Before you start a publication …

Whether you’re trying to demonstrate your expertise to customers and prospects, or just wanting your employees to speak with a common voice about your vision, regular publications can be a powerful tool. Email can be a powerful channel for publications, and print is still a wise choice in certain situations. No matter which you choose, you must do five things if you want your publication to succeed and endure.

 

I’ve worked on hundreds of company newsletters and other publications over the years, and watched other organizations grapple with them. Along the way, I’ve learned that successful publications share five characteristics. You may be able to limp along with only three or four of them, but sustained success demands all five.

 

1. A specific objective. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve attended in which someone suggests starting a publication. Everyone around the table agrees that it’s a good idea, but nobody can do more than offer a vague sense of what the publication will be like or what it should accomplish. “We can have articles about our products” is not a specific objective. Nor is “We can share stories about our people.” Publications with vague objectives invariably become a mishmash of this, that, and the other. Assembling each issue is a challenge, and readers never quite know what to expect.

 

Compare that to “We’ll explain recent regulatory actions to C-level managers and provide basic advice about compliance.” Or “We’ll strengthen our brand image among employees by sharing stories of how other associates have delivered excellence to customers.” Now you’re moving in the right direction.

 

2. A firm schedule. I’ve never seen a well-thought-out publication die because nobody could think of anything to say, or because there wasn’t an audience that needed to hear it. Instead, most publications die because they lack a firm schedule. And when publications that have such a schedule die, it’s usually because nobody is enforcing it.

 

To be an effective communications tool, a publication must be consistent and regular. That’s not for the readers’ benefit — it’s for the organization producing it. If distribution plans are vague (“let’s send one out sometime this month”) or hazy (“we’ll send another when we have something new to say”), the publication is destined to die.

 

Management must commit to a certain number of publications each year, and determine exactly when they should arrive on readers’ displays or desks. The communications team will use those decisions to develop a schedule outlining when every step must be completed, and then make sure every participant knows what he or she is expected to do and when.

 

3. Empower an enforcer. Someone must have the responsibility for driving the process and keeping everyone on their toes and on time. When people are told that they have to complete something by a certain date, and they know they’ll be held accountable (or face a scolding), they’re much more likely to do what they should.

 

Choose that enforcer carefully. A lower-level employee with little perceived authority may not be able to motivate a powerful vice president into action. A staffer already facing an overwhelming workload will give this new responsibility a low priority, and will watch with satisfaction as it quickly dies.

 

One approach is to outsource management of the publication to a freelance writer, graphic designer, ad agency or public relations firm. Outsiders don’t face the same internal pressures as staff people. Because they aren’t face-to-face with the staff all day, they can afford to be the “bad guys,” pushing, prodding, and even nagging.

 

4. Get top management’s buy-in. If top management decrees that the publication is a priority for the organization, it will get the attention it needs to succeed. The CEO doesn’t need to work on each issue, but if she makes it clear that she expects it to get done on time, it will. That gives your enforcer powerful, effective leverage against the most recalcitrant manager.

 

5. Make it relevant. If your publication contains current, practical information that will help its audience do whatever they do more effectively, they’ll make the time to read it. If it provides examples of the expertise you offer, they’ll keep you in mind when they need help. If they know that each issue contains valuable insights, they’ll trust you.

 

But if your publication is nothing more than a thinly veiled “gosh, aren’t we wonderful” missive, not even the best schedule and most skillful enforcer can save it.