News flash: Employee newsletters can be compelling

The good ones understand,and stay in touch with, their readership

With 18 years of experience working on employee newsletters and corporate publications, Jennifer Wah has seen the pendulum swing from one end to the other.

Ten years ago, when employers were setting up intranets, copy got pared down. Useable morsels of information became the norm, delivering the corporate message succinctly and efficiently. But somewhere along the way, the human story got lost, said Wah.

But employers are now going back to newsletters, trying to connect with employees via highly visual publications and very down-to-earth, personal stories. Wah, founder of communications company Forwords in North Vancouver, B.C., has been increasingly hearing a different kind of request from corporate clients.

“My best clients are doing their research, and research in corporate communication says that people want to hear more about other people,” said Wah.

That’s why the stories Wah has been writing in employee newsletters have homed in on the personal perspective. When writing a piece on health and safety, for example, she might look for the one employee inside the company who can recount a close call he had. It’s those real, individual stories that resonate with readers, said Wah. That’s why “storytelling,” a term that has become somewhat of a buzzword lately, has been gaining credence among corporate communicators.

“For me, it’s about finding the most authentic voice possible within an organization. Usually that’s the voice of a person, not a company,” said Wah.

It’s also about being honest, telling both the good and the bad news.

“I’m lucky in that my clients come to the table willing to talk about the bad news. That’s not the case with all clients, because some do have legal concerns. But all the research tells us that employee engagement and employee trust increase as the organization becomes more honest in its communication.”

Employees don’t want a ‘corporate rag’

Wah now chairs the International Association of Business Communicators’ Gold Quill award program, a program recognizing a broad range of communication initiatives. As a judge, Wah said the publications that stand out are those that understand clearly what their objectives are, what their readership is like and what impact their publications have.

One good example of a publication that understands what it’s about is Gist Magazine, a Gold Quill award winner published by Coast Capital Savings Credit Union. It was launched in 2004 after a merger of three credit unions in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island created a need for the emerging organization to brand its image.

Meagan Baker, senior communications advisor at Coast Capital, said the credit union knew it wanted something that didn’t look like a newsletter.

“We basically looked at Coast Capital employees, and we looked at our corporate culture. We’ve got a really youthful workforce here that likes to have a lot of fun and are energetic,” said Baker. “And what we learned is they don’t want a corporate rag. They want to see something they’re interested in reading.”

The credit union decided on a magazine format and recruited an external communication firm for input on the creative elements and the themes. The kinds of articles and features found in Gist’s pages include profiles of departments, quirky staff interviews known as “Conspicuous Characters” and introductions to employee programs served up in a light-hearted, snazzy tone.

For Baker, the key is in knowing your readership and, in this case, the readership wants something visual.

“People wouldn’t probably pick up and read a really traditional newsletter that’s really copy-heavy. As soon as we develop the content, almost right away we think about how to visually tell the story.”

Targeting managers

Knowing its readership sets the electronic newsletter i-Lead apart from the competition. Published by Sprint Nextel, a telecommunications company based in Reston, Va., with 60,000 employees, i-Lead enjoys the privilege of having to address only a select group of employees — managers. It also won a Gold Quill award last year.

What that means, said managing editor Jennifer Sniderman, is no recipes, no holiday stories, no people profiles, no quizzes and jokes and puzzles. Those may still land in the pages of the all-employee newsletter i-Know, but for i-Lead, only what’s useful and necessary for managers to do their job will make it into the biweekly issues.

“A lot of it’s around developing yourself as a manager, helping you understand our business, making sure you understand the strategy of the corporation. There are tools for teamwork, team-building, meeting facilitation,” said Sniderman. Reading the headline and deck alone, a manager should be able to tell what it is he’s supposed to know and what he’s supposed to do about it.

Sniderman works closely with a group of internal communicators who are plugged into different business units across the organization and who also contribute ideas and articles. She also collaborates with both the HR department and with Sprint University, the company’s training arm, to determine content for each issue.

“The HR side has a lot at stake in this publication and they sit in on our biweekly editorial calls. We take a look at all the things out there going on in the company. What are the big enterprise-wide initiatives that we need to be aware of because that’s what managers are being asked to do?”

She also looks to the company’s employee survey for an idea of areas managers still struggle with. In what’s called a management quality index, employees are asked to rate the skills and performance of their managers. If the results indicate that managers had a hard time explaining the corporate strategy to their reports, for example, Sniderman would give this topic considerable play in a subsequent issue.

Soliciting feedback

Getting a two-way rapport with readers is another key element in a good publication, said Wah. It’s through a readers’ survey that Baker at Gist Magazine found out 99 per cent of respondents — who made up about one half of the credit union’s workforce — have read the magazine, or that a rants column she had cut was actually quite popular with readers.

Whether through focus groups, reader surveys or a readers’ council, Wah said she’s seeing more organizations working on soliciting feedback. She cites as an example the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, which has set up a readers’ council of about 20 to 30 people. When an issue comes out, it’s their job to take a red marker to it, putting checkmarks next to articles they like and X’s through the ones they don’t like, then send it back to the editor.

“There’s no better, more immediate response to what you’re producing than that kind of hands-on research,” said Wah.

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