Is the EMPLOYEE PUBLICATION EXTINCT?
In reality, reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
If anything, employee publications are thriving, as more and more companies discover that the employee publication may just be one of the last tangibles that employees will fight to hold onto...
Six times a year, 43,000 Mobil employees in more than 125 countries around the world sit down with their copy of Mobil World, a four-color, printed newsletter, praised for its high production values and superior writing. The print publication is extremely popular with employees worldwide, say HR and communication executives, mostly because it keeps employees feeling connected, no matter where they are -- on a rig, at a refinery or at the company's corporate offices. The sentiment toward the employee newsletter is the same at BASF, the Germany-based chemicals manufacturer with 100,000 employees worldwide. For BASF field personnel, plant workers and others with limited access to BASF's sprawling corporate intranet, the printed newsletter is their best link to what's happening at the company, locally and around the world.
As we stand on the eve of the 21st century, the employee publication is alive, well and maybe even thriving. Despite technological breakthroughs including e-mail, intranets, shareware and more, many companies are discovering that employees -- particularly those scattered around the globe -- like to see, read, and most important, touch the news that affects them, their departments, their offices, their communities, and even, to some degree, their families. "Savvy companies are relying on a mix of communication to keep in touch with their employees, and the employee publication is one of those tools," notes one senior communication executive with a multinational manufacturing concern.
"In today's soundbite world, it's refreshing to read thoughtful profiles about company leaders and feature articles that explore a particular subject or issue at length."
Just as the evening news has evolved from reporting breaking news to feature reporting in depth, employee publications have had to evolve, from being the sole source of information about the company to one of many different sources -- often, not the most timely. Today's employee publications are less about immediacy and more about providing analysis, rationale and specifics. And the content reflects this instead of news briefs and time-sensitive announcements, included are stories in depth profiles and lighter feature articles. Notes one communication veteran, "If you need to get news out immediately, e-mail is probably the fastest, most effective way to go; print pieces, on the other hand, enable an organization to discuss a topic in depth -- offering employees the 'news behind the news,' giving them a sense that they have the inside story."
Why the Employee Publication Still Works
"Face-to-face" time may be one of the biggest -- and most significant -- casualities of today's hectic work place. For a variety of reasons, there is less face-to-face time than ever before between managers and supervisors and between supervisors and employees. For one thing, employees are scattered around the world; for another, people are constantly on the move. Factor in flex time and telecommuting, people working different shifts, and part-time employment, and the potential for alienation is tremendous. Printed employee publications are an effective means of making sure employees throughout the organization stay connected -- no matter what their status (e.g., full-time or part-time) or location. In essence, print publications provide employees with a tangible link to one another and to the organization. And from that perspective, a printed publication is unique: employees can hold it, touch it, mark it up, pass it around, take it home, and refer back to it. "Employee publications have personality -- indee d, if they're done well, they reflect the personality of the organization," notes a senior communication executive. "There's just something about a well-written newsletter or magazine that gives you a real feel for an organization -- it's not a feeling you get with e-mail or a fax or any of the more immediate types of communication."
"I can't get a sense of the company by reading a pile of emails," notes one 30-year employee of a major industrial equipment manufacturer. "Even more important is that I can't share the company with my wife and family by showing them e-mails or asking them to visit our web site."
'Reliable, Accurate and Credible'
Trust is another important reason to keep publishing the employee newsletter. The majority of employees still consider newsletters and other printed publications to be among the most reliable, accurate and credible sources of information. What's more, newsletters, magazines and bulletins are also an excellent venue for recognizing employee efforts or other milestones. Whether it's an employee anniversary, a plant opening, or news about the winning softball team, people like seeing their names and pictures in print. A printed publication also has a greater sense of permanence -- employees can take a newsletter or magazine home to share with their families or post articles on their bulletin-boards at work. In the words of one communication expert, "When you need to infuse a more human quality into a company, printed publications are hard to beat."
Location. Location. Location.
Indeed, employee publications may offer some of the best "real estate" for company messages that money can buy. For example, employee newsletters or magazines can serve as excellent, highly personal forums for the CEO or president's message. Within the pages of a printed publication, company leaders can address topics of interest or concern to employees while driving home important messages. According to one corporate newsletter editor, "I think of the president's page as an editor's page in a magazine -- it sets the tone for the publication, while providing readers with an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the person running the company. I also run a photo along with the piece -- I think it's a good way to personalize the company's leadership for employees." And, depending on its purpose and how it's designed, the president's page is also a good forum for soliciting employee feedback and opinion.
Unlike any other medium, printed publications can effectively ask and answer the questions: Where are we headed? What challenges do we face? What are our objectives? What is the vision? They also can be used by companies in the throes of change to underscore critical messages and get people on board. "One of the most compelling reasons to continue to use print publications is redundancy -- repetition of messages is a big advantage, particularly when it comes to communicating complicated messages," notes a communication specialist at a global Fortune 500 company.
In addition to underscoring and repeating important messages about company direction and vision, employee newsletters also provide a means to introduce new employee benefits and policies; outline health and safety issues; promote camaraderie between departments or among divisions; share customer challenges and successes; motivate employees through recognition; share success stories and lessons learned; feature employee activities and interests on and off the job; and showcase executives and departments (from HR and communication to sales and marketing, etc.). They can also serve as educational pieces, offering technical information and managerial insights on a range of topics.
Making a Case for Low-Tech, High-Touch
As we move into the 21st century, technology is still the great divider. At many organizations large and small, not all employees have access to the most immediate forms of communication, including the company intranet, e-mail or even voice mail. In fact, many communication and HR experts are concerned that the split between PC-dependent employees and hourly workers is widening rapidly, challenging organizations to determine the best ways to reach those diverse groups. "If you're a company where everybody works at a desk and has a computer, intranets are great. In a manufacturing environment, however, there are large numbers of employees in the warehouse, in the plant, and on the road who don't have access to an intranet," notes a senior executive at a large manufacturing company. While many companies are investigating installing computer kiosks so that employees will at least have the chance to access the intranet, access is not necessarily the main issue.
In fact, among the biggest issues facing corporate web masters and communicators alike are: When and how often should employees go to their company's intranet? What will keep them coming back? Why should employees go to the intranet in the first place? What should they be looking for? As one intranet developer observed, "At least with a printed publication, every employee gets a copy -- it gets into their hands and in front of their eyes. Though there's no guarantee they'll read it, they can't help but be aware of it."
Moving forward, many communication experts agree that the role of the printed publication should be expanding on news with more feature-oriented articles outlining the company's goals and direction; educating employees about key business issues and opportunities; communicating leaders' personalities; highlighting the company as "good corporate citizen" and so on. The content may not be classified as hard news, but most communication experts believe that this type of background information is critical to advancing the company culture and promoting an engaged, enabled and motivated work force.
Another advantage associated with print-versus-electronic forms of media is the ability for employees to go back and revisit an article. Written newsletters also give employees the option of reading them at their leisure. Employees can stash a newsletter in their briefcase, save it for the plane or train, or savor it over their morning coffee. As evidenced by the "survival" of the daily newspaper, many experts believe that there is a relationship with print that people are not willing to give up.
Keeping the Printed Word Relevant
In this high-tech world where e-mail, phone, fax and intranets make information available almost instantaneously, the biggest challenge facing communicators is how to keep the employee publication relevant. Consider the following guidelines when evaluating your employee publications:
* Make the information count. What's important to employees? Do they understand the industry in which they operate? Do they know the competitive landscape? This is particularly important during times of change. During a downsizing or restructuring, for example, print publications have the space to dedicate to the specifics and behind-the-scenes details.
* Don't include time-sensitive news in a newsletter. Old news is no news. Instead, decrease publishing frequency and slant the content more toward business-oriented features.
* Don't settle for anything less than a quality product. Hire good feature writers, even if it means going freelance, and use photos, charts and other images to enhance the story wherever possible. Mobil's semi-monthly publication used an outside agency under the direction of an on-staff executive editor to interview sources, write copy and handle the approval process. An on-staff art director also arranged photography with local photographers around the world.
* Consider mailing print publications to employees' homes where they'll have more opportunity to read them and share information with their families. Ford Motor Company delivers its weekly newspaper to employee's homes and posts it on the intranet in an effort to reach all employees.
* Use printed publications to underscore a message or series of messages. One global manufacturing company in the throes of contract negotiations used a weekly (and sometimes daily) printed bulletin to update plant workers on critical aspects of the talks, as well as to provide information on broader business issues. Posted throughout various facilities, this quick, constantly updated print communication helped to keep managers and employees up to speed, while also reinforcing management's rationale for change by detailing the business case behind it. The print bulletin also helped to pre-empt or correct any misinformation being distributed via the company grapevine.
* Customize printed publications for various audiences. To reach factory floor employees, many companies empower local operations to prepare their own local newsletters, for the most part, free of corporate constraints surrounding content and design. Ford, for example, publishes 13 national employee newspapers around the world. Each uses a similar front-page format and carries the same global corporate messages to employees, yet the newspapers also detail their own regional business strategies that might not apply to other areas.
* Be prepared to publish the newsletter in several different languages, depending on where your company operates. State Street Corporation produces a monthly, l2-page, twocolor magazine for worldwide distribution. It's published in English and includes a monthly message from the chairman or president. Then it's translated into French, German, Japanese and Mandarin.
* Leverage your corporate intranet or satellite technology to transmit your employee publication or corporate newsletter in a timely manner. Many companies, including Unisys Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and the Lear Corporation, post their newsletters on their intranets to ensure timely distribution of news.
* Supplement your "everyday" communication with high-quality management journals for distribution to managers and supervisors. Global consulting firm Arthur D. Little (ADL) publishes a quarterly management journal, called Prism, modeled on publications like the Harvard Business Review, and mails it to clients as well as to managers. In fact, a number of managers use Prism internally with their staffs to help build greater understanding of the firm's focus and specific skill sets.
Overcoming the 'Natural' Barriers to Communication
Communicating with employees is never a simple matter, particularly when employees number in the tens or hundreds of thousands and are scattered across the globe in several operations. Rapidly advancing technologies and the increasing sophistication and creativity of professional communicators, however, are helping to overcome the natural barriers of cost, time, distance and culture in most global organizations.
Although conventional print publications, especially time-sensitive newsletters, are an increasing rarity in today's technology-driven, change-oriented global organizations, a new kind of printed publication is emerging. Designed to inform, provoke, challenge and even educate, the new print publication will play a critical role in linking employees to the organization, and more importantly, giving them a feeling of connectedness. Professionally crafted and sensitive to the various cultures and interests of their global audiences, this new generation of employee publications will add value to the organization by providing employees with a tangible point of contact in an otherwise intangible and often distant corporation. So pick up a recent issue of your newsletter, magazine or corporate think piece and put it to the test -- it's time to get back in touch.
Gary Grates is president of GCI/Boxenbaum Grates, New York City.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 1999|
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