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Paying Peter without robbing Paul: is it possible to do an employee communication vehicle that can make both executives and rank-and-file employees happy? Absolutely.

Imagine this: You're sitting at your desk, checking your fantasy baseball scores and trying to figure out what to have for dinner, when the CEO walks in. You've never actually met him, but you recognize him from the constipated mug-shot photo that runs above his column in the employee publication every month--the column that you ghostwrite.

"John," he says, even though your name is Wayne, "I had an epiphany the other day. Why are we wasting our money printing an employee newsletter that doesn't have any news in it? Why are we wasting so much space with those stupid 'grip-and-grin' photos? Why are we running two pages of service anniversaries, when the type is so small that the very people we're supposed to be recognizing can't read their own name without putting bifocals on? Why are we wasting an entire page on a CEO column that I wouldn't even read, and I supposedly wrote it?"

"I don't know, sir," you mumble, wondering if this is what it feels like to get fired.

"Well, let's stop this nonsense," he continues. "I'm giving you carte blanche. I want you to create a newsletter that will turn heads in this organization. I want a vehicle that will change behavior, get people excited about working here and maybe even make some waves in the industry. Now get to it."

And with that, he walks out. What do you do first?

First, feed the big dogs

The hardest part of creating and maintaining a good employee publication is walking the line between your two audiences: executives and managers, and rank-and-file employees. The two audiences have different needs. Can you possibly make one publication that will make both groups happy?

Absolutely. But let's tackle this one audience at a time. Let's feed the big dogs first. How do you make the senior leaders and executives in your organization happy? By covering the things they care about. And here's a hint: They don't care about service anniversaries, the company picnic, new hires or what employees do outside of work. That great story you did about the one-legged blind worker from accounts payable who climbed Mount Everest? They don't care about that.

They care about things that affect the business. If you cover those things, they will like and respect your publication. It's that simple. Now, since every company and every industry is different, it will be up to you to find out what your executives care about. But there are a couple of topics that are relevant to any organization. Start with these while you build your own list by interviewing executives (see "Getting Inside Your Executive's Head," right), attending as many managerial meetings as you can and tracking what's happening in the industry.

>Best practices. We're constantly harping on "knowledge management" and "sharing knowledge across the organization." Guess what? Your publication can help make that happen.

Here's a great way to find best practices: Stick a notice on the intranet that you are looking for employees who are doing great things. You want to find "employee heroes"--people who are helping the company succeed with innovative ideas, creative solutions, new products or different systems. And when you interview these people, make sure you pull out the best practices, ideas, tips and tactics that other folks in similar positions in the company can use.

>Industry trends. Most industries have trade publications, right? Well, here's a slam-dunk story idea that will get your executives to notice your publication.

Send an e-mail to the four or five biggest trade-publication editors who cover your industry. Ask them all the same five or six questions (keep it short--these are busy people--and offer them the option of doing the interview by phone, if that is easier).

You want to find out what the biggest trends are in your industry. What are people buzzing about? What is around the corner? What are people worried about? Then, pull those answers into a multiperson Q&A that gives a snapshot of the entire industry.

If you work to replace the fluff with the topics that keep company leaders awake at night, you will--slowly--change their perception.

Now it's time to work on our other audience: the employees.

Chipping away at the "propaganda" feeling

If executives have the perception that the employee newsletter is too soft, employees have their own perception: that the entire publication is all propaganda. Why? Because we quote the same suits over and over again. And those suits never say anything. They talk about their low-hanging fruit and their core competencies, and they urge people to shift paradigms and proactively leverage their optimal deliverables.

And it's all one-way, top-down communication that rarely--if ever mentions or quotes the employees.

If you want to win employees over, they have to believe that this publication is for and about them--that it's not just a soapbox for executives. They need to understand that, while this thing is laser-focused on the business of the business, it is still the employee publication.

Solving this problem isn't as difficult as you think. You can start with one simple tactic: Stop quoting executives and start quoting employees. Or, at the very least, quote executives and employees.

Load your publication with employee perspectives. Quote the people in the trenches. Ditch the executive grip-and-grins and replace them with photos of employee heroes at work. Slice out all that rotten executive jargon and replace it with plain English.

Another way to chip away at that propaganda stink is to quote people outside the company: analysts, trade-publication editors, customers and industry experts.

Before you know it, your publication will look more like a trade publication than a "house organ,"

That's the basic one-two punch you need in order to have a successful publication. You win management over by covering the right topics, and you win employees over with how you cover those topics.

And then sit back and wait for readership to build.

RELATED ARTICLE: Changing your reputation-in one fell swoop.

If you really want to move out of the "old school" category of employee publications and into the modern era, you can take a big first step by changing one feature that is standard in many employee vehicles: the executive column.

You've seen it. It's always on page 2 of a print publication, and it always features a mug-shot photo of a middle-aged white guy who's trying to look friendly and approachable yet serious and dignified at the same time. He almost always ends up looking constipated.

The prose in the column is constipated, too. It never mentions bad news ("problems" become either "challenges" or "opportunities"); it rarely talks about employees--other than in a patronizing way ("Employees are our greatest asset"); it is filled with jargon and buzzwords ("We need to ramp up our synergy if we are to be a world-class, customer-centric organization in the new millennium").

And guess what? Nobody reads this junk. If you want to change the reputation of your publication with one bold stroke, change this feature. Make it interactive. Instead of the executive spouting forth on whatever the flavor of the month is, have him or her answer some questions from employees.

Hit the bricks, talk to some employees, and collect a couple of burning questions that employees have. Then have the executive answer them in the column. And you write the answers, so the executive ends up sounding like a human being, not a robot.

This one move--turning the one-way, top-down CEO column into a problem-solving, question-answering tool--will turn heads, and bring in readers.--S. C.

RELATED ARTICLE: Getting inside your executive's head.

If you want management to take you seriously, you have to write about the topics they care about. But what are those topics?

One way to find out is to actually talk to some executives. Here's a hint. They probably won't make time for just a random interview so you can "pick their brains." These are busy people. That's why you have to make it sound official.

Tell them--or, more important, tell their administrative assistants, who are the true source of power because they control the schedules--that you are doing an "executive communication audit."

Executives love the word audit. It sounds so serious, so business-y. Let them know that you require just 30 minutes of their time. Thirty minutes won't scare them away. They can schedule that between their really important meetings.

When you get in there (and if you're persistent enough, you will), don't waste their time. Have your questions ready. Fire away. Try to finish in 20 minutes. They'll love you for that.

You'll walk out with a dozen topics that are keeping that particular executive awake at night. And when he sees those topics addressed intelligently in the employee publication, you'll have a new fan in your corner.--S.C.

Steve Crescenzo is a senior editor at both Ragan Report and the Corporate Writer and Editor newsletter.
COPYRIGHT 2005 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:editor's angle
Author:Crescenzo, Steve
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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