Reports of the newsletter's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Over the past decade and more, UK companies concerned about their often dismal internal communications have generally turned to newsletters for an answer. More than 4,000 of these publications get churned out these days, from glossy monthlies to xeroxed weeklies composed on desktop computer. While the latter are undoubtedly cheap, the top end can cost more than £400,000 a year to put out. Now research suggests that the newsletter may be obsolete, that employees demand more personal and tailored information which new technologies are capable of delivering via a host of alternative channels.
Clearly, for an employee on the receiving end, a newsletter is far from the favourite source of information. A recent survey by MORI's human resource research unit found that employees strongly prefer to be briefed face-to-face on company policies. Even so there has been no falling-off in the number of newsletters printed. As Susan Walker, the research unit's head notes, 'For a lot of organisations the newsletter remains a top information source ... Management sees it as efficient, uncomplicated, easy to distribute.' What is changing, in many companies, is the role of the newsletter. IBM's employee tabloid, which has been published continuously for 25 years, still goes out to 20,000 readers in the UK every month. But while it was once the principal channel for internal communication, the newsletter nowadays fills a niche. 'The primary source is an on-line news system,' explains Fiona Alsop, IBM's employee communications expert, 'and we do a lot of one-to-one contact, including electronically. The tabloid is reserved for supplemental features and analysis.' Over at Ford UK, the newsletter has been supplanted as a key information source by a high-tech video and teletext system which link all offices and provides constantly updated news and features. 'Ford News is now only published monthly and it focuses on our international operations,' says corporate affairs manager Don Hume.
Although Boots still cranks out nine separate newsletters for each of its business units, plus a company-wide monthly, corporate affairs director Alastair Eperon sees most routine communications moving to two other channels: face-to-face and electronic. Because of the predominance of 16-25 year-old women on its staff, Boots has invested in the distribution of individual quarterly copies of a new video magazine Live-Wire, which presents company news MTV-style. Today, says Eperon, 'the newsletters serve a broader, unifying function in a far-flung and diverse organisation. People still like information on paper.' But there is one area in which newsletters continue to be a core communications tool, and that is the management of organisational change. At the Department of the Environment, assistant director of communications Jane Morely relies heavily on the biweekly news-letter Agenda to explain and reinforce corporate messages during the current review of departmental efficiency and working practices. While face-to-face communication naturally takes first place, Morely regards the newsletter as vital back-up. 'We are straight and frank, telling the negative as well as the positive findings. And people are saying, "Yes, that's right". They feel informed and involved.' As communications consultant Bruce Abrahams of Burson-Marsteller says, 'Companies are finding that, while newsletters are not a panacea, they do have a role in what should be a broad array of internal communications tools.' That role will become more and more specialised, but it's not likely to disappear.