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 Free Advice Angela Sinickas Answers Questions from Communicators

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Electronic Communication
- Printed Versus Online Publications
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Setting Targets for Intranet Growth
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Ideal Email Content / Appearance
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Impact of News Releases on Web Traffic
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Measuring Online Usage of "Help" Documentation
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Copyright Laws for Internet Materials
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Use of Electronic Communication in Political Campaigns

Employee Communication
- "World Class" Employee Communication
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Best Practices for Internal Television
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Communicating Corporate Culture to Employees
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Impact of Communication on Merger Success
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Communicating During a Plant Expansion
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Employee Recognition Programs

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Printed Versus Online Publications

 

Q: Is there any research showing what happens to readership of publications when they migrate from print to strictly online?

Gwen Noel

 

A: Dear Gwen:

I haven't seen overall research results on this, just the results of specific projects I've done for clients, or what clients have told me about problems they're experiencing that led them to call me. Since this is a really long response, here are the headlines I'll cover:

  • What happens to readership and why.
  • Techniques to try to offset the drop in readership.
  • What happens to overall understanding of key messages.
  • What employees and executives say about going online.
  • My (opinionated) personal conclusions.

Effect on readership

When I conduct communication surveys, online publications have lower readership than print publications.

Here are some very disturbing survey results from one client who switched from print to only online for their employee magazine. The entire workforce uses computers all day long. The length, frequency and content of the magazine did not change, but readership certainly did:

  • Only 49% of those who have seen it say it provides useful information they either want or need for their jobs. In 2007 when this publication was still available in print, 64% said it was useful.

  • Only 42% now read or skim at least half of each issue of the magazine, compared to 68% who used to when it was printed.

  • Only 15% now share their issues of the magazine with others in their household, compared to nearly one-fourth who did in 2007.

Readership goes down for a number of reasons, as I've learned from focus groups. Some reasons are mechanical and some, human:

  • Many people don't have computers available.
  • Many people with computers don't have reliable online access, especially outside North America.
  • Some people with computers and online access aren't given the TIME by their managers to check out the intranet. This is true when you rely on kiosks in a manufacturing environment, and it's even more of a problem for employees working in call center environments where productivity measures are very highly watched. The unfortunate outcome is that employees aren't given the time to learn answers to questions that would actually improve their productivity when talking to customers.
  • Many people don't have the time or don't remember to check the publication unless it arrives right in front of their noses.
  • Managers and others who are supposed to print out and post or otherwise share online information with "online have-nots" simply don't do it very often.

Techniques to improve readership

Overall, fewer people read at least part of the publication when it's available only online. The actual numbers will vary depending on HOW the online publication is used and marketed. Techniques to improve online readership that I've seen working very well:

  • Have the first sign-on screen employees use be, in essence, a home page for employee communications, with headlines of the day, etc., right in front of people first thing every morning.
  • Send an email to everyone the day the online publication becomes available, listing the headlines of the publication and possibly one- or two-sentence summaries. This works even better if your email system supports including links from the email directly to the intranet site for the publication.
  • Publish a printed publication just like the email described above. This has the advantage of also reaching people who don't have intranet access with at least the headlines and main point of each big news item. The disadvantage is the lack of an immediate link to the full publication.
  • Scrolling messages at the bottom of users' screens with big headlines of new news available online.

Impact on understanding

One company boldly went only online about three years ago for a lot of good management reasons. It's the way of the future, it saves money and trees, it's more timely, etc., etc., etc. Unfortunately, they did this knowing that by the nature of their work force, about half did not have access to online information. Over a three-year period, they noticed a slow drop in the overall level of employees' perceived understanding about company goals and programs.

Once the communication department broke the data down by job group, they found that the job families without online access had dropped in their understanding levels dramatically about 20% to 40%. The full impact had been obscured by increased levels in some other groups. The company had not changed how MUCH information they were providing to employees on this topic, only the delivery vehicles. Other channels, like face-to-face, had not successfully filled the vacuum created by the loss of the print channel.

Employee/executive comments

In two companies where virtually every employee uses a computer and (theoretically, at least) has online access, we heard really consistent comments. The executives were far more likely to say print should be abolished and replaced with only an online publication. (Although when asked about their own online practices, very few executives checked the intranet even as often as weekly. About a third had NEVER visited the site.)

The most interesting thing was employee reactions to having a publication available only online. About two-thirds said if they had to choose, they'd choose to have only print. In both companies, the main reasons were:

  • I'm staring at a screen all day. It's a relief to hold something in my hands.
  • It's easier to scan and skim in print without missing something that I really do want to read.
  • I typically read this type of information when I'm traveling, commuting, waiting in a client's office, etc.

At a third company we talked with sales people who don't typically come into a company office. They used company laptops all day long on the road visiting their clients. Many had very favorable things to say about the sales publication (in print) but hadn't seen it for a while. When we explained that it was only available online now, many weren't even aware of the change, which had taken place about six months earlier. They also said:

  • I'm having to access email and online forms, etc. from my home by modem. We only have one phone line and my wife/kids hate for me to tie up the line too long.
  • I can't access this information during the day when I'm visiting a client. At the end of a long day, I just want to download the information I must back to the company. The last thing I want to do is spend another half-hour online checking out the intranet or the online sales publication.

Conclusion

My personal conclusion is that print has a definite place in the mix of our communication channels. The position it should hold does depend on access issues for your own employee population. But even with universal access, it's too easy to kid ourselves that we're communicating just because we're posting things online. Very few might be seeing it.

I just heard of a consulting firm talking about how readership of their external newsletter has increased since it went online. They mentioned the overall number of people visiting the newsletter site and how long they spend reading it. As a former avid reader of the print piece when it came into my inbox, I find that very hard to believe. I've never sought their publication out, even though I always found useful and interesting information in it. I just don't remember to go there. I suspect the hits they're getting are from current clients who are already at their site doing other things, not the prospects they were trying to entice into becoming customers. Also, the "time spent online" they reported can easily be misinterpreted. The software tracking programs can't tell you if a reader is really reading for 25 minutes or talking on the phone or with a colleague while the publication is onscreen unread.

I hope this provides some food for thought. I'd love to see other people's survey results or comments!

Angela D. Sinickas

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Setting Targets for Intranet Growth

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Q: Our internal communications group is in the process of setting goals and measures for 2001. To measure the effectiveness of our internal communications plan, we do an annual online survey of our entire audience, as well as follow-up focus groups. As a quantitative measure of the success of our recently redesigned intranet site, we also track visitors and hits to the site.

How do we set realistic goals for growth in visitors and hits? We'd like our readership to continue to increase as we expand and improve the site, but we foresee a ceiling at which the growth will level off. We'd appreciate your suggestions.

Kim Willard

 

A: Dear Kim,

Because you say your survey is conducted online, I'm assuming that all your employees have equal access to computers and the knowledge of how to use your intranet. This would mean that you could potentially expect 100% of your employees to access the intranet at some minimal level of frequency. If this isn't true, your actual percentage would be your maximum possible goal.

I'd suggest that rather than counting hits and visitors; you install some software that measures usage in more detail. Some common ones I've heard of or used include Web Trends and Key Lime. They can tell you more specifically which pages people are visiting, entering on, leaving from, downloading and printing out. You can often track unique visitors, rather than counting multiple visits by the same user. All of this will provide you with a more accurate picture of who is using what, and how often. This will provide a better foundation for setting goals.

Rather than visitors or hits overall, I'd set a target of nearly your entire employee base on computers, minus your average turnover (since it often takes people a while to get used to visiting an intranet) and expect all of them to visit the site at least once a month. When you find out where you are currently, you can set a series of goals year by year that will lead you to that ultimate level. Later you may want to change the goal to at least one visit per week. You may also want to be more specific and expect various percentages of visitors to visit different pages on the site. For example, you wouldn't expect all employees to visit a job-posting page regularly, but you might expect them to visit the headlines page or the employee online publication more often.

You may need to do some focus group research to identify why people who never visit the site don't and those who visit it infrequently don't visit more often. This will help you meet your goals, or identify that there may be some barriers with certain groups that you will not be able to overcome, and exclude that part of your population from your goal. (For example, in many of our clients' call center operations, employees cannot access email or the intranet while their sales or customer service programs are running and they are expected to be running during the entire shift. In these environments, productivity goals often result in managers not allowing employees to access electronic communication channels to which they may physically have potential access.)

Good luck with your goal setting,

Angela D. Sinickas

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Ideal Email Content / Appearance

 

Q: I am trying to find a good resource with comprehensive, research-backed guidelines about how to best format e-mail messages and newsletters. For example, color or no color? Type size? Length? Attachments or no attachments? A hot link to more information or not? More and more people are using email in our company, and our internal communications group wants to implement some standards for appearance and content. Email inbox overload is beginning to set in, and we're certain (afraid) it's affecting productivity.

Thanks for any insight you can provide!

Jennifer Williams

 

A: Dear Jennifer:

I don't personally know of the kind of email guidelines you're talking about, but you might want to send an email to Shel Holtz at shel@holtz.com. He's always my first choice of how to best use electronic communication channels. Just some tidbits I've picked up in the course of employee focus groups on this topic:

  • Emails should be short, directing people to more detailed information on a web site or electronic bulletin board.
  • The subject line should be very clear about the topic.
  • If action is required, that should be mentioned upfront at the beginning of the email.
  • People prefer having an easy hyperlink to an email attachment; attachments often don't get read because people don't know how to download them (or unzip them first sometimes).

Finally, take away the capacity of sending a mass email from all but a few people. Have someone in the communication function become the email editor, putting together a daily, tightly edited email bulletin with headlines and one-paragraph items summarizing all the separate emails others wanted to send. Each paragraph can then have a link to the full story elsewhere on a bulletin board or Web site.

Angela D. Sinickas

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Impact of News Releases on Web Traffic

 

Q: Are you aware of any statistics I can borrow from that would help us predict the effect of a press release on Web traffic? Sounds like an easy question, but my own research has come up dry.

Thanks.

Jill Shuman, Managing Director
Imagitas

 

A: Dear Jill:

That doesn't sound easy at all! My first suggestion is to ask the editor of a publication called "Interactive PR," published by Ragan Communications in Chicago (www.ragan.com). They might have published something about this. Another resource might be to contact Delahaye Associates (www.delahaye.com). They do a lot of measurement of news coverage and also of web sites, so they might have some numbers of their own that they developed. Hope this helps. I'd love to have you post anything you find.

Angela D. Sinickas

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Measuring Online Usage of "Help" Documentation

 

Q: Has any statistical study been done to show the actual percentage of use of online documentation/help by users? We currently have an internal client who insists that less than 10% of the population actually use online help. However, I disagree with them but have no actual numbers to back me up.

Janine Bland

 

A: Dear Janine,

I haven't seen an overall study, but there are a few places you could check out relevant data. There are a number of companies that provide online support to visitors of the sites of many companies, as an outsourced support function. They would certainly have statistics for a number of companies that are their clients.

You might also call the help desk for various software companies and ask to talk with a supervisor, who might be able to provide statistics for their own products or put you in touch with someone who can.

Finally, you might call companies that design large web sites, like Sapient or Razorfish, or consult about web sites (NetGain, Xceed) and see if they have this information.

Rather than look at statistics overall, you can always install web site measurement software for your own site (Web Trends, Key Lime) that will tell you exactly how many people access various pages like your help screen at your own organization. You might call friends you have in similar positions at other companies and ask what their own number of visits to their help pages has been.

Good luck,

Angela D. Sinickas

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Copyright Laws for Internet Materials

 

Q: We do a lot of research for our clients to enhance their articles or brochures, or other marketing communications. Most of the information is drawn from direct interviews with expert sources or from browsing the Internet. When must you get the permission from the source of any information? For example, do you need to call and ask Forrester Research for permission to use their statistics even if you cite them as the source? And what about general information you find on the Internet that defines an industrial process or explains a new technology? If you find a company listed on the Internet, can you use the company's name in your materials without getting their permission because the Internet is public domain?

Dazed and confused,

Lisa Bardora

 

A: Dear Lisa:

I'm afraid I really don't know as much about copyright laws as I should. You might want to take a look at the chapter on communication law in the the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) book "Inside Organizational Communication," written by Frank Walsh, JD, APR, and Carolyn Wright, JD. Some of the key points it makes on some of your question areas are that:

1. "...many people mistakenly think that anything published on the Internet is in the public domain and may be used without permission..."

2. "...the public nature of the Internet is such that there is an implied right to use information to a limited extent, for example, to read, download, print out and probably forward to a limited audience."

3. "Posting on the Internet does not...imply consent for a commercial use....

I think the best advice I can give you is to have your clients get a legal opinion on the specific information you want to use for a specific purpose to avoid a lawsuit.

Angela D. Sinickas

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Use of Electronic Communication in Political Campaigns

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Q: I am researching the topic of how communication technology has been used for fund-raising and volunteering in politics/political campaigns. Do you have any advice for me about how I might approach doing this research? This will be used for a Website on how communication technology impacts politics/political campaigns for a graduate MBC course on Communication Technology. So far I have seen a lot of information about fund-raising and politics but not on how communication technology has impacted this. Thanks.

Irene Connors

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A: Dear Irene,

My first suggestion would be to start with some primary research by searching the Web for Websites for individual candidates in the current elections, as well as the sites for the political parties themselves. I'd also search sites for incumbents at the national and state level. That would give you some sense of how prevalent the use of technology is and what they're doing with it. Once these elections are over, you could contact the staffs of the candidates and ask them about their outcomes from the sites, both in terms of fundraising and volunteers.

I'm not sure where you might find secondary research data. There is a professional publication called "Interactive PR" published by Ragan Communications in Chicago (www.ragan.com). Northwestern University has an academic journal about Integrated Marketing. There is an association of Government Communicators called FCN (maybe for Federal Communicators Network?). They might be able to help you as well. I'd also try places like the Annenberg School of Communication at USC and another one somewhere in Pennsylvania, as well as the Institute for Communication Research at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I recently saw a list of past research by grad students on their web site and seem to recall some of them might have touched on your topic.

I hope this helps get you started. It sounds like an interesting and timely topic.

Angela D. Sinickas

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"World Class" Employee Communication

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Q: Is there a Web site or a publication to which you can direct me that defines and describes what is considered world class/top quality employee communications programs? I am assessing the internal communication practices and programs for my organization with an objective of comparing them with established top-level communications.

Thank you.

Stuart Doyle

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A: Dear Stuart:

Three places you might check:

1. The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) sells a "Diagnostic" tool to assess your own communication program based on the criteria identified in a huge study from a few years ago on Excellence in Communication.

2. In addition, the Public Affairs Group in Washington, DC, sells an annual benchmarking study about employee communication practices.

3. Of course, you can also subscribe to the benchmarking database conducted at our www.CommToolbox.com site.

However, the only way you'll know if your communication program is effective for your own employees is to obtain their input through a research project. For example, I worked with one client who had what they thought was a world-class video newsmagazine. They won many awards for it over the years. The feedback cards they included with the videocassettes came back with glowing reports. But, when we did an employee communication audit survey, we discovered that over half the employees had NEVER seen a single edition of the video, over a five-year period.

As it turned out, managers who received the video did watch it and like it, and sent in favorable feedback forms. But most of them never showed it in staff meetings as they were instructed to do because they were too long and on the wrong topics for a staff meeting. So, did they have world-class communication? On paper, yes; in reality, no.

Angela D. Sinickas

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Best Practices for Internal Television

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Q: I am attempting to put together a "best practices" list of companies in the field of Internal Television. Many companies have this medium and they cover a wide spectrum from an elaborate TV-like production sent globally to all locations, to a PowerPoint slide show viewed in one building. Have you found the best of the best in this field or know resources to help me along? Thank you.

Josh

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Dear Josh:

I don't have such a list. Although I do think certain of my clients have excellent programs, I can't really discuss them for reasons of confidentiality. However, I have heard communicators from FedEx, Microsoft and the US Postal Service speak at conferences about their varied uses of video and was impressed.

The best place to look might be recent award-winning video programs in the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC)'s Gold Quill awards program or in competitions sponsored by video organizations like ITVA. What I have seen in "best practices" varies quite a bit from satellite broadcasts to all locations, to videos tailored to different job functions, to Web casts that include not only picture/sound of an executive being interviewed, but also windows on the screen to either submit a question to the interviewee or to participate in an ongoing chat with other viewers on everyone's reactions to what is being said.

Another place to look would be the list of speakers at conferences about using video for employee communication.

Good luck,

Angela D. Sinickas

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Communicating Corporate Culture to Employees

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Q: I just found out about this Website and it seems that it provides many cases that may be applicable to our operational duties. I am handling the corporate communications department of a publicly listed company in the country. The management had actually come out with the vision, mission & culture as tools to direct the company's objectives. I have difficulties in promoting the corporate culture to employees. I tried many methods, writing (either in our newsletter, leaflets, or even through stories about real employees in which I have conveyed the stories of our founder director), speeches (through our monthly assembly, family day). Still it seems dull and dry. The management wants me to do something about it! And now I am planning for a whole year campaign of the corporate culture!! (i.e. Best Effort, Responsibility, Integrity....) Can you suggest to me how/what is the best or few methods (rather than what I have done before) that I can include in the campaign! Or other ideas or examples?

Thanking you from Malaysia

Surati Sujor

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A: Dear Surati,

Two things come to mind. First, to make any kind of change in a workforce, employees need to become involved, not just informed. Second, it's difficult to tell how well the culture is working without measurement. Here's something we did at a former company I worked at that really made a difference.

First, we communicated our new vision and values through meetings with employees, videos, newsletters, posters, wallet cards, etc. Then we conducted an employee opinion survey. The survey was broken into sections with headlines. Each headline reflected either a part of our mission or one of our values. Some sections had a few questions, others had more. Most of these were traditional survey questions, but because we organized them according to our new culture, we showed employees that we wanted to measure how we were doing on each aspect of our stated new culture.

The results showed that some things were going well while others were really bad. We identified about seven items we wanted to improve on over the next year. We organized task forces of employees in each department in each location to come up with suggestions for those seven items that THEY COULD IMPLEMENT in their own work groups that would better reflect the ideal culture. These were not ideas for someone at corporate office to implement. These were things like how they treat each other, how they approach projects, how they talk with customers, etc. that was relevant to their own jobs. Of course, we communicated throughout the year what all the task forces were doing.

One year later, the some of the targeted items on the survey improved from 15 to 20 percentage points. A huge success in changing the culture at the work group level--and having measurements to prove it.

I hope this gives you some new ideas. Good luck, and stay in touch.

Angela D. Sinickas

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Impact of Communication on Merger Success

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Q: I am finishing my MS in Communication Arts at IONA, and my thesis topic is the correlation between effective communication and successful merger results. Have you performed any studies on this topic or can you point me towards one that you know about? Thanks.

Margaret McLean Walsh

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A: Dear Margaret:

William M. Mercer, Incorporated, conducted a study for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) a few years ago on what types of communication roles, messages and channels worked best in merger situations. The study involved research with company executives, company communicators and a random selection of employees. I believe the participants also were asked to rate how well they thought the merger went.

Either IABC will have the full report available or the summary that appeared in Communication World, or Mercer could send you a summary brochure with the results.

Another thought. I just heard from a client that the Conference Board has a report available on employee communication during mergers (copyrighted 2000) that might have some of the information you're looking for.

Hope this helps,

Angela D. Sinickas

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Communicating During a Plant Expansion

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Q: Our twenty-year-old plant is undergoing a major reconstruction update. Our 1500-employee base in the plant is concerned and we want to make sure they understand that this is not a nefarious plan to eliminate staff. Any suggestions? Any experience in the newspaper business? Very much looking forward to hearing from you.

Richard Malone

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A: Dear Richard:

In a situation like the one you describe, I'd suggest starting with qualitative research, specifically, some focus groups. I'd focus on identifying what employees' information needs are and their concerns. I'd probe on how they'd like to be kept up-to-date on the progress of the reconstruction as well. A good facilitator will also be able to hear "between the lines" and follow up on any indications of employee mistrust about the purpose of the expansion and probe on what company actions or communications are reinforcing the negative impressions currently.

Longer term, you'll need to have an ongoing feedback mechanism in place as well, since build-outs take some time. You might try an 800 number people can call for updates on the progress and if they have a question or want to check out a rumor, they could leave a message of their own at the end. All the questions and answers could be shared with all those involved. In a plant environment, your employees are not likely to use email or an intranet regularly, so you'll need to find a paper solution to the information sharing. This will provide the consistency that supervisor meetings alone won't be able to provide. In addition, remember that not only the employees working at the plant are interested in an expansion like this. Be sure to keep the other employees informed about progress and allow for their questions as well.

Periodically, you might want to conduct large-group meetings having senior leaders provide updates and field questions in person. This face-to-face dialogue helps build trust because the employees can watch the facial expressions and body language of the leaders to gauge whether they are being truthful and concerned for employees' best interests. Of course, this should be done during all the different shifts involved since the night and swing shifts may be the ones with the greatest apprehensions. These shifts often feel isolated and ignored by management at the best of times.

In fact, I have worked as internal communication manager at a newspaper company and even worked on a plant expansion at the time. Feel free to contact me directly if you need more ideas.

Best regards,

Angela D. Sinickas

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Employee Recognition Programs

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Q: We will be moving from a regulated to an open market environment and as such are exploring innovative ways to engage employees in helping move the business along.

I am looking for information on employee recognition programs that set out corporate-wide guidelines/policies on what, how, whom to recognize for their ideas and suggestions. Any ideas, resources?

Kathy Peck

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A: Dear Kathy,

I believe the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) has a set of case studies and ideas on this topic that it offers for sale. You might either check the website or call them. I know that I ordered one in the past and it was helpful to me.

Angela D. Sinickas

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