Opinion: what internal comms can learn from newspapers

What internal comms can learn from newspapers

November 13, 2013

It is a sad irony that although newspapers have been involved in the communications business for the best part of 250 years, their ability to communicate with their own staff has by and large been on the abysmal side of poor, writes Headlines’ Publishing Director Neil Fowler.

Now that is, to be fair, a gross generalisation, but what a lifetime in print has given me is an overview of what works well and what doesn’t work to the same degree.

As the newspaper industry changed from one totally dominated by the craft trade unions, to one where management was given virtually free rein to do what it wished, the profession of internal communications tended to be passed over, though with some honourable exceptions.

So what an old editor has to say might, possibly rightly, be dismissed as not being totally relevant.

However, those same newspapers, which have not always been in touch with their staff as much as they should have been, have had decades of success through engaging in a very intimate way with their communities of readers.

Interestingly the most successful process on internal communications in which I was involved was one of the honourable exceptions I referred to above.

I had joined the Western Mail & Echo Ltd in Cardiff in 1994, shortly after the new managing director had bravely undertaken a staff attitude survey – bravely because he knew full well what the result would be.

Neil Fowler
Neil Fowler

He wasn’t wrong: appalling, with staff viewing the business as being run by the managers, for the managers – a terrible indictment, especially for a business barely making any pro?t and with its then owners Thomson Regional Newspapers contemplating its sale.

But it did mean the company only had one way to go – upwards, in almost every measurable way.

And that it did, with very open communications, plenty of brie?ngs to all staff explaining what route the business was taking (which involved investment in technology, but alongside many jobs going), middle management involvement – all under an umbrella of telling people what was happening.

In many ways it should have been no surprise that it worked, as all the business practised was what its products had long preached through their news columns – openness, the truth and listening to all sides in the most straightforward way possible.

And that is a message I believe is worth repeating to all those involved in internal communications, and especially those using print products and apps.

Be honest, be concise, be simple about your presentation and be right.

Never do anything less than take your reader seriously – and communicate with them openly and with respect.

The best newspapers do that with their readers and they rarely go wrong (notwithstanding the advertising structural ?restorm presently engul?ng the industry) in their customer relationships.

Both the Daily Mail and the Guardian have, in their own ways, engaged their readers brilliantly. Study them and learn.

The art of good messaging….
– Be accurate
– Be open and honest
– Be timely
– Be balanced
– Understand your audience
– Be concise.

Neil Fowler was editor of the Lincolnshire Echo, the Derby Evening Telegraph, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, and The Western Mail. He was publisher and CEO of the Toronto Sun in Canada and then edited Which? magazine back in the UK.

He was the 2010/2011 Guardian Research Fellow at Nuf?eld College, Oxford, where he investigated the decline and future of the British regional and local press.

Currently he is Publishing Director at Headlines.