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What to Say and How to Say It in Internal Newsletters

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Newsletters to keep all members of an attorney organization informed can be very effective and essential to the marketing effort. In larger firms, up to four people need to be involved in producing successful newsletters. De sign is not as important as content, but the newsletter must look professional and be "user friendly." It must be frequent to be effective. A smaller size to enable greater frequency is desirable.
 
What to Say and How to Say It in Internal Newsletters

This article discusses

 
  • the correct way to set up internal staff and facilities to produce effective employee newsletters.
  • the design and format of effective attorney newsletters.
  • typical subject matter covered In internal newsletters.
  • the easiest and most efficient means to gather materials for inclusion in the newsletters.
  • recommendations on writing style, size, frequency, costs, and distribution.

Two-way communication with employees is always better than one way. Two-way communication through the meeting process enables attorneys to develop relationships and receive feedback from other attorneys and employees of the firm. Open, honest communication is truly valuable.

To supplement two-way communications through meetings (and in some cases to replace it, due to time constraints) attorneys have found an internal newsletter to be worthwhile. They can be useful by firms as small as ten, including all attorneys and staff.

Their value lies almost solely in the information they contain. Staff are very clear about what they want from employee communications and the newsletters that provide this will be successful and worth the effort.

Who Should Be Involved

It doesn't matter if the attorney's firm is small or large-the approach to management of the newsletter and development of its content is the same. Four groups of individuals are involved:
 
  1. The editorial board, which sets guidelines and makes policy decisions regarding content and general operating conditions (budget, etc). In most firms, this would be equivalent to the management committee.
  2. The editor, who decides content, has the authority to approve each issue before printing, and interprets the editorial board's policies and guidelines. For attorney firms, this person is most likely the managing partner.
  3. The managing editor, who is responsible for writing, editing, and producing the newsletter. This person prepares the content and assembles all information from other sources. This person may be a person designated as marketing coordinator or a good administrative assistant. It may even be an employee from another department with a journalism background or strong interest in the subject. In many businesses this is handled by the "personnel" department.
  4. The production editor, who manages the printing and distribution of the newsletter. In many larger law firms, this can be delegated to a mailroom person. Often the managing editor also performs this role.

Design and Format

The basic "look" of the newsletter will not change from issue to issue. With the technology of desktop publishing and even sophisticated word processing systems, an attractive design for a newsletter can be done in-house. The design elements to be decided are a masthead, column widths, and type sizes. If the newsletter is produced on computers and the capability exists, then a choice of typefaces can be made.

The complexity of design is an individual decision, but the key is to keep it simple. A masthead with the newsletter name should constitute about one quarter of the top of the front page. A two- or three-column format can be used, but creating columns often requires more production time and may not be worth the effort. To develop the initial design and format, attorneys should ask a graphic designer to assist them. The cost for this service is usually less than $500 and in most cases well worth it.

Content

Prior to the first issue, comprehensive guidelines for content need to be established. This is the job of the editorial board. Day-to-day decisions regarding content will be based on these guidelines and left to the editor and managing editor.

In general, content will be similar to that of employee meetings: information on policy decisions, significant news, developments, and new business successes. Other content issues that naturally find their way into employee newsletters are personal events such as weddings and the birth of children; however, these "news" items are actually of minor interest, and no major effort should be put into reporting them.

Confidentiality of internal matters is always an issue with attorneys. Good communication with staff stresses the importance of client confidences. Attorneys should be aware that internal newsletters may be read by others outside the firm, such as spouses.

The editor/writer should be a person who has knowledge of all the various departments within the attorney's organization. For newsletter writing purposes, this is a person who can be described as "knowing a little bit about everything, but not necessarily a whole lot about anything."

The point of the newsletter is to provide a wide variety of information but not necessarily lots of detail on issues of importance to the firm. Following the editorial approach of newspapers like USA Today, the newsletter will be of greatest interest if it touches on many subjects, but provides only brief details. If more information is required, the reader needs to go to other sources. Based on this premise, a two-page newsletter (single sheet, front and back) published twice a month could easily contain seven to ten news stories.

How to Produce Internal Newsletters

From a practical point of view, employee newsletters must meet two criteria or they will fail: they must be easy to produce, and they must be frequent. Both of these are relative statements. What is "easy" to one person may be overwhelming to another, and "frequent" may mean once a week to a managing partner but once a quarter to somebody else.

What follows is a description of the easiest and most practical process to produce internal newsletters for attorneys. The emphasis is to set up the process correctly in the beginning to ensure that it works well within the organization and then to allow the focus to be on the content. Too often, the form of the newsletter or production issues draw resources away from con tent, and the overall objective of the process is lost. A simple design and a nontechnical approach to the writing and production is recommended.

How to Gather and Write the News

The editor doesn't have to do all the work. A good one will delegate responsibility and ask others in the firm for assistance. Typically, each newsletter has some standard features, such as the "Secretarial Tips" and "Personnel Changes." Logically, the office manager and person in charge of staff will have the responsibility to provide that kind of information in each issue. Other sources of "news" should be regular contact persons in each department who, depending on the size of the firm, will most likely be the senior attorney and an administrative person.

The editor should also attend those meetings of staff and attorneys where matters of broad interest are discussed to learn information and re port as appropriate on various items of interest to the entire firm and re mind those involved of responsibilities.

The writing style should be breezy, avoiding legalese and complicated statements. A standard approach is to write to the eighth grade level. Of critical importance will be the process of obtaining approvals for information in the newsletter. In most law firms, approvals of information to be released to the public (which is what happens in a newsletter) takes a tremendous amount of time. Obviously, if a ponderous review process is set up for each newsletter, one of two things will happen: it will consume too much valuable attorney time, or the content of the newsletter will slip into low-level, common knowledge items of little interest or value to the readers.

Therefore, all the people involved must place a good deal of trust in communication with each other, so that information is gathered and written at a level and in such a way that it does not require critical approval processes yet provides substance for the readers.

Obtaining this balance is not easy, and it is often through the trial-and- error process that a compatible arrangement is found. If a firm culture is based on open, candid communication and good judgment is shown by the people involved, then approvals are usually not a problem.

Size and Frequency

The size of the newsletter and the frequency of its arrival on employees’ desks are related. The ideal combination of size and frequency is one 8?-inch by 11-inch sheet, two sided, every two weeks. Some firms are much more frequent, even daily.

A small size and relatively high frequency makes the communication process part of the office routine. It becomes a priority and part of the job descriptions of the editors. With the right content, it establishes an atmosphere of open communication which builds a spirit to teamwork among attorneys and employees alike.

Distribution

How to get the printed word to the intended audience is relatively easy. Distribution will most likely occur through intercompany mail. Mailing labels are recommended in larger offices; handwritten names on the top of each issue are acceptable in smaller offices. The important issue is to ensure that each employee personally receives the newsletter. Merely putting a stack of them in the coffee room or at a receptionist area is not acceptable. In firms that have multiple offices, the newsletter should be sent next- day delivery for immediate distribution. Some firms who have adopted the two-week publication schedule and have payday twice a month attach the newsletter to paychecks.


About Harrison Barnes
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