I've been spending a lot of time lately helping organizations make internal communication more valuable to employees. The problem, as you know, is that busy workers often ignore even the most important information.

So the challenge is to encourage employees to pay attention.

But employees are not going to do so as long as the information you're providing doesn't meet their needs. That's why before you do anything else this year, you need to rethink your content strategy. Your mission is not to provide news--news is cheap, easily accessible and boring. Instead, your purpose is to share content that's useful and relevant.

How important is this shift? Let's start with the fact that external communicators are turning away from newsy press releases. As Tom Davis (no relation) wrote in MediaPost, "the focus is on making news in creative, fun ways.  This, in turn, drives earned media." The trend in all forms of marketing, explains Davis, is to create content from the consumer's viewpoint. It's all about helping your audience. 

Even journalism is moving away from news. In NiemanLab's Predictions for Journalism 2020, Emily Withrow writes, "This year, we'll see forward-thinking outlets discard the news article in favor of more dynamic formats that place the individual at the center of the story . . . Audiences will learn to trust us more because we will transparently strive to serve them better."

What does this mean for employee communication? A lot less news, a lot more service. We're not doing this work to rehash packaged boilerplate; we need to create content that matters to employees, creates understanding of key topics and helps them accomplish great things.

So I'll remind you again about the wise advice of Don Ranly, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Ranley coined the phrase "refrigerator journalism" to describe content that audience members find so useful that they cut it out (or print it out) and stick it on their fridge. 

"In today's microwave world, in-a-hurry readers want practical information presented in the most efficient and effective way," writes Ranly.  "Perhaps the primary rule of writing today is: Did you give the message in such a way as to take the reader the least amount of time? Readers will pay attention to what you say only if you show them respect." 

Although Ranly refers to his principle as "refrigerator journalism" or "service journalism," the advice is useful for internal communicators who want to create content that employees want to open, click to and spend time with.

To achieve that, according to Ranly, your content needs to be: 

  • Useful. "Find ways to demonstrate how the reader can use the information. See how often you can get 'you' in the first sentence of your copy."
  • Usable. For instance, "make a list. Lists get more attention, better comprehension and more retention. Five ways to save money. Do this; don't do that. Advantages, disadvantages. 'Tips' is a magical word."
  • Used. "Service journalism is action journalism. You are successful only if people use the information. People stop paying attention to information they never use."

But people do pay attention when the content helps them solve a problem or achieve an objective. When employees spend time with your content instead of ignoring it, you've achieved success.

Published on: Jan 15, 2020
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