening management reliance on the established divisional employee publication, making my job the most challenging in my 20 years here." Palmer, too, speaks for many others who participated in this study.

The remarks of French and Palmer summarize two key findings of this investigation:

* The task faced by those responsible for communication within an organization is very demanding. To produce a relevant, interesting employee publication, they must first convince management that it is in their best interest to permit open, candid communication. Then they must use the credibility of their program to help integrate two endeavors that often are not compatible: the accomplishment of organizational goals and the satisfaction of employee needs. Excellent publications succeed -- and those who achieve this seem to enjoy the challenge and take pride in their success. But they report that it takes a lot of patience, grit and plain hard work.

* Most organizations depend on an employee publication as their primary channel for internal communication. Far from withering away in the face of video and other electronic technologies, many internal journals are becoming more, not less important. Reasons for this include management's increasing interest in and dependence on employee communication, and a continuing demand by workers for credible, pertinent information about the work place.

The third conclusion that emerged from this study concerns the techniques used by employee communicators to ensure that the content of their publications is appropriate. Among the five strategies used by a majority of respondents, management and employee concerns receive nearly equivalent weight. Two of the methods (requests from managers and face-to-face discussions with managers) seek top-down input, and two (informal contact with employees and requests from readers) are bottom-up oriented. The fifth technique -- reader surveys -- applies fairly equally to both constituencies, since employees at all levels in an organization are typically asked to complete survey questionnaires.

This even-handedness underlines the fine balance which most internal communicators strive to maintain, as they plan and publish what is still the most important link between various levels and units of an organization -- the employee publication.

Gary Kemper, ABC, is a communication consultant in the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer, Inc.

(1) Dave Orman's program has been acknowledged as exemplary; he and his staff have won Gold Quill Awards as well as other professional recognition. This year Orman was named a Fellow by IABC -- the association's highest honor for an IABC member.

(2) "Employee Publications: Are They a Poor Investment for Many Organizations?" Communication World, April 1991.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Kemper, Gary W.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Going global with annual reports.
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