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Putting the employee newsletter on-line.

With computers replacing people in the work place by the nanosecond, communicators might well look askance at embracing technology that could one day wind up behind their desks, blinking and sputtering like an editor past deadline.

But at least two intrepid communicators have joined forces with machines at a higher level than word processing or even desktop publishing. They have put the employee newsletter on-line, eliminating many of the arcane printing functions that once spelled job security for editors.

In Canada, Newswatch, a weekly electronic newsletter, has been going to 4,000 employees at 50 locations of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), Vancouver, for about a year.

Each Monday morning, every ICBC employee with a terminal on his or her desk -- and that's virtually every employee -- receives Newswatch when they switch on their computers.

"We waited a year before launching this newsletter," says Terri Smolar, who heads up the company's Organization Communication department. "We wanted to study patterns of usage, and we learned some important lessons. For example, putting an electronic newsletter into a bulletin board format is the kiss of death. Unless people have a real interest in something, they simply won't access it," Smolar adds.

Instead, Smolar worked with the management information systems department to create a version that pops onto the screen automatically. "That took a little convincing," she says.

If employees aren't interested, all they need do is tap the delete key, but Smolar's research indicates that employees rarely do that.

"One of the interesting things about E-mail is that it allows employees to answer back, says Smolar. "We asked them in one issue of Newswatch- 'How do you like it?'

"We received 400 responses -- 398 liked it; two didn't."

Smolar feels that high degree of acceptance came from her year of waiting and watching other systems.

She saw the advantages of E-mail -- primarily speed and feedback -- and organized her department to accommodate the new medium. She manages six people -- one of whom, Marina Taylor, spends full time editing and managing Newswatch.

Jointly, her staff produces an employee tabloid published every six weeks, plus periodic printed bulletins and videos, the latter on specific topics as required as opposed to a regular news show. Recently they've done them on new technology and ICBC's five-year plan.

Smolar emphasizes that, "an electronic newsletter can be a real agent of cultural change in an organization. It changes the dynamic of the way information travels within the company. But, it must be managed very carefully.

`Since much of the information comes from highly placed company manages, they tend to want to dictate what should go in and how it should read.

"Much of the time spent producing Newswatch involves educating these managers about how the information must be presented if it's going to be read and acted upon. That is time consuming and requires a great deal of tact," Smolar adds.

"It's a constant selling job to persuade these senior managers of what we're trying to achieve, and how. That goal, in short, is attempting to get these managers themselves to be the communicators."

So far, Smolar says most aren't ready to solo as writers. "We frequently have to go back and have them 'warm up' their copy to suit the informal, conversational format of Newswatch."

The writing follows radio news style, aimed at one person, rather than the mass audience of print journalism. Items are short, with a contact person's name and phone number mentioned as often as possible. "Convincing managers to accept phone calls in response to a story takes a little getting used to on their part," Smolar says, "but it pays off in readership and feedback."

While the items in Newswatch are strictly business, Smolar recognizes the interest in social information, too. To handle it, she developed another E-mail newsletter called/ntercom, edited by Jacqui Johnson.

Intercora pops onto employees' screens each Thursday morning. Since it publishes toward the weekend, she feels it calls for a more folksy, personal tone. Items emphasize employee recognition -- usually of a group activity such as a departmental sports event, or perhaps a retirement party. They avoid individual announcements and things such as local church fund raising events.

Both Newswatch and Intercom are processed by the mainframe computer people during their down time (after 5 p.m. and on the weekends). Smolar says that such scheduling helps avoid interfering with hot daily computer projects and deadlines.

As an indication of how an electronic newsletter can increase the value of the communication department within an organization, Smolar mentions a year-end report issued by ICBC's human resources vice president It said in part: "Organization Communication is the internal communication consulting center in the company."

"While we might have felt that way before, having the HR VP put it in writing makes me feel we've made real progress," Smolar adds.

ATST Today reaches 120,000+ employees every day, woadwide

Frustrated about hearing employees complain that they read important company announcements first in the daily newspaper, the employee communication team at AT&T, Basking Ridge, N.J. set out to solve the problem.

That was two years ago, and the solution took the form of ATST Today, an electronic newsletter that reaches more than 120,000 employees each day.

Marie Panzera is the editor responsible for preparing the daily E-mail project, but she quickly admits she has help from people at the company's Information Research Center (IRC), where, using databases, they cull and excerpt news items mentioning AT&T. They also process as many as 50 letters to the editor a day. Then they distribute the newsletter through several AT&T electronic mail systems to employees all over the world. Daily deadline for hitting the network is 10:30 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S., which is 7:30 Pacific time and 4:30 in the afternoon in England.

AT&T's global push provided another incentive to launch AT&T Today. Its immediacy helps break down barriers posed by time zones and slow mail delivery.

AT&T Today is organized into four distinct sections:

* Announcements, which for the most part cover items initiated by the media relations department.

* In the news, which reproduces items and articles printed or broadcast in the media that mention AT&T and its activities worldwide.

* Industry bytes, which presents relevant stories about developments in the telecommunications and related industries, such as computers.

* Your turn. which solicits employee feedback and generates as many as 50 letters a day, although, because of space limitations, only six or seven are published.

"Our mission," says Panzeta, "is to inform employees before they read about it in the newspaper or hear it on their car radio.

"We strive to present a balanced view -- both negative and positive -- of the way AT&T is being viewed in the media." When excerpting stories from the media, she attempts to retain the original flavor of the article.

And, who approves the copy before it gets into AT&T Today?

"I do," says Panzera. "I'm responsible for exercising editorial judgment. If something doesn't sound right, I check it out." Other than that, there's no approval process for copy that relates the good news along with the bad to employees at one of the world's largest corporations.

So, how does Panzera manage to scan hundreds of publications every day for articles mentioning AT&T? And, how does she read -- let alone act upon -- as many as 50 letters to the editor?

With help from two employees at AT&T's Information Research Center (IRC), Panzeta scans major daily newspapers such as the Wail Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times, as well as Burrelle's clipping service and databases including Comtex, which bundles 13 newswires from around the world. The IRC employees cull, excerpt and compile the articles into groups that Panzera can edit and prepare in the AT&T Today format. They also download and print out the letters, then fax them to Panzera, noting those of particular interest for publication. Others are routed to appropriate company managers for response.

Panzera tackles the letters the afternoon before they appear -- that permits her to focus on breaking announcements and news items each morning.

According to Panzera, AT&T Today poses no problem in distribution or employee access. For example, AT&T Mail users subscribe to a shared folder called AT&T Today. Then, when they ask for mail on their system, they automatically receive the newsletter.

Since not all employees have access to a terminal, those who do voluntarily print out copies and pass them to others, or post the newsletter on special AT&T Today information boards at many locations.

Interest in the newsletter is high, as shown by a readership study just completed. Measured against results of a similar study done last year, the number of employees who read the newsletter increased 15 percent overall. In addition, during the same period, the number of managers reading it once a week or more increased 15 percent, and the number of occupational employees reading it that often increased seven percent.

The letters to the editor also indicate a high degree of interest in the newsletter. Pareera tells how she ran a letter recently that suggested eliminating the "flash" feature of AT&T Today, wherein a special bulletin can be prepared and distributed in about 15 minutes.

"Within three days we got 190 responses," says Panzera- "151 said `please don't take it away.'"

Another feature of AT&T Today that makes it valuable to employees is that they can request the full text of any item appearing in the newsletter. It serves as a targeted menu for database access, especially helpful for those in the research areas.

AT&T Today has quadrupled its readership in the two years it has been in existence. It started with 30,000 subscribers and now serves more than 120,000.

Interest in AT&T Today starts right at the top of the company -- in fact, Robert E. Alien, chairman, is a periodic contributor in a column titled "R.E.A. Today." The column was initiated to remind employees about the company's policy on sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill U.S. Senate confirmation hearings.

Electronic newsletters help redress problems that have plagued organizational newsletter editors for decades. Timeliness is one. What employee newsletter editor hasn't grappled with the problem of dishing up month-old "news" ?

Another chronic print newsletter problem is lack of feedback. While theoretically letters to the editor provide this forum, most readers don't take the time or trouble to respond, partly because of the time lag involved in seeing their letters in print.

When timeliness and feedback improve, content invariably improves, too. With those possible rewards, perhaps it's time you consider-how-anE-mail newsletter might add a whole new dimension to your organization's internal communication.

Cliff McGoon is a communication consultant in San Francisco and formerly was publisher of Communication World.

GTE CREATING ELECTRONIC NEWSLETTER WITH `PUBLISHED LOOK'

Employees at GTE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., will benefit from a hybrid electronic newsletter when the prototype debuts this spring.

Instead of a words-only newsletter appearing in a single typeface, GTE's version will feature the same "published look" as their current printed version, complete with photos and graphic elements, according to Jay Stradal, director of corporate internal communications.

Stradal says they'll use the same software (pageMaker) as the print version, but the on-screen, condensed edition will contain only the first paragraph or two of each article. The reader, however, can call up the entire article if interested.

The new electronic mail newsletter will be distributed weekly to 500-600 employees through a local area network (LAN). Helping the communicators put together the prototype are the information management and graphic communication departments.

In addition to the time and money saved on distribution, Stradal says the electronic newsletter will provide an additional benefit: interactivity. For example, if the company is offering a seminar on healthcare, the employee will simply be able to tap a key to sign up.
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 article
Author:McGoon, Cliff
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:2001
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