A final question Bill Sweetland needed to answer to complete his critque of the slick corporate magazine was about the writing, and the headlines. He had already talked a lot about the writing. So:
Let me say a few words about your headlines: They are not very good.
Look at the headlines in the Spring 2009 issue, starting from the front of the magazine:
Voices for change
A fresh approach to learning
Looking to the future (Groan! The staple of editors at a loss for words)
From the CEO
Fit for life
You can do better than this. In truth, many of your headlines are lifeless because there is literally nothing in the story worth a real headline, for example, the three stories about learning and strategy, “Voices for change,” “A fresh approach to learning,” and “Looking at the future.” The solution: Write a story in which you include some fresh fact or idea that begs for a snappy, short, readable headline.
And then Bill wound up the critique with a barrage of good questions, a bevy of difficult truths and host of hard-to-digest bits of advice.
What are the chances you could persuade executives to allow you to do more with the publication? Could you get an executive-employee dialogue going in the publication about company issues? Could you do stories on company topics? More stories about individual employees, stories that inspire their fellow workers to think more about their jobs? Is the phrase “social media” mere foul language to your bosses?
There is no substitute for good-quality, long, thoughtful stories about your huge corporation and all of its departments, its “silos,” its business initiatives and processes, its flawed structures and workflows, its misunderstandings and business triumphs, its departmental jealousies and remedies for this, its industry, its competition, its plans for expansion, its long-term goals or strategy. Every part of the subjects I’ve just mentioned is just as exciting as, or more exciting than, stories about what individual employees do with their free time. I know that that will be hard for you to believe, but give it a chance.
Stay away from general stories that lack a male or female hero. Concentrate on making the company better by writing about it as a business, and cut back drastically on the stories about employees having interesting fun, and, for that matter, stop writing so much about workers doing good for their communities. And don’t forget always that your job is to make your gigantic corporation explicable to and understandable by your own employees. That is far more important to employees than making them feel good about themselves or making them proud of the charity work they do, and in the end, such an attitude is far less condescending.
Tune in tomorrow when I share the editor's response to Bill's broadside—and a good argument for the usefulness of the unreasonable critic.
I think it’s hard to critique a newsletter when the culture of the company is not evident. For example, I agree with much of what Bill says, but our company has five values and one is “We are committed to our communities.” And from the top all the way through the ranks, this is true. Our CEO is amazingly generous and our employees are too, in part because it’s woven into our culture from the time his father started the company in the 1930s.
As a result, we regularly highlight our facilities’ involvement in community action. And I wouldn’t stop that, especially since my CEO is asking us to do MORE since it’s one of our core values (and I don’t use that phrase lightly).
So, I guess I’d say to walk gently on a publication regarding wholesale “get rid of this kind of story” until you truly have an idea what the company stands for.
David Murray says
Eileen, a good point.
However, every “doing good in the ‘hood” story, even in a community-conscious company like yours, ought to be fit into a broader, coherent community relations conversation.
No matter what the company’s values, the stand-alone “Nine employees spread fresh wood chips at the playground” is Dullsville.
Again, it depends on the facility. In some of our operating areas, we’re talking towns of 3,000 people. And then yes, spreading wood chips at the elementary might make the cut. But it doesn’t have to be Dullsville if you’re a good writer and understand the connection between that and the fabric of the company.
Chuck B says
I am enjoying the series on Bill’s judging. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I looked it up, and he judged a “most improved” entry that we submitted four years ago. He gave us pretty good scores and tons of great feedback (I probably thought the feedback was great because I agreed with most of it).
He provided more useful feedback than we’ve ever received from a judge. I have found that other judges for this same contest sometimes don’t leave any contact information, and the 15 words of feedback that they do leave make you wonder if they were even looking at your entry.
To Eileen’s point, for the wood chip spreading article, all you need is a profile of the little kid waiting for the work to be done so he can use the equipment. And he tells you about how things are hard at home and this is one place where he can come and be a kid and not listen to his mom cry because they’re short on grocery money this week.
And you talk to the mayor about how the town doesn’t have money for things like wood chips and how RFP’s efforts are critical to the town being able to keep the playground open.
Then you close with an RFP employee who lives in the town and whose children play here and that employee talks about the pride of being able to do something for his/her community.
I dare you to call an article like that Dullsville.
David Murray says
I dare you to WRITE an article like that.
(Knowing you, I expect you’ll take me up on it, or send us an example of one you’ve already done.)
I agree with Chuck. In my experience, corporate environments have become worse than many school systems, with the “everybody wins” B.S. It’s become a huge no-no to give any REAL, CONSTRUCTIVE feedback to anyone these days, which, come to think of it is probably precisely WHY so many corporate publications are pretty stinky!
I made this comment before and I’m saying it again – you can absolutely choose to do just mediocre corporate publications for your business. We’ve all done less than our best from time to time. But if you make the choice to run put-everyone-to-sleep headlines like the ones listed above, then DON’T be fool-hardy enough to submit it for an award by a program run by an organization like Ragan, when you know that Bill Sweetland – or if you’re really interested in usable feedback, someone much like him – is going to critique it. I don’t think corporate writers should expect to be patted on the back for writing the same old pap!
P.S. Just to be clear, NONE of the above comments apply to Eileen. I’ve read her stuff and it DEFINITELY isn’t pap!
Oh please, David. That’s SOP for my co-workers and me. We’ve written tons of articles like that. Do you want today’s article about the Thanksgiving food deliveries to area shut-ins (“Ruby, a recent widow from Chino Valley had tears in her eyes when she gave me a huge hug goodbye. She said ‘please tell everyone thank you very much for being so giving during these hard times.’”)
Or yesterday’s about employees raising money for a new no-kill shelter for their community (“The new shelter is something our community needs badly,” said XXXX, admin coordinator, Southwest Division. “A lot of employees here have rescue dogs. These ‘throwaways’ make the best pets because they are so grateful and loyal.”
XXXX knows the joys of adopting firsthand. She has three rescue dogs, one of which had been abused and without care for a broken leg. After nursing Lexi back to health, XXXX happily claims she’s the best dog ever. Lexi even participated in the Walk-n-Wag to help other animals find homes.)
Those are just the two most recent one examples but there are tons more because that’s the way we cover our community involvement/corporate citizen/volunteer activities. Also, our readership numbers on these articles are very high and because employees have the ability to comment on our articles, I can tell you that both articles have received numerous comments.
High readership and a high number of comments … that doesn’t equal Dullsville to me.
David Murray says
Wait, Colleen. Those stories, as you present them, aren’t the well-rounded citizen/mayor/employee story you describe above.
And while I’m sure no story by Colleen H. is “Dullsville”–I’ve seen the riveting stuff you do on safety–high readership and lots of comments are not the only criterion for the success of an employee publication.
If you believe your publication has a proper proportion of well-executed community do-good stories vs. the rest, I trust you: You probably do.
But don’t “oh please” me. It makes you seem inexplicably defensive.
You judge the quality of an entire article on an excerpt that was meant to be illustrative only?!
And, the “oh please” was dismissive not defensive.
David Murray says
I do not mean to get in an online pissing match with you, who I consider to be one of the best editors in the business.
But I asked you for an example of a truly compelling story of community do-gooding. One that, as you said, shows the various dynamics at play and how it fits with the organization’s community relations strategy, culture, etc.
And you gave me excerpts that are NOT, in fact, illustrative of the textured article you promised.
Again: I DON’T DOUBT YOU’RE DOING GREAT STORIES IN THIS AREA. But understand that it is very rare to see these in employee publications, and we really could use a whole example of one great piece.