Think back 25 years (if you’re old enough). It sounds almost quaint today, but email was just beginning to come into its own. At the company where I was working, with more than 40,000 people, some 5,000 had been brought into the email system. Eventually, all would be, but 5,000 was enough to give us critical mass for a new communications venture – an email newsletter for employees.
To show how new this was, only one other company in the United States had an employee email newsletter. I hoped we would be the second.
I had meetings with the people in charge of the email system – not only were there various departments, there was also an email council overseeing email operations. My proposal was a text-only newsletter to be sent to the 5,000 people on email.
The response was something akin to asking people to sit in a room full of rats infected with bubonic plague. I didn’t know what I was asking. There were too many hardware platforms. I didn’t understand the technical aspects of the work. The system could crash. The company was too diverse for people to care about what was happening in other divisions. To be fair, these objections came not only from IT people but also from my own communications colleagues.
I was on my way to yet another frustrating meeting with the email council when I was hit with a blinding flash of the obvious. If I wanted to do an email newsletter, all I had to do was draft an email newsletter and hit send.I walked into the meeting and cut directly to the point: we would be doing a test. We would send the newsletter to 100 communications people around the world, and then see what happened. If the system crashed, and if Western civilization collapsed as a result, then it was on my head.
The looks on the faces of the council said it all. The naïve PR guy had cracked the code.
We launched the newsletter to 100 people. They did something not entirely surprising – they forwarded it to their own colleagues and friends. We were flooded with requests by people wanting to be added to the distribution. Within a month, we had reached the entire distribution of 5,000, and the newsletter became a reason why people were demanding to be added to the email system.
The email system didn’t crash. Western civilization didn’t collapse.
Success wasn’t only because of the novelty of email. More important was the newsletter’s voice. It respected its audience. It didn’t think management knew everything. It accepted letters to the editor and allowed employees to debate issues. This is where it truly broke new ground. This had never happened before with any company communications tool. It treated employees like adults.
I knew we were becoming something of a force when customers, academics, and government people began to contact us, asking to be added to the distribution of our employee newsletter. They were receiving copies forwarded by sales reps and staff people. One professor from a Texas university told me, “It’s amazing that you let employees debate issues that affect the company. It makes the company seems like it’s human.”
The CEO would later say that the newsletter was one of the two most important company events of the year. The other was an important new product introduction.
From Poetry at Work: “Like all work, the work of electronic communications contains inherent poetry, perhaps several inherent poetries: the poetry of information, the poetry of relationship, the poetry of psychology. And, like the poetry of several other disciplines, it is also the poetry of encouragement and affirmation while simultaneously being the poetry of conflict, debate, and acrimony.”