Getting More From Your Communications

    October 14, 2003

Managers in small companies have a lot more opportunity for face-to-face contacts, while managers in large companies need tools for mass communication. The key in either scenario is to choose the appropriate vehicle for conveying the type of information that you typically share with your employees.

Although you need to have a primary method of communicating, you also need to use alternative methods. If your favorite method of communication is to have a weekly meeting, you may have to use a different method to let people know about an urgent development. Likewise, the company newsletter may provide a great forum for going into issues in more depth than would be appropriate at a team meeting.

Each of your communication channels should complement one another to create a unified but multidimensional whole. Your employees should respect and depend upon the sources of information your company provides — and not rely on rumors. Here are some options:

1. Weekly voicemails One option used by a number of companies to communication urgent news is the firm’s voicemail system. Voicemail is particularly useful for broadcasting messages from senior executives. This can be followed up by a face-to-face meeting with line managers, who then can address the news in team meetings.

Here are some situations where you would want to use voicemail:

* Top level, immediate organizational changes

* Unexpected product or employee crises

* Updates that may hit the news the next day on recent company activity

* Good news announcements and holiday greetings

2. E-mails You can use e-mail to communicate urgent information or simply to make general announcements. Assuming that everyone in your audience has access to e-mail, this channel works best when you want to:

* Briefly remind a large group of people about a meeting, event, or an action that’s needed.

* Initiate a vote or feedback on a relatively simple matter with a small group of people.

Warning. You can also use e-mail for communication during a crisis, promotion announcements, and short updates and reminders. However, in the event of a legally sensitive crisis, be sure to get your legal department’s sign off before sending any e-mails.

In fact, you can launch an entire e-mail communication campaign with preview e-mails, actual announcements, and follow-ups. For example, if your company is launching a new benefits program, you can send an e-mail teaser, saying something like, “We’re expanding your benefits options — more news to come!” Then you could follow up with actual announcements and in-depth materials. One warning, though: don’t bombard your employees with e-mail or they’ll start to tune out.

The top challenge with e-mail is that most people receive too many messages that are too long. If you decide to use this tool as one of your communication channels, remember these tips:

* Keep messages clear but concise.

* To help recipients prioritize e-mail, highlight at the top of the message whether your e-mail requires any type of action — for example, type “Only for your review” or “Action required.”

3. Memos Memos are effective for making important announcements from executives and explaining the rationale for decisions that top management has made. Through memos, employees can hear the information straight from the decision-makers. Memos may be the best way to communicate a lot of in-depth information that isn’t necessarily time sensitive. You can then send that memo to your staff as an e-mail attachment or forward hard copies to those employees who don’t have access to computers.

4. Company newsletter or magazine A newsletter or magazine can be a helpful tool in a company’s quest to educate and communicate with employees. The great results companies get when using this communication tool often justify the effort.

Your corporate communications department normally has someone who heads this project. She or he coordinates information from all company departments and reinforces corporate messages within the newsletter. The publication can come out as often as your organization wants. Some companies publish once a week, while others distribute their newsletters or magazines quarterly. The key, however, is to make sure that the newsletter or magazine is distributed on a regular schedule, so that your employees know when to expect it.

Although a company newsletter or magazine is usually a high-priority communication method for most organizations, it alone cannot accomplish the role of spreading your company’s vision. Because this tool is feature-oriented and only appears from time to time, you must use it in conjunction with the other tools described this chapter. Otherwise, you won’t have a way to handle late-breaking news that your employees need to hear immediately — from you, not the newspaper or grapevine.

Tip: No matter how small your budget, you can afford to have a company newsletter. It can be as simple as a one-page, two-sided piece of paper that you photocopy in your office, or as elaborate as a glossy, four-color magazine process quarterly. And you can save printing costs by e-mailing it or posting it on your company’s intranet if you don’t want to print it and distribute it in the traditional way.

Your company newsletter shouldn’t be too flashy. Your employees will wonder why so much money is being spent on it. However, if you’re in any image-conscious industry, such as high-tech or advertising, you may need to have a flashy newsletter to be in line with your corporate image. Your newsletter should be in line with the rest of your corporate materials.

To make the most of your newsletter, it should be more than a laundry list of who recently had anniversaries with the company, celebrated their birthday, or became a parent. You want to use the newsletter to reinforce your company’s values and goals — for example, if one of your goals is great customer service, you could run a feature story on a staff member who went above and beyond for a client. Stories should be fairly in-depth. Here are some things that you can include in your newsletter:

* A letter from senior management or perhaps the CEO

* Success stories highlighting organizational goals (excellent customer service, collaboration, innovation, and so on)

* Human interest articles, such as those about charity events

* News of promotions, new employees, new office openings, and so on, but placed in the context of their relation to business goals and ideals

* A quarterly review of the organization’s finances in lay terms (what the numbers really mean to the company and employees)

Remember that what you include in a newsletter needs to be tailored to your company. Every organization’s newsletter contains a different mix of content.

The challenge with a company newsletter is to treat it as a public document while at the same time targeting your employees. Give your employees company news of interest, as well as a snapshot of what other people in the organization are up to. But realize that the information may find its way to competitors or the media.

Warning : whatever you do, don’t spin any messages in your newsletter — employees will see right through it. If you can’t include an honest account, maybe now isn’t the right time — or this isn’t the right communication vehicle — to convey the message.

You probably don’t determine the contents of your newsletter, but you can still use it to your advantage. For example, you may want to contact the newsletter’s managing editor to suggest possible story ideas. Most corporate communications staff members are eager to hear from front-line managers about what information would be most helpful and interesting. Consider your team’s most significant accomplishments and successes — do you think other teams could benefit from your experience? And wouldn’t it be nice to publicly recognize your employees’ efforts through a story in the company newsletter? Share your best practices with your company’s corporate communications team and they can help tell the story that both motivates your team and inspires others.

5. Brown bag lunch meetings Brown bag lunch meetings are great for casual discussions with small groups or for brainstorming sessions. By keeping the attendance to 10 or 20 employees, the meetings can be informal and relaxed. These meetings are also a great way for managers to find out their employees’ concerns. If you decide to hold brown bag lunch meetings, follow these tips:

* Focus the meeting on a specific topic.

* Keep the number of attendees under control.

* Provide time for a question and answer session.

* Hold the meeting in a relaxed setting.

Consider bringing in an expert from within the company to discuss his or her job. This discussion can help employees see the big picture.

6. Company-wide meetings If you want everyone to hear the message at the same time and everyone is in one location, then hold a company-wide meetings. Don’t forget to hold a follow-up question and answer session, particularly if you’re making a major announcement. You can also hold the sessions to motivate your employees and have senior managers share department reports.

7. CD-ROM or videotape presentations For something exciting and different, try a CD-ROM or videotape presentation. These presentations are more personable and interesting than memos, voicemail, or e-mails, and they allow you to provide visual images not possible with other communication channels. Employees can gather together at specific times to view the presentation or watch it at their convenience. These presentations can be a powerful motivational tool, getting your employees excited about the company’s vision and ideas. CD-ROMs or videos can be expensive to produce, so select this method only if your budget allows. These kinds of presentations are best for:

* A visual tour of company headquarters or a branch location, as part of an overall orientation package.

* A motivational message from the CEO (particularly if your organization is so large that on-site visits are logistically challenging).

Tip: Videos and CD-ROMs aren’t appropriate for every situation or every company. As a manager, you should know your staff well enough to determine whether they prefer a motivational message from an actual face-to-face meeting, e-mail, voicemail, or memo.

8. Intranet postings An intranet is an internal web site where your employees can access pertinent company and personnel information. Only your employees can see the information that you put on an intranet. In essence, your intranet centralizes your company’s communication.

Tip: if you have an intranet, make sure that someone in the company monitors the postings. You want them to be useful and appropriate.

Here are some things you may include on an intranet:

* Company newsletter

* Company directory

* Links to sites related to the company business

* Weekly team minutes

* Stock quotes

* Senior management messages

* Organizational charts

* Product updates

* Employee benefits and human resources information

* Online versions of your newsletter perhaps with breaking news stories

* Training information, including interactive professional development courses for employees

* Best practices information (particularly appropriate since competitors do not have access to your intranet)

* Positive media coverage and financial highlights

9. Weekly team meetings If you want to hear from your employees and share news at the same time, schedule weekly team meetings. You can get immediate feedback from your staff members after you deliver important news. If your team members know they’ll get the real scoop from you every Friday, then they won’t waste their valuable time hunting down information in the hallways or speculating.

Tip: if you have a team meeting, consider bringing in an internal guest speaker. These individuals can be from a different department and might speak about how the processes work. If you do so, your staff will be able to see how their jobs relate to other groups in the company and to foster interdepartmental collaboration.

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Kathleen OConnor is the owner of the OConnor Success System which provides professional growth programs for managers and entrepreneurs. To access our free resources, visit our website at You can sign up there for your free 4-part mini-course on communication skills and a free subscription to our monthly e-zine, The Edge.