An issue that generates lively discussions in groups of business communicators is the planning and conduct of internal email/message programs. These discussions often ask:

  • Are mass emails to an entire work force still necessary? Should they be replaced by messaging on company intranets, blogs or portals?
  • If one does send mass emails, should they be periodic, or issued only when unusual or critical business events occur?
  • What are best practices in framing the message and writing copy for senior executives speaking to the employee base: content, style and manner of address?

In my opinion, mass emails are a useful, effective part of corporate communications: at least for companies with large, distributed work forces. A lot depends upon how well the executive and the communicator(s) address that third bullet. Let’s go forward with the assumption that we are going to have a mass-mail program.

Discussions on this topic often fail to address an essential part of a mass email program. The “program” might call for monthly or quarterly messages from the CEO or president, or it may only be part of a crisis communications plan, activated in response to a critical event affecting the company and its employees. Whatever is your situation, it’s absolutely necessary to have:

  • A thoroughly designed and tested, systematic means to determine who gets the messages (that means an accurate, up-to-date address list that is regularly updated)
  • A well-defined approval process that supports a seamless progress to the distribution of the message
  • A means to deal with responses (and, if you take my advice, you WILL provide for feedback. Otherwise, you’re not truly communicating)

I’ll address each of these points briefly. I welcome your comments, disagreements and experiences you’ve had in these areas.

Who Has the List?

If you don’t already have a mass email program, and you anticipate the need for one, start early. Later today would be good. It’s going to take time. For example, the seemingly simple task of acquiring a current email address list may not be at all simple. Merely finding out who owns the bona fide list may take some work: is it HR, the IT department or some other entity? Once you know who has it, will they share it with you (anticipate questions about confidentiality, etc.)? Is it absolutely current? How often is it updated and maintained? Will you always have access to the most current version? How large is it? Some electronic mail systems have a limit on how many addresses they can ping at one time, and that is one of many matters you’ll need to discuss with your IT department.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Process

This could be a chapter in a book, but some of the most important elements are obvious, so I won’t belabor them. Developing your process may not begin where you think it should. Yes, you need to establish a clear sequence of writing, review, approval. Likely, your communications function already has a precedent for approving executive messages. Easily overlooked, though, (until it’s too late) is the need to understand how your email system distributes bulk mailings. I want to stress that this activity requires diligence on your part, and it means engaging with and listening to your IT team. Do not expect to call up the head of IT or the CTO or whoever you believe to be in charge saying, “The CEO has a message that needs to go to all employees before the start of business tomorrow!” No matter how dedicated a team you have, no matter how service-oriented they are, and however diplomatic they may be, they may be tempted to reply, “How about by the start of business next month?” The time for meticulous preparation is well in advance of that first message. I suggest you start today, particularly if you have a crisis communications program that doesn’t define the process for issuing an all-employee email.

The procedures the IT department describes (and you WILL listen carefully to them) are not always straightforward or obvious. Don’t assume that the cause for complexity is your IT department’s incompetence or a will to make things difficult. One common cause is that corporate enterprises build computing infrastructure for transactional purposes: processing the supply chain, maintaining and executing financial reports, and a host of other foundational business activities. They are not always optimized to be communication systems. You should be prepared to describe to the CTO what it is you and the executives want to accomplish, how often, how long the messages might be and if there will be media included.

You’ll find yourself addressing issues that are not so important as they are in building intranet or blog pages: Is there a graphic header? Is there a graphic with the execs signature or a photo? Bulk emails can be a burden on infrastructure. Establishing a calendar for mailings and keeping IT informed will help them prepare for the workloads.

The IT department will be your greatest resource, unless you don’t make them your partners, in which case you will not be brilliantly successful.

From the Mailbag

You may find that structuring that email list involves  there is significant work. Also, even more labor is required to devise and then manage the responses the emails receive. Will there be a unique inbox for replies (recommended)? Who will have access to that mailbox, who will draft the replies, who will approve them, and how will the answers be returned to the employee asking the question or making the comment? Keep in mind that you may need a variety of subject matter experts to answer questions. Someone from HR, someone from Finance, someone from Product Development, and so forth. What will you do with the inevitable rude or even threatening response? Will HR automatically be involved? A corporate ombudsman? The offending employee’s management? The good news is that most communications departments are increasingly familiar with moderating responses because of their involvement in social media channels. If you already have protocols for dealing with responses on Twitter or Facebook pages, apply them to this function, too. As much work as it creates, the two-way loop is critically important. We learn in Day One of Communications 101 that communication only happens when the message loops back.

Finally, you might as well face it: open a channel to your legal department to be part of the review process for any outgoing messages that involve any sort of corporate governance. It’s better to get their eyes on any all-employee content first, rather than finding yourself in a deposition sitting with an extremely unhappy corporate counsel.

Do you have observations or experiences that are pertinent? We’d be glad to have your comments.