HR Magazine, May 2001: Digital Newsletters 'E-volutionize' Employee Communications

By Betty Sosnin May 1, 2001

HR Magazine, May 2001Vol. 46, No. 5

Electronic publications can communicate faster and encourage reader feedback. Is one right for your organization?

To “e” or not to “e”? That is the question—at least when it comes to employee publications.

As globalization, telecommuting and job sharing change the very definition of “workplace,” it is becoming increasingly difficult for employers to communicate with their workforce. In a report titled “Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century,” the U.S. Department of Labor found that roughly one in 10 workers is employed on what can be considered an alternative-work basis. What’s more, approximately 80 percent of employers offer some form of nontraditional staffing arrangements, and 47 percent of employees telecommute during at least part of their workweek.

In response, more HR managers are turning to cyber-publications to communicate company news, create a feeling of unity among employees spread out over various locations and get the word out during times of change.

Navigating change was particularly important to Peter Fornal last year. As vice president of human resources at Log On America Inc., an integrated telecommunications service provider headquartered in Providence, R.I., Fornal saw his company through a restructuring that reduced its workforce from 280 to 170 employees in four offices.

“Our electronic newsletter, The Communicator, served as a valuable tool to keep our employees informed and energized them around non-controversial issues,” says Fornal, chairman of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Employee and Labor Relations Committee. “We used it not only to convey business information, but to boost morale. We promoted wellness and stress management, sponsored needy families during Christmas and held several contests for employees. Digital publications are a terrific tool for communicating with employees, particularly for companies that are geographically dispersed.”

Hewlett-Packard (HP) is one such firm, with 88,000 employees in offices around the world. But rather than relying on electronic communications alone, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer giant uses a mix of print and digital publications designed to reinforce one another. Employees receive the latest company news through an intranet-based publication called hpNow, which posts stories at least once a day.

HP also publishes a print magazine featuring longer articles, which also are available on the company’s intranet. “In June 2000, when we spun off part of our company to form a new organization, we wanted to position Hewlett-Packard as the inventive company it is

We repackaged a successful print publication called Measure, renamed it Invent and supported it with additional information on the intranet,” says Jay Coleman, who edits Invent for HP’s Organizational Communications Division. The division also alerts employees electronically before each issue of Invent is mailed and posted. “Since integrating print and electronic communications, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in reader feedback,” Coleman says.

Benefits of Online Publications

Instant feedback is just one of the advantages online publications offer employers, says electronic communications consultant Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology in Concord, Calif. Holtz says there are many ways electronic publications are redefining how—and what—employers communicate to their workers.

Interactivity. Digital publications encourage reader involvement. “We get lots of quick online responses to each issue of The Communicator,” says Fornal. That helps us track the pulse of our employees.”

Some employers include quick surveys in their electronic newsletters, providing an instant look at what’s on employees’ minds. “We run an online survey in each issue of Invent we post, and this lets us maintain a real dialogue with our employees,” says Coleman.

Intelligently integrating links into electronic stories can make it easier for readers to sign up for courses, submit applications for in-house jobs and change benefits elections. The forms can be linked directly to your database, eliminating expensive data entry.

What’s more, databases can be used to deliver information as well. “Many online publications are set up so that the editor can reach into a database and pull out information on new hires, promotions and transfers,” Holtz says.

Speed. Electronic newsletters let breaking news be distributed in hours rather than days, so employees can be informed of changes within an organization before they hear about them from other sources.

Savings. Cyber-publications eliminate printing and distribution costs. Moreover, copy and new features can be added without incurring incremental costs.

Flexibility. While print publications must be produced in two- or four-page segments, digital publications have no such limitations. The length of each issue can be determined by the messages you need to communicate.

Further, you can add stories as they arise rather than having a set-in-stone publication schedule. “Although you’ll need to set a minimum production schedule for your online publication, don’t get hung up on schedules just because print publications are built around them,” Holtz says.

Customization. Digital publications can be inexpensively customized to different audiences. For example, you could produce one edition for your sales force, another for research and development and a third for engineering. While general news stories may appear in all three, each edition also could deliver news of particular interest to its target audience.

Multimedia content. Digital newsletters can be jazzed up with music, videos of new products and audio clips from trainers, consultants and others. This gives electronic productions depth and richness.

Searchable archive. Articles can be efficiently stored and retrieved, creating a digital corporate history of your company and making it easy for employees to find previously published stories.

Drawbacks of Electronic Publications

Although there are many pluses to electronic publishing, there are disadvantages as well. For starters, in order to replace print publications with electronic editions, workers must have computer access at their jobs. If only some workers have computer access, you may not be able to abandon hard-copy newsletters.

“Lots of companies have fallen into the trap of thinking they have to be totally wired to use an electronic publication, but that’s just not true,” says Holtz. “You need to recognize how your employees access information and use those methods. And that may mean multiple distribution channels.”

Even if all workers have access to computers, not all stories “work” in electronic format. For example, many readers—particularly those who have spent a lifetime reading words printed on paper, rather than conveyed on a computer screen—find it difficult to view lengthy, detailed stories on a monitor. And, at least right now, digital publications are not as portable as their print counterparts. That may change as laptops and personal digital assistants, such as PalmPilots, become smaller, cheaper and more powerful.

But for now, chances are employees who want to read an electronic newsletter on a bus or plane or in their backyards will print out a copy to take with them. If everyone prints out the newsletter, it can actually be more expensive than simply producing a hard-copy version to begin with, says Holtz.

Formatting a Publication

Producing electronic publications is easy, says Mary Sicard, president of i-Genuity, a web site development firm in Augusta, Ga. She identifies four basic formats employers can use for distributing digital publications. The simplest and most easily accessible is a plain-text e-mail message.

Graphics and links can be included in documents by creating them in hypertext markup language (HTML) format. The HTML coding can be dropped into the e-mail message itself (if your e-mail system can interpret HTML) or distributed as an attachment. “Remember, an HTML e-mail message will take longer to download than an e-mail attachment,” Sicard says.

Intranet-based publications also use HTML formatting. “You actually build a web page for each issue and post it on your intranet,” says Sicard. “Users just click on a link and there’s the newsletter. It’s immediately accessible with no download,” she says.

For more sophisticated layout and design, produce publications in Quark, PageMaker or another desktop publishing package and save them to a portable document format (PDF) file. “PDF files preserve the original appearance of a document, which can be viewed and printed on any system,” says Sicard. PDF documents can be viewed with free software, such as Adobe’s Acrobat reader, and distributed via e-mail or posted on the intranet or company network.

Once you’ve decided on the appropriate format—or formats—for your electronic publication, Holtz suggests completely re-engineering it, working with a communications expert who can advise on layout, design and writing styles. “The fundamental models for print and online productions are very different,” he says.

Except for archival purposes, it’s a big mistake to slap a former print publication onto an intranet without reworking it, says Holtz. “Traditional print publications just don’t work online.” That’s largely because audiences read electronic publications through a process best defined as “selective reading.” Users scan the page, look for headlines that interest them, then click and read the corresponding articles.

What’s more, formatting styles vary depending on the method of distribution. E-mail publications, for example, should have a table of contents with brief abstracts outlining the stories that follow. Readers then can scroll to the stories they want to look at.

Evaluating Effectiveness

Remember, communications is about influencing audiences and affecting outcomes, so create content with measurable objectives in mind. “If your employees are not acting in accordance with the information in the publication, chances are they are not reading it,” says Holtz. For example, if you rely on an electronic publication to announce the benefit enrollment deadline, and many employees fail to file, odds are they didn’t read the article.

It’s a good idea to perform a reader survey about six months after launching the publication. Holtz suggests crafting a series of questions that will help determine how credible employees find the publication, how useful it is and if they acted or thought differently after reading it. If the workforce responds positively, you’ve created a winner, opened a dialogue with employees and e-volutionzed employee communications.

Betty Sosnin is a freelance writer based in Augusta, Ga.

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