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The Evolution of Corporate Communications

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (26-Oct-2005)

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Trying to get a message across to every employee in an organization is a lot like trying to control kids in a school bus: some will listen; some will hear but misunderstand the message; and some will ignore the message altogether and later complain, "But nobody told me."

Communicating to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees within an organization is no small feat. This challenge is further complicated in organizations with a global presence, where corporate headquarters is responsible for delivering the same message to satellite offices in geographically dispersed locations. But it's not enough to just create the message.

Effective corporate communication involves not only the message itself, but also the medium that carries and delivers it. It's these two components of a communication that dictate whether employees will receive and understand it. But don't fool yourself in thinking that there's some long process of deliberation when they receive one of these messages. Most corporate communications will grab the attention of an employee for no more than a few seconds—if at all. It's within that very narrow window of opportunity that they will decide whether to read something or toss it aside.

Employees are processing more information than ever before—information dealing with their projects, their clients, and their industry as a whole. With all this information competing for employees' attention, does a single corporate communication stand a chance of making it through?


Effective Communication

Organizations have struggled to find the best way to get company communications to their employees for years. These communications can range from notices of service interruptions to announcements of corporate events. But is anyone really listening? Communication is a two-way street; it requires a sender and a receiver. If no one is listening, you're just a crazy person talking to yourself.

Anyone involved with corporate communications needs to be aware of their receivers' habits and idiosyncrasies before deciding on message and medium. It wouldn't make sense to use technology-based communications with an audience who's not tech-savvy without first providing them with adequate training; or to post an important announcement on a bulletin board when most users rely solely on their intranet for news. An understanding of the audience will help determine the best medium to use in order to get your message across.

Communication mediums can be classified into two methods: the sender pushes the message to the receiver (e.g., sending an e-mail) or the receiver pulls the message from a source (e.g., reading an intranet post). In the '90s, the IT industry was abuzz with the concept of push technology, a method of delivering content to users' desktop without requiring them to actively seek it out. The technology, however, never lived up to its hype (see my article "Push Technology: Still Relevant After All These Years?" for more on this) and communications fell back to old stalwarts: the intranet and e-mail. But they have their problems too.

Posting corporate communications on an intranet requires employees to access the system repeatedly because they won't know when new information will be posted. There's a good chance that some employees will miss an important announcement because they were busy with other things and don't get the chance to check when the communication was posted.

E-mail has the ability to alert every employee once a communication is sent, but there are uncontrollable factors that hinder its effectiveness as a corporate communications medium. E-mail failed through no fault of its own, and was perhaps a victim of its own success.


E-Mail, What happened to You?

The advent of e-mail changed the way organizations communicated with their employees in a big way. Rather than post and send out large quantities of paper-based announcements, a single e-mail message could be sent to all employees at the same time, regardless of their geographic location. At the time, e-mail was the biggest advancement in corporate communication—until users just stopped reading them.

So what happened? Has e-mail outlived its usefulness as an internal corporate communications medium? The answer is yes and no. It's still a big part of corporate communication, but it's lost a lot of its effectiveness. There's perhaps no bigger contributor to this decline than spam.

E-mail has been contaminated by so much junk that it's difficult to get an important message across. Users might give a company announcement a cursory glance and pass it by thinking it's just more unsolicited mail; or they might set-up e-mail filters so restrictive that the message never even makes it through. With the sheer volume of e-mail that comes pouring in daily, employees may simply treat these types of internal communications as white noise and ignore them. And with the time-sensitive nature of corporate communications, it might be too late when users finally discover the message.

Problems With E-mail as a Corporate Communications Tool
  • Difficult to grab users' attention since messages are indistinguishable from all other e-mail.
  • Messages can be mistaken for spam.
  • Messages can be stopped by users' restrictive e-mail filtering.
  • Employees have no choice as to what they receive.

RSS, the New E-mail?

Many news Web sites and bloggers are already using RSS feeds to "broadcast" their content. Even marketers and advertisers are realizing the advantages of RSS as a means to attract potential customers. It's an easy, unintrusive way to syndicate frequently changing Web content such as daily blog entries or news headlines.

Momentum is also growing in the corporate environment for RSS. Organizations are beginning to see that RSS can be used to pick up where e-mail left off (or, some would say, failed) as an internal corporate communicator. One of the problems with corporate-wide e-mail announcements is that they can't be categorized. An important announcement concerning network downtime will end up in users' inbox, sandwiched between joke mail and spam. There's no context to e-mail messages short of the subject header, which is not always easily noticeable.

RSS, however, offers more communication control on the part of both the sender and the receiver. Senders can create topical RSS feeds based on different types of corporate communications, and receivers have the choice of which feeds they subscribe to. This ensures that employees only receive content that's relevant to them.

It's up to organizations to decide how to best categorize its RSS feeds, but some examples might include:

Migrating to RSS is also a relatively simple proposition when compared to other types of IT implementations. It's not necessary to install standalone RSS readers (known as aggregators) throughout the company. RSS readers are becoming standard features in many e-mail clients and Web browsers, or they can be installed as plug-ins to existing applications that don't already have them. This allows employees to get the benefits of RSS without having to learn a whole new interface.

Advantages of RSS Over E-mail for Corporate Communication
  • RSS separates important internal communications from all the "chatter" that can pollute e-mail: spam, jokes from friends, and newsletter subscriptions.
  • RSS doesn't overwhelm users. RSS presents users with a headline and a short synopsis so they can decide if it's worth following the link to the full message stored on the corporate intranet. Many RSS readers will also give users the option of viewing only this summary information or the entire document.
  • Unlike corporate-wide e-mail, RSS is completely opt-in. If you're not interested in hearing about the company's special events, you simply don't subscribe to that feed.
  • RSS feeds won't be blocked by any filters so the message is sure to get through.
  • RSS feeds don't compete with hundreds of e-mail messages for the users' attention. RSS has a singular focus so important announcements will stand out more clearly than an e-mail that's buried in a list of other messages.
  • RSS standardizes the formating and display of the internal communications since it's stored on the intranet (Some users don't like to receive HTML-based e-mail so organizations had to develop both a formatted message and a text-only message to cover all its employees).

Shout Out! Podcasting and Vodcasting

Podcasting (audio) and vodcasting (video) are other methods that can be used for corporate communications, although they haven't been widely adopted yet. Contrary to popular misconception, podcasting and vodcasting are not simply multimedia files stored on a server for users to download. Like RSS, they're based on a subscription model. Users subscribe to podcast and vodcast feeds through similar aggregator software that can be set-up to automatically download new content when it's available. But instead of reading the message, they listen to it or watch it.

Podcasting and vodcasting are ideal ways to get messages—especially lengthy messages—across to large corporate audiences since it presents them with a much more convenient (and some would say, more natural) form of communication. It's far more convenient to listen to an audio podcast of a CEO's quarterly results presentation on a portable media player while going to work than it is to sit at a desk reading through the twenty page equivalent.

But there might be an annoyance factor when it comes to using a multimedia approach to corporate communications. Users who decide to listen to podcasts or watch vodcasts at their desks without the use of headphones might irritate their neighbors. What's worse is if several people were to access a podcast or vodcast at the same time, raising the noise pollution and tempers of the office.


Closing Thoughts

There's no perfect solution when it comes to corporate communications. You'll never be able to reach every employee all the time because even if the solution is rock solid, there will always be someone who just doesn't bother—regardless of the medium used.

It's the responsibility of the organization to inform its employees, and to provide the means by which it gets its communications across easily and efficiently. But as the sender, organizations can only do so much. They can only make sure that it's not the message and the medium that fails the user community. The receiver of the communication also has a part to play.

Each individual employee must be receptive to the message when it arrives. This is their responsibility. If they continually disregard corporate communications and claim, "But nobody told me," perhaps the response to that should be, "Why didn't you listen?"


Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.