Use Award-Winning Programs to Benchmark Your Employee Communications Efforts

Ragan Employee Communications logoRagan Communications has announced the winners of their 2011 Employee Communications Awards, which recognize excellence in categories ranging from traditional employee communications elements — such as newsletters – to social media.

I was particularly interested in the organizations represented by the 40+ winning entries; as you would expect, many of the winners were U.S. Government agencies, multinational corporations and major universities.

What I found interesting, and unexpected, was the number of small organizations – regional hospitals, faith-based service organizations and even a community bank – among the top-tier entries.

One need look no further for proof that communications excellence can be found in organizations of all sizes and types.

I’m often told that the reason employee communicators don’t focus on measurement, don’t conduct assessments of their programs on a regular basis, and don’t research best practices from other organizations is that they “can’t afford to pay for it.” There is this mistaken belief that measurement and research are unnecessary expenses, that they add little value to the organization and aren’t supported by senior management.

I don’t buy it.

Would senior management approve a costly TV advertising campaign, and then neglect to check on its success because it costs money to collect sales figures? Would they introduce a new product line without conducting any market research to understand their competition and the buyers’ appetite for the new product? Hardly.

A review of your communications plans, at minimum on an annual basis, is essential to ensure that your communications efforts are effective, support the organization’s culture, and drive employees’ understanding of and connection to the business.

Once the current state of employee communications is measured, any communicator worth his or her title looks for ways to improve existing programs and new elements to introduce into their communications toolkit. That knowledge is gathered through research and benchmarking.

Which leads me to the point of this blog post…

Don’t let financial limitations serve as a barrier to your benchmarking efforts. Collecting best practices research is as easy as reviewing the list of communication award winners from local and national programs and reaching out to the winners. Sure, you may have to do some digging, but once you find the person or persons whose work was recognized, it’s easy to set up a call or a Skype session to talk about the award-winning program.

What’s holding you back? Are you worried that you’ll get a brush-off?

I think you will find that most winners welcome the opportunity to share their insights and experiences. As the Ragan article states, “Employee communications can seem a thankless job, with long hours of meticulous yet creative work, but little official recognition.”

A call from a fellow communicator for advice and counsel could be regarded as the ultimate recognition for these award winners.


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Tips for Writing an Effective Communication Award Submission

Man with head in handsSo you’ve determined which communication awards program to enter and you’ve familiarized yourself with the program’s rules and guidelines. Now it’s time to write your entry. Seems easy, right?

It’s not. Creating an effective communication award submission is a process that should not be rushed. But these tips will help you stay focused and on track as you prepare your entry.

Tip #1: Remember that you are telling a story

Having judged several hundred entries over the past two decades – from IABC Gold Quill and PRSA Silver Anvil to local awards – I can tell you that the best entries, the ones most likely to be selected as winners, are the ones that tell their story effectively. These are the entries which draw the judges in, provide insight into the author’s organization and clearly define the problem and how the author solved the problem through good communications.

Realize that is it highly unlikely that the people judging your entry work in your industry, so you’ll need to provide some context for them. Fine-tune your story by telling it to friends and family members who are not coworkers, pay attention to the questions they ask, and then adjust your story accordingly.

Tip #2: Give yourself plenty of time

Don’t sabotage yourself by waiting until the day before the deadline to start working on your entry. That will never end well.

Instead, start several weeks out by preparing a preliminary draft. Create a rough draft – perhaps using bullet points instead of paragraphs – without regard for length or flow. Just answer the questions or address the key points requested in the call for entries. Then put the document away for three or four days and take advantage of that time to fine-tune your story as described above.

Now you can revisit your initial rough draft and “edit ruthlessly”, ensuring that you are making the best use of the two to four pages allowed to tell your story. Once you are done with this draft, put it away for a couple of days and focus on gathering samples and supporting documentation.

About a week before the deadline, pull out that draft and create your final entry, deleting unnecessary information, adding references and noting attachments and supporting work samples. The end result will be a polished, well-crafted document that reflects your professional talents.

Tip #3: Proofread, proofread, proofread

In addition to reducing your stress level, having your entry ready about a week before the deadline allows time for proofreading. Do NOT skip this step.

Remember that your entry will be read by senior-level communicators, many of them acknowledged leaders in their field. Believe me when I tell you that they WILL notice every typo and your inadvertent use of “they’re” instead of “their” will be commented upon.

Ask one or two of your coworkers to review your entry – paying particular attention to details such as headers and footers, attachment references and punctuation – before you print off your final entry.

Once you’ve conquered your first big communication awards program entry, you’ll find that it’s easy to adapt the document to other programs. So don’t stop with just one; take full advantage of the time and effort you’ve put into this entry to create a template entry to be used for other programs later in the year.

Good luck!


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Helpful Hints for Submitting Your Communication Award Program Entry

Helpful Hints

So, you’ve made a resolution to submit your work to a communication awards program in 2012. That’s the easy part. Now you have to figure out what and how to enter.

For a first-timer, submitting an entry to a professional awards program can be an overwhelming prospect, which is why I’m happy to offer some helpful hits.

1 – Choose your awards program. There are plenty of communications awards programs out there, and some are less prestigious than others. However, the awards programs sponsored by the two leading professional associations for the communications industry – the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – are generally acknowledged as the best in class. In addition to the global IABC Gold Quill and national PRSA Silver Anvil and Bronze Anvil awards programs, these associations have local or regional awards programs sponsored by local chapters.

2 – Read the rules and guidelines. Each awards program has its own rules governing eligibility. Some programs limit entries to work produced in the prior year, others allow multi-year programs; some are very specific about the length of the entry, limiting them to two pages and others are more lenient about length. To avoid being disqualified on a technicality, make sure you read and adhere to all the rules and guidelines contained in the call for entries.

3 – Choose your program or work sample carefully. Remember, this is an opportunity to have your work judges by industry leaders, so limit your submissions to your best work samples and your most effective, innovative programs.

4 – Ask for clarification, but allow for plenty of response time. In most cases, the call for entries will include a contact for additional information or clarification. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to that contact if you don’t understand the guidelines or need some additional information to complete your entry. But realize that most of these programs are managed by volunteers who have full-time jobs and lives and don’t expect to hear back within two hours. Two days is probably more realistic.

5 – Line up friends and co-workers to help critique your drafts. As you pull together your entry, you will find that it’s easy to get short-sighted, that you miss obvious omissions. There are great benefits to be found in recruiting a second, third or fourth set of eyes during the draft stage of your entry, especially if one of those extra sets of eyes was not involved in the program. He/she can help keep you on track and ensure that you are telling your story in an effective and compelling entry.

Any other tips from seasoned awards program participants and judges? Sound off in the comments below.


Next up: Tips for Writing an Effective Communications Award Submission

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Get Ready for (Communications) Awards Season

Oscar Award StatuettesI received the call for entries for PRSA’s 2012 Silver Anvil Awards yesterday and it got me thinking about all the great programs my communications buddies have produced over the past decade or so – and how few of those programs received the acclaim they so richly deserved.

Corporate communicators in general — and employee communicators in particular — seem to think it is unbecoming to draw attention to their good work.

While I applaud their modesty, I get frustrated when I hear a communicator complaining that their contributions to the organization are overlooked – instead it’s the marketing and advertising folks who are getting all the kudos.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that many of our company leaders don’t understand our profession and don’t know what goes into producing effective, high-quality communications.

Sure, they know we exist – they see the speeches, blog posts and emails we write on their behalf, and they don’t kick us out of their office when we tell them they need to talk to the media or an analysts’ conference. But they have no basis for assessing the quality of our work — unless of course, something goes horribly wrong. Then they are all communications experts.

That’s why I counsel communicators to consider entering their work in a professional awards program, such as those offered by the  Public Relations Society of America PRSA) and the International Association of  Business Communicators (IABC).

These programs provide communicators with an opportunity to showcase their programs and products, to have their work judged by industry experts, and to be recognized for excellence or receive constructive feedback that will allow them to fine-tune their craft.

Best of all, if you do win an award, you will have an excellent reason to brag about your good work to your friends in marketing.


Next up: Helpful hints for submitting your communications awards program entry

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Five Tips for Working with a Professional Photographer

Tony Ridder with camera
Copyright Tony Ridder. Used with permission.

Last week’s post on stock photography yielded several helpful hints in the comments section. One reader – Mark K. Curtis – suggested that internal comms folks take advantage of photo shoots scheduled by other departments and request that the photographer take some shots of employees at work.

I thought that was an excellent suggestion, so I reached out to a friend, former Nextel co-worker and seasoned professional photographer Tony Ridder to gather some quick tips for making the most of a “found” opportunity for a photo shoot.

Tip #1: Give me the “big picture”

Even the best photographer in the world will fall short of your expectations if you fail to clearly articulate what you are looking to accomplish with the image or group of images. To make sure that you have clearly communicated your specific needs, Tony recommends that you develop a creative brief that outlines your objectives, your desired tone or emotion, the target audience and the intended use. The good news is that after you’ve worked with a photographer for a while, he/she will be attuned to your organization and you won’t need to provide lots of background detail.

Tip #2: Show me what you mean

You probably have an idea of the type of image you want. That’s a good thing. You probably even have some samples that you want to draw from as inspiration. Excellent. While written descriptions are good, photographers are visual people and are used to picking up clues from images. But do not attempt to duplicate an image, cautions Tony. Images are protected works and are subject to copyright laws.

Tip #3: Give me a preview

If you are tagging onto an existing photo shoot, your time is going to be limited. Make the most of your time onsite by providing the photographer with as much advance information about the venue as you can, as far ahead as you can. If it isn’t possible to do a walk-through a few days prior to the shoot (and it probably won’t be), Tony recommends taking some quick photos (use that smartphone camera!) or video clips of the venue to give the photographer a feel for the lighting and physical space. That will help him/her determine the need for additional lighting, backdrops, etc.

Tip #4: Assign a helper to me

Remember that the photographer is an outsider at your company and does not know where to acquire props or how to contact the volunteer “models” if there is a change in the venue or schedule. To minimize downtime, Tony suggests that someone on your staff serve as the photographer’s handler. That person can also double as the quality control agent, whose job it is to ensure that the props, setting and employees used in the photos reflect the organization’s brand, culture and demographics. Remember, the reason you are shooting your own images, and not simply purchasing stock photography is to avoid images like these.

Tip #5: Make the most of my time

There will always be some amount of “down time” in any photo shoot: resetting the props, adjusting the lighting and coaching your employee models. To prevent your photographer from wasting time, make sure that you have everything assembled in advance, that employees arrive early and have signed photo releases, and everyone knows what they should be doing. The photographer is doing you a favor by adding your session to the one he/she has already contacted for, so return the favor by being respectful of his/her time.

Bonus Tip

When the session is over and you are ready to select images, Tony has one final tip: Remember that the proofs you see are not done yet! There are any number of additional editing techniques that can be applied to an image to perfect it and tell the story you intended. So be sure to let the photographer know what you like about the image, and let him/her make the necessary adjustments to turn it into the image you envisioned.


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Deliver Us from Bad Stock Photography

A few weeks ago I was developing a communication training program for new managers for one of my clients, and needed some visuals to liven up the slide presentation.

After what seemed like hours searching through affordable stock photography from a variety of sources, I came to the conclusion that the creative directors and photographers responsible for “business” images have never actually worked in an office environment.

Don’t believe me? OK, try this: go to your favorite stock photography website and search for images of “staff meeting.”

You are going to find lots of photos like this one:
Close-up of hands at a business meetinig

What kind of crazy meeting is this? Is this some type of a pop quiz and the guy at the top of the image is afraid that someone is going to steal his answers?

Or how about this one, which I have subtitled: “Two attractive young corporate executives are distracted from their colorful charts when Superman flies past the conference room.”

Women in a meeting
(I give the photographer credit for diversity, and for dressing the models like career women rather than call girls.)

My personal favorite is an image you will see over and over, in infinite variations: A group of people gathered around an open laptop computer, all pointing at something on the screen. I’d venture to say that this type of behavior does not exist outside a photo shoot (or an episode of “The Office”).
Employees gathered around a computer

Now, I realize that, when funds are doled out at budget time, the internal communications team is always at the end of the line. I’ve spent more than 20 years in Fortune 50 companies launching companywide programs with little to no funding.

So I feel your pain, internal communicators. Yes, these low-cost stock photography suppliers seem like a great solution to your budget woes. But you must resist the temptation.

You probably have a smart phone. If you don’t, I’m sure one of your coworkers does.

Rather than purchasing a generic (and somewhat bizarre) image like this one (Is it just me, or does it look like the standing guy is about to get violent?),

Business meeting
why not take a stroll with your smart phone or digital camera and snap images of actual employees at work in your office?

You will see groups of people collaborating, teams brainstorming and coworkers simply chatting as they exchange information about the projects they are working on.

These real-world images offer you three very important benefits:

  • They reflect your true work environment (the demographics of your workforce and your physical space), which reinforces the credibility of your communications;
  • They feature actual co-workers, which creates a “buzz” among your workforce and drives readership; and
  • They are free, which allows you to spend your meager budget in other areas.

Let me close with a special message to all the creative directors and stock photographers out there who might be interested in creating images that reflect the reality of the business world: Call me. I can help you.


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Communicating with Generation Z

Block letter "Z"No that’s not a typo. There’s a new generation of workers preparing to enter the workplace from college – Generation Z.

According to the article “Get Ready to Hire Generation Z” by Penelope Trunk, this group of future co-workers finds email intolerable, processes information like a “speed demon” and has little interest in job titles and hierarchy.

They are also described as lifelong learners, who are motivated through interesting work and the opportunity to participate in challenging projects that expand their knowledge base.

Employee communicators – and most organizations – haven’t done a very good job adapting our workplace communications for Gen Y. We have been slow to adopt social media for internal communications purposes, we rely heavily on email push to get the word out, and our copy has remained bloated, with large blocks of text.

Gen Z will have little tolerance for these practices.

Instead, Trunk advises organizations to prepare for Generation Z by adopting these communication guidelines:

  1. Keep it short. Most Gen Zs use phones as their primary means of communication, so ditch the compound, complex sentences and write in microbursts.
  2. Focus on social media. This generation wants to interact, not be fed information, and wants to see and be seen.
  3. Emphasize knowledge attainment over professional advancement. Managers of Generation Z will need to re-calibrate their thoughts on motivating those workers and focus on new assignments as an opportunity to learn a new skill, rather than an opportunity to earn a new title.

Don’t delay: the first wave of Gen Zs will enter the workforce in May 2012.


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Why I Mentor Young Communication Professionals

George Mason University logoThis fall I will have the opportunity to influence the lives of a dozen or so communication students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. by serving as a mentor during their Multimedia PR class.

I was approached a few months ago by one of my PRSA buddies, GMU Professor Serge Samoilenko. He was pulling together the course syllabus for a new class designed to prepare communication/PR students for the world of digital and social media and he needed seasoned PR professionals to serve as advisors.

We Baby Boomers assume that Millennials know everything there is to know about social media; that since they are constantly texting and playing on their iPhones, they know much more than we do about this new world of PR.

Not true. I rarely encounter a college student or new PR professional who uses social media for professional purposes. They don’t blog, they don’t Tweet, they don’t know anything about Google+.

So I’m really excited about this opportunity to share my knowledge and experience with communicators preparing to enter the workplace.

While this course mentorship role is a new one for me, it’s really just the latest in a long line of advisor/mentor roles I’ve played over the past 20 years.

I’ve hosted student shadows, spoken to communication classes, reviewed resumes at career fairs, and served as a counselor for college interns in my workplace.

Granted, part of that is my “pay it forward” mindset. I didn’t leave college knowing everything there is to know the communications biz and as a “baby communicator” I had the advantage of working for an exceptional manager who generously shared his knowledge with me.

But for the most part, my commitment to mentoring is spurred by a love of my profession and desire to see the next generation of communicators succeed in an ever-changing business environment.

Who knows? Ten years from now, that student may be one of my clients…


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Show Appreciation with a Thank-you Note

Handwritten Thank You NoteI seem to be sending a lot of thank-you notes these days.

Over the past few months, I’ve had a number of reasons to thank people:  professional connections for offering their insights during a benchmarking project; former supervisors and colleagues for recommending me for opportunities; and volunteers for their efforts in support of our professional association.

Sure, email and phone calls are immediate and are viewed as acceptable methods for thanking someone for their time and efforts. But there’s nothing like opening an envelope and reading a hand-written note.

In a recent blog post, my buddy Mary Fletcher Jones wrote about spotting her company’s holiday card posted on a bulletin board at a client office.  As Mary noted, that simple greeting card transcended its original use and became a visual reminder of her company and their offerings.

Employers are always looking for no cost/low cost ways to build employee morale and show appreciation. There are countless article and blog posts (and even a video or two) about how to design effective employee recognition programs.

But nothing comes close to a personalized, written thank-you note from a supervisor, manager or executive. When was the last time you saw a thank-you email posted on someone’s wall?

It’s easy to get started. On your way home tonight, stop by your neighborhood office supply store and pick up some nice note cards. Then set a personal goal to write at least one thank-you note each week — to acknowledge the employee who offered a time-saving suggestion, took on a new assignment, or stepped in to cover for an absent coworker.

Once you get in the habit of writing your thank-you notes, you’ll find it easy to ramp up to one note each day.

If you want to make a significant impact across the organization, and sow the seeds for a culture of recognition and appreciation, expand your recipient list to include the receptionist, the mail clerk, the security guard, the loading dock attendant and the janitor — the people who are rarely thanked by anyone.

Over time, these small, but sincere actions will yield tremendous dividends in improved morale, productivity and teamwork.


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Please Don’t Email Me in that Tone of Voice

image of mailbox on fireIs it just me, or does email make it easier for someone to be rude? I’m not talking about the “Oh, I didn’t get your email” dodge, or the terse “OK” response.

I’m talking about full-on, flat-out rudeness.

Case in point: I serve on the board of my property owners association. It’s a volunteer position, and most of my efforts are limited to taking notes at the quarterly meeting, updating the owner address list, and – along with my fellow board members – ensuring that owners comply with our community’s bylaws when they build new or remodel existing structures.

Recently, one of our owners submitted a request to build a new structure on his property, a request that was denied since the board members felt the structure did not meet the standards clearly outlined in the bylaws. The owner was sent a brief – but extremely polite – email notifying him of the denial and the reasons for it.

What we received in response was an absolutely scathing email, full of accusations of discrimination, attacks on our character (and patriotism for denying the owner “his God-given right” to build on his property), and thinly-veiled threats of legal action against the individual board members and the community as a whole.

I get that the owner was disappointed, and maybe even frustrated. However, I doubt that he would ever think to take that tone during a face-to-face conversation or a phone call.

Maybe he should have followed the advice offered in a satirical piece in The Onion  “Study: All American problems could be solved by just stopping and thinking for two seconds.”

Now that email is the primary vehicle for internal communications in most businesses, I wonder how many “flaming” emails are received on an average day, and what percentage could be eliminated if the author just ‘stopped and thought for two seconds’ before hitting “send.”

My guess: 75%.


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