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Smile! You're on corporate TV.

Ask any employee communication manager about the company's television news show and you'll get a comparison to what's on the networks. "It's our 'Nightly News,' our 'Good Morning America,' our 'PM Magazine,' our '24 Horas,' and yes, our 'Entertainment Tonight.'" Look at the intros of most of these shows and you'll see why. The music pulses to a staccato of synthesizers and horns both tense and heroic; the company logo spins and dips amid dazzling graphics, with a burst of light when this corporate icon settles screen center; the anchors chat silently in the background and turn to camera with a high-energy smile when cued to speak.

This is where the mimicry ends. Indeed, no manager would even dare mention "60 Minutes" as a model. While the stopwatch into would be easy enough to copy, it's hard to imagine a corporate TV reporter lying in wait outside the CEO's office for a Mike Wallace-style ambush: "Why are we laying off workers? Why aren't we spending more on R&D? Why is the value of our stock declining?

Nearly Half of Companies

Use Employee TV

With maxims about openness and informed employees holding sway in management circles, television has come to the fore as a potent tool. And regularly scheduled news shows on everything from a quarterly to a daily basis are an increasingly common programming choice. According to D/J Brush Assoc., which tracks the use of TV by corporatons, employee news shows are produced today by an estimated 43 percent of large- and medium-sized companies; the figure for the Fortune 500 may be even higher. The vaunted aims; greater visibility for top management, greater penetration of company values, greater morale and productivity.

Managers insist that borrowing from broadcasting simply offers their news operations a format and tone employees are familiar with. Besides, the majority of their viewers already depend on television for news of the world, and the corporate ranks are filling up with a generation that has never known a world without TV. But let's not forget that in mastering these formulas, they also lend their programs an aura of objectivity and candor that can otherwise be lacking.

"We model ourselves on broadcast TV in every way except objective reporting," says Paul Donovan, who for eight years was executive producer of "Horizons," the bimonthly news show at Southern California Edison in Los Angeles. A few years ago, Donovan fought with his bosses over a story on acid rain. He argued that coverage should be balanced and include outside experts on how utility plant emissions may contribute to the problem. The company only wanted to tell employees that exact causes were unknown and more research was needed. Donovan lost that one.

Is TV Open Communication

or Just Glitz?

Of course, employee communications have always been a way of putting management in the best possible light, and TV news shows may be nothing more that a brighter, snappier way of spinning the company line. The eye-catching visuals, pithy sound bites, rapid cutting and happy banter that have come to define broadcast news offer a powerful vehicle for making arresting images and compelling reports. But is this what we mean by open communication? Or will the power of the medium overwhelm any and all good intentions to communicate substantive information?

In many ways today's "corporate communicators" are yesterday's "hidden persuaders," the symbol manipulators and motivational researchers who sought "to channel our unthinking habits . . . and our thought processes," as Vance Packard wrote in 1957. Corporate news shows rarely cover hard, breaking news; with most appearing monthly or quarterly, they are usually scooped by the company's print media when it comes to major events.

So rather than mirroring the flux and change of these tough times, the stories tend to package basic corporate messages in ways that seem "newsworthy." The coverage is softer and more feature-oriented, offering fleeting images of an idealized corporation. "Delicious servings of oatmeal" is how one manager described this endless stream of mind-numbing vapidity, while another estimates that 90 percent of his stories fall into the "did-you-know?" and "golly-gee" categories.

Picnics and parties, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, awards presentations and sporting events may have little inherent news value, but they're perfect displays for the company's TV news cameras. Where better to find great visuals of an enthusiastic work force that exudes a spirit of teamwork?

Another staple is the employee profile, which transforms effective managers into company celebrities. The introduction to the glowing portrait of First Interstate Bank of Washington's Vice President Louise Kapustka says it all: Any employee watching learns that she handles "demanding customers with knowledge, hard work and, most of all, a good sense of humor." Who better to serve as a model for the way employees should behave?

And take a look at PPG Industries' three news shows, one for each of its divisions, and it's clear the corporation is on a serious quality bender. The angle of every story, whether about a plant's safety record or the installation of a new chemical pipeline, makes reference to PPG's "quality process." What better way to hammer home strategic goals and values?

TV Increases CEO Exposure

Through all of this are woven key appearances by top management: "The face behind the memo" is the constant refrain. "Video allows the CEO to get around and communicate with more people," says Ron Martin, ABC, vice president of employee communication at American Express and former chairman of IABC. "Employees get a feeling for the way he looks and speaks, and this short exposure gives an emotional link."

That link can be fused in even the briefest of glimpses. A recent Westinghouse story on incoming CEO Paul Lego included shots froma press conference, with the anchorman reporting that Lego "fielded tough questions from the press." After watching this 20-second segment, an employee might think the new top man is open, honest and candid -- without having heard him utter a word on the show.

In fact, Westinghouse's director of internal communication Bob Fayfich is more frank than most in discussing "Open Channels," which was launched in 1988 after a period of restructuring. "It's a good-news-type program; we don't talk about negatives," Fayfich says. He acknowledges receiving "cynical comments" from employees about "Corporate propaganda," but with reports on the company's vast overseas operations, he adds, by way of example, "Most people feel better and proud of the organization."

While Fayfich is pleased with the news show's impact as a morale-booster, proving the value of something with no bottom-line correlation is more of a challenge for most managers. It seems that persuasion is no easy task these days. For one, credibility often rears its ugly head; for another, today's media-savvy work force may be a bit less gullible about swallowing the company line; and finally, TV and the work place are proving to be a marriage made in hell.

Some Companies Strive

for Credibility

Credibility as a corporate information source may be the best measure of the value of TV news shows, but who can be sure they have it until they try to cash it in? Ford believes that delivering the bad news with the good does not mean abandoning its company bias: A recent story on quality among US and Japanese automakers shot holes in the claims of GM and Chrysler and promoted Ford's internal studies as more definitive than even those of independent researchers.

However, the segment also acknowledged that the company's record paled next to some of its foreign competitors. "Ten years ago we would have said we're better than GM, but would not have said we're worse than Honda and Toyota." says Ford's manager of employee communication, Gene McKelvey. "We want employees to end up thinking our position makes sense, but we can't get them to by telling only half the story."

Moreover, says Tom Thompson, manager of TV news for SmithKline Beecham, some semblance of balance is needed because employees today are seasoned couch potatoes and likely to detect a highly selective presentation of the facts. "We represent the corporate perspective, but we have to acknowledge the negative or we're fooling ourselves," he says. "The shame is that employees can see through advocacy reporting, and they tend to take it less seriously, sleep through it and call it corporate B.S."

Thompson concedes that "We can never air the story we'd like to air," but says SmithKline has not censored stories that reflect badly on what's happening in the company. The hardest- hitting report he cites was a wrenching account of six employees who were losing their jobs during the company's recent restructuring. "Management has to be big enough to deal with these stories," he says. "It's what employees deserve."

Probably the best measure of credibility, however, need not be gleaned from the impact these shows are having on employee perceptions. You see, corporation are spending anywhere from US $5,000 to $50,000 to produce a single show, and they have no guarantee that anybody is even watching. Managers like to joke that their Nielsen ratings are 100 percent, which is true because there are no other shows competing against the newscast.

Don't Count on a

Captive Audience

But there's no such thing as a captive audience in the corporation, as Dow Chemical's manager of television Mike Trainor found out from walking the hallways at headquarters. When the daily news show came over the company's internal cable TV system, employees watched the stock quotes and the weather at the beginning and walked away. Some companies have tried to avoid this by showing the news during staff meetings, but managers worry that this approach could make employees even more resentful because they can't walk away.

Trainor, however, does not believe the complex logistics of delivering the news were the problem for Dow. "We had to question whether we were presenting worthwhile information," he says. As of last October, Dow abandoned its daily show and will try a quarterly, in an effort to "cover stories of higher importance in greater depth," Trainor says.

Still very much in its infancy (and not likely to disappear altogether), even the more established corporate TV news shows are experimenting with various refinements. But here's the twist: No matter what's tried, the audience for shows that crib from broadcasting will be distracted and distrustful. What employees are looking for is not a show that matches the quality of what they see at home. And they're not looking for the balance and objectivity they expect when they tune in to find out about developments in the Middle East, in Toronto or in City Hall.

What employees want more than anything from the company news show is a point of view; they want to know where the company really stands on an issue, what it thinks about the future -- not what it believes will cement employee consensus. The news-style formula takes the point of view away and makes the message safe and acceptable for everybody. Video glitz is easy; a clear and credible point of view is the problem for corporations.

If companies don't turn away from the formulas that are attempts to bolster the aura of objectivity, they may find themselves in the same dilemma as Georgia-Pacific's director of television, Don Blank. He can't find an appropriate format to replace the current "PM Magazine" -style show, so the program may be shelved altogether. "The most contemporary format I see out there is Trash TV -- 'Inside Edition,' 'A Current Affair,' 'Geraldo' -- and I don't think we want to do that in this corporation."

Stephen Barr is a freelance writer in Metuchen, N.J.
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.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Bodnar, Michael
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Employee publications: achieving excellence is a high-wire act.
Next Article:Doing right things right.

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