Still a Role for Company Newsletters

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Company newsletters remain strategic communication tools, even in this age of e-mail, intranets and instant messages.

That's what Porsche North America's management concluded after exploring ways to build a stronger corporate culture.

The auto maker (whose parent is in Stuttgart, Germany) moved its headquarters in 1998 from Reno to Atlanta. Thirty-five employees made the move; 100 remained in field locations throughout the U.S. An additional 75 workers were hired at the new office.

"One of our objectives was to create a feeling of oneness, in behavior and ideas" among its diverse employee groups, said Martin Peters, Porsche's manager of media relations.

An informative newsletter "would be an important part of our comprehensive internal communications plan," he said.

Management decided this after surveying employees, who said they wanted more feedback from supervisors and senior staff about their work and the company's affairs.

This led to the launch of Carrera, a newsletter that, for the last two years, has kept Porsche employees informed about company developments, products, policies and finances. It also spotlights employee achievements and has auto industry news.

To further promote internal communications, Porsche's brass also began releasing a biweekly bulletin, trained its supervisors in communications skills and held quarterly informational meetings.

Recently, a 65-judge PRWeek Awards panel voted Carrera the Internal Publication of the Year. More heartening for Porsche's management is the feedback they've been receiving from employees.

In 1999, only 46% of Porsche employees said they were content with communications between management and staff; last year, that figure climbed to 69%.

As Porsche's management learned, newsletters can be powerful internal marketing tools. Upper management can use them to improve communications, address employee concerns, educate, publicize goals and celebrate achievements. Companies with multiple work sites can utilize newsletters to generate solidarity among employees.

Despite predictions in the late 1990s that newsletters would be replaced by e-mail bulletins and Web site postings, the medium is thriving. Communications experts say their polls and studies indicate that employees still prefer to read printed newsletters because they can peruse the publication after hours, at their leisure.

Also, despite the seeming ubiquity of computers in American workplaces, many hourly employees still don't have access to e-mail accounts and the Web during work hours.

Some companies, such as Porsche, have opted to use several media to keep their employees informed: e-mail bulletins, faxes and downloadable files for time-sensitive news; and intranet postings for in-depth information about products, services and benefits.

"We've had a huge surge in business from companies who killed their print publications to put their newsletters on an intranet, only to realize that they're two very different media," said Steve Rosa, president and chief creative officer of Advertising Ventures Inc., in Providence, R.I.

Still, a growing number of firms, such as Minnesota Life Insurance Co., are finding benefits in developing electronic newsletters for their work force. Minnesota Life's online transition has saved the firm about $30,000 in annual printing and postage costs, said the company's publications editor, Derek Wolden. The company is able to continually update news at its site, use digital photographs to illustrate articles and maintain an easily accessible online back-issue archive for employees.

Whether in print or online, newsletters must contain more than puffy propaganda or they won't be read, said Al DiGuido, chief executive of BigFoot Interactive in New York. Editors must strike "a delicate balance between journalism and spin-doctoring," said Betsy Ward, senior account supervisor with R&R; Partners in Las Vegas.

To do this, they must survey the potential readers--employees--to learn their information needs. By addressing issues of concern and responding to employees' questions in the newsletter, management can show that it values workers' opinions and wants to keep them informed. It also can utilize the newsletter to educate and inspire its work force.

What types of newsletter content might achieve this? First-person pieces from the chief executive about long-term company goals and current challenges, insightful profiles of senior management, department spotlights explaining co-workers' roles and celebratory stories of employee achievements. A section for employee letters (with responses from appropriate company personnel) also can help convey the message that workers' concerns are taken seriously.

Newsletter language should be simple and conversational. To find the proper tone, consider your work force's educational range. Technical terms in articles should be clearly defined. References to resources with more information about covered topics should be offered in each issue.

Though many companies prefer to keep their newsletters cheerful, communications experts such as Michael Ertel of Marketplace Bank in Maitland, Fla., say that bad news should be honestly covered.

In tough economic times, newsletters can become important communication links between management and staff. Rumors about downsizings, plant closures and cutbacks can be addressed by senior management.

In staffing the newsletter, choose an editor who is experienced in newsletter planning, writing and design. Make sure the individual--and all others who'll work on the publication--have adequate time to perform their responsibilities.

Producing a newsletter, which includes planning, writing, editing, proofreading, laying out, printing and distributing issues, is time-consuming. If in-house staff can't commit the hours necessary, consider hiring freelancers or an outside agency for the task.

Maintain an editorial calendar of important corporate events that can be covered in the newsletter. Consider creating themes for issues, too, said Deborah Bowker, managing director at Burson-Marsteller in Washington. Be sure that, prior to publication, editorial staff carefully fact checks and proofreads each article's content.

Your newsletter's design should reflect your firm's personality. Choose an attention-grabbing name that relates to your business. If you don't have an in-house art staff, consider hiring an outside agency--at least for your first issue--to create an eye-catching masthead and professional-quality layout.

Unless you're a leader in a luxury industry, the newsletter shouldn't exude costliness. "You don't want employees saying, 'Gee, I wish they'd given me a raise instead of putting this thing out," said Jim Gabbe, partner of the Gabbegroup in New York.

Nor should it project stinginess. A hastily typed one-pager duplicated on the office copy machine, conveys an unpleasant message: Management doesn't care. "People will say, 'We're a professional company, and this is an embarrassment,' " Gabbe said.

Periodically reevaluate the newsletter's design, said Linda Haneborg, vice president of marketing and public relations at Express Services in Oklahoma City. An old-fashioned look gives the impression that your company is out of step with the times.

Last, liberally employ photographs, charts and pictures in your newsletter. They offer graphic representation of the stories you're publishing and draw readers' eyes to the text, Bowker said.

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