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Employee publications: are they a poor investment for many organizations?

This survey and the one on page 25 shed light on publications - those published by corporations and those published by not-for-profit associations. The common denominator is that expenses for both groups are subsidized by the sponsoring organization.

Employers may be wasting millions of dollars on publications produced for their employees. Editors of many internal publications apparently are not very responsive to the concerns or wishes of their audiences; these communicators might be hard pressed to justify the sizable investments made in media they publish. Management therefore may be acting responsibly when, faced with a need to make cuts, it closely scrutinizes employee communication budget and staffing costs.

These harsh judgments dramatize but do not necessarily overstate possible interpretations of research just completed on the content Of employee publications. The study, done in cooperation with Industry Week magazine, found that:

* Relatively little employee publications content is devoted to business issues of great concern to CEOs.

* Content decisions evidently are not driven by employee preferences, either. What employees want to read about and what is actually published do not match.

* According to Industry Week, CEOs are most concerned with issues that directly affect the success or failure of the organizations they lead':

* Product quality

* Cutting labor or production costs

* The company's future

* Keeping up with technology

* Product development

* Compliance with regulations

* Product liability

* Environmental control

* Competition from imports

* Employee drug use

* Employees want to understand and contribute to the organizations they work for. They ask for information about(2)

* The company's future

* The competition

* Reasons for important organization al actions and decisions

* The organization's goals and direction

* Opportunities for career advancement

* Product development

* Employee benefits

* The organization's strength and stability

* Product quality and quality improvement efforts

* The organization's financial results. Study Shows Editors Favor Ongoing Programs, PR Activities

Looking first at issues of most concern to CEOs, the study found that of every 100 articles published in employee print media, only 25 were focused on any one of the top CEO worries. Employee preferences also were given fairly short shrift. The list of key interests among employee readers bears little resemblance to the 10 topics most favored by employee editors. Subjects featured most often in employee publications were:

Editors' Top 10 Topics Percentage of Articles on This Topic*

1. Current programs or activities; i.e., articles that did not relate directly to a CEO worry or employee preference: a story on a safety program or a report on the progress of a plan that was previously put in motion 16%

2. Community or public relations 11%

3. Personal news (service anniversaries, retirements) 10%

4. Employee benefits 7%

5. The company's future 7%

6. The organization's goals and direction 7%

7. Human interest stories about employees 6%

8. Employee recreation 6%

9. Product quality or quality improvement efforts 5%

10. The organization's strength and stability 4%

Five of the topics most preferred by employees made the Editor's Top 10 List. They were employee benefits, the company's future, the organization's goals and direction, quality improvement, and the organization's strength and stability. Only one other subject favored by employees accounted for more than 3 percent of the articles studied: product development-just under 4 percent (3.6 percent). [See Box]

Using the Editors' Top 10 List and other study data [see charts], it was found that only five of every 100 articles were devoted to the CEO's most important concern: product quality. And, only seven of 100 were devoted to the topic of most interest to employees: the company's future. (This is top management's third most important worry, as well.)

The other eight issues of most concern to CEOs do not appear on the Editors' Top 10 List at all. Among these eight, product development just missed making the list; a bit less than 4 percent (3.6 percent) of all the articles studied dealt with this subject. The seven remaining topics ranged from 3 percent of the articles (keeping up with technology) to 0.2 percent (competition from imports). [See Box]

Upward Communication Not a Trend

Another frustration for employees: publications produced for them definitely are not used for upward communication (messages that go from employees to management). Less than 0.5 percent of the publications studied featured letters to the editor, a question and answer column, or an "open forum."

Management Publications Had a Different Content MiX

Publications produced for managers and supervisors had content significantly different from that of media intended for all-employee audiences. The 10 subjects which appeared most often in management publications were:
Top 10 Topics
in Management Publications
-Percent of Articles on This Topic
 1. Current programs, activities 23%
 2. Personal news 7%
 3. Industry issues or legislation 7%
 4. Cutting labor, production costs 7%
 5. Product quality 7%
 6. Management changes
or appointments 6%
 7. The competition 6%
 8. The company's future 5%
 9. The organization's goals and
direction 5%
 10. Employee benefits 4%

The top three issues of CEOs (product quality, cutting labor or production costs, and the company's future) received more attention in management media. Perhaps these publications should be made available to all employees; five of the top 10 employee interests were featured, as well (the company's future, the competition, the organization's goals and direction, employee benefits and product quality).

Editors evidently thought that publicationS for managers should be centered mainly on business issues. There were no human interest stories, and no profiles of divisions, departments or offices in management newsletters. And there weren't any articles on employee recreation.

On the other hand, these publications were more likely than employee media to feature stories on industry issues or legislation, management changes or appointments, the competition, and the organization's financial results.

Other Insights Deeper in the Data

Indusry Week's study yielded other interesting findings about employee publications.

Format and content: The most popular format for employee print media was the two- to four-page newsletter, followed by the magazine. Newsletters of six to 12 pages also were quite popular. In general, the more frequent the publication, the fewer pages in each edition.

Newsletters of six to 12 pages featured more stories than magazines and magapapers regarding personal news, employee benefits, employee recreation, and opportunities for career advancement. Magazines published more human interest pieces about employees, articles on the organization's goals and direction, interviews with senior management; and notices of management changes or appointments. The magapaper was the format most prone to print profiles of divisions, departments or offices.

Frequency and content: A large minority of publications-newsletters, magapapers and magazines-were issued on a monthly or bimonthly basis. Nearly all quarterly publications were magazines; often these were on high-quality, gloss-coated paper stock, printed in four-color process.

Topics favored by bulletin editors were personal news and employee recreation; this was also the format that featured most of the question and answer columns found by the study. Weekly newsletters were more likely than monthly or quarterly publications to feature information on personnel changes or promotions, and opportunities for career advancement. Articles on cutting labor or production costs, product liability, and employee drug use also were found more often in weeklies.

Monthly and bimonthly publications-as opposed to bulletins, weeklies or quarterlies-were more prone to offer human interest stories about employees, and profiles of divisions, departments or offices. They were also more likely to run stories on product development and compliance with regulations.

Material found more often in quarterly magazines and newsletters concerned product quality, and the organization's goals and direction; profiles of individual employees also were found more frequently in quarterlies.

Story length and content: More than two-thirds of the stories published were a half-page or less in length. For purposes of this study, a "page" was a standard US 8-1/2 by 11-inch newsletter page, typeset 10/12 in a typical bookface.)

The longest articles-two or more pages-tended to be about the company's future; the organization's goals and direction; and the rationale for organizational decisions. Other features likely to be this length were interviews with senior management, and division, department or office profiles.

A one- or two-page length was favored for articles on product quality, the opening of new facilities or offices (if accompanied by photography), and the competition (usually a roundup of news about several competitor organizations). This was also the most common length for profiles of individual employees.

Stories on environmental control, product liability, and industry issues or legislation-as well as human interest stories about employees--tended to run between a half-page and a page in length.

Three or four paragraphs typically were devoted to articles on current programs or activities, personal news, employee benefits, and management changes or appointments. Information about cutting labor or production costs, product liability, employee drug use, employee recreation, opportunities for career advancement, and the opening of new facilities or offices (without accompanying photography), most often appeared as a one- or two-paragraph story.

Artwork: A majority of newsletters and magazines used both photographs and drawings for illustration, though a sizable minority used photographs only. A few used line drawings only. Colors used for printing: A little over half the publications studied were printed in one color only-usually black on white or off-white paper. Another third used two colors of ink; fewer than one in 10 were published in four-color process.

Few Were Excellent, and No Pattern of Excellence Was Found

Did this study find any pattern that indicated one type of organization, or one kind of publication, was more responsive than others to the worries and wishes of chief executives and employees? For example, have editors for lean and mean multinationals left communicators in creaky older outfits behind, ready to let the rust belt out another notch? Are one-color weekly newsletters doing a better job of reflecting CEO concerns than full-color quarterly magazines? And how about articles of interest to employees-are they more likely to appear in a designed-to-death monthly magapaper or a typed-and-pasted biweekly bulletin?

The short answer to all these questions is no. Sure, there were a few publications that would win awards in anybody's contest, whether the judges were presidents or pastry cooks. Overall, however, no single industry, no one format, no particular frequency of publication can lay claim to the laurels for excellence in employee print media.

No one category was consistently better than others at matching the lists of employee preferences and CEO concerns (see page 20). In fact, within a few percentage points, the content of employee publications was fairly uniform across all the classifications used for this study type of publication, frequency, format and industry code).

It's possible that editors of most employee publications are putting out exactly what their organizations want and need. Maybe they know what they're doing, based on reader surveys and one-on-one knowledge of what worries their CEOs. But if this is the case, then employee editors should be more secure in their jobs-and provocative conclusions like those at the beginning of this article could simply be dismissed as rhetoric.

Alternatively, maybe the path of least resistance in many organizations is similar-so similar it cuts across industry lines, geographical borders, and editorial parameters. This could be the reason a majority of employee editors seem to have developed a fairly common formula for publishing their organizations' news. Or perhaps there is another, more compelling, explanation? It would be interesting to hear from those who are responsible for employee communications. No doubt they will have a great deal to contribute to the discussion of this study's findings. Gary Kemper, ABC, is a communication consultant in the Los Angeles office of William M. Mercer, Inc.

1 "Top 10 CEO Career/Workplace Worries, ]8th Annual CEO Survey, Industry Week, November 20, 1990.

2 The top 10 preferences in employee publication content, as documented by reader surveys and sensing studies. Details are available from IABC's Communication Bank. Ranking varies by industry, size of organization, and region. Research by the author has yielded results that parallel the IABC data.

* Percentages of aU articles studied: CEO concerns for 1990, plus employee preferences.

Data Input on Articles Surveyed From the publications received, 1,251 individual articles were encoded and entered into a database. The data input for each article included:

* An assigned article number

* An assigned publication number

* The subject of the article (30 categories: the 10 CEO concerns for 1990 + 20 topics preferred by employes)

* Where the article began in the publication

* The length of the article

* Whether management was quoted in the article

* Whether the article received special graphic treatment

* The style in which the article was written first, second, or third person)

* The tone in which the article was written creative, conversational, or bureaucratic)

* The publication's audience (all employees, management, etc.)

* Frequency of publication (weekly, monthly, etc.)

* Format (newsletter, magazine, magapaper, etc.)

* Type of artwork used photos, illustrations, etc.)

* Number of printing colors used

* The industry code of the employer

* Cross-tabulated output from the completed database provided information on which this report is based. The margin for error in this study is +/- 2 percent.
 The 65
Heard from Represented
21 of the 50 US Sum
State Number of
 from That State
California 9
Florida 4
Georgia 1
Illinois 5
Indiana 3
Iowa 1
Kansas 1
Kentucky 1
Maine 1
Massachusetts 3
Michigan 7
Minnesota 2
Missouri I
New jersey 1
New York 5
Ohio 5
Pennsylvania 5
Texas 4
Virginia 2
West Virginia 1
Wisconsin 3
Topic Percent
 of articles
 on this topic
The company's future 7%
The competition 2%
Reasons for improtant
organizational actions
and devisions 2%
The organization's goals
and direction 6%
Opportunities for career
advancement 1%
Product development 4%
Employee benefits 7%
The organization's strength
and stability 4%
Product quality or quality
improvement efforts 5%
The organization's financial
results 1%
 How Content Sacks up with Audience Interests:
The Percentage of Articles on Key Subjects 1
CEO Concerns for 1990
Topic Percent
 of articles
 on this topic
Product quality 5%
Cutting labor or production
costs 2%
The company's future 7%
Keeping up with technology 3%
Product development 4%
Compliance with regulations 1%
Product liability 0.4%
Environmental control 3%
Competition from imports 0.2%
Employee drug use 0.4%
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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Author:Kemper, Gary W.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:1991 EXCEL Award winner George Anderson.
Next Article:Association publishing: no get-rich-quick scheme.

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