Magazine article Communication World

Putting Humanity in Your Newsletter - It's Not Worth It (or Is It?)

Magazine article Communication World

Putting Humanity in Your Newsletter - It's Not Worth It (or Is It?)

Article excerpt

So, you're starting over, either re-something'd or just sick of playing games. Either way, you want to do it right from now on. No more corporate pabulum spoon-fed to the masses. You're taking a stand for forthrightness. You want your newsletter to mirror reality, not the party line.

Well, far be it from me to dash hopes. There is hope, but it's slim. Do I sound sarcastic? No, just war-weary.

I came into corporate communication from newspapers with a thirst for stories. The classic definition of story: A sympathetic character encounters a complication and overcomes that complication and (if you can get this, it's a bonus) grows as a person in the process. I'd seen how powerful stories were at my newspaper. I'd seen how important it was to imbue your stories with humanity - with all its yearnings and failings.

Problem is, in the corporate world, people don't yearn - except in a kaizan kind of way (a striving for perfection) - and people certainly don't fail, at least not in print.

This isn't daytime TV, where we can pay off dupes to share their deepest secrets to a nation of gawkers. This is Work. And one gets ahead at Work by both effort and appearance. That is, they work as smartly, as earnestly, as diligently as they can and hope nothing slips out to the contrary.

When I pitched this story to Gloria Gordon, editor of Communication World, I told her I would write the story about one I wrote - an employee's battle with bone marrow cancer.

I would have written that such a venture was laborious and highly technical. I remember a story I did for one company about an employee who fell off a waterfall. The story chronicled his fight back to normalcy. I interviewed him for nine hours over several months. Then I followed a strict outlining procedure detailed in Jon Franklin's book, "Writing for Story." Was it worth it? It was without question the most popular article I ever did for that company. Today, six years later, the subject of the story still gets comments on it from his peers at work. It made people feel proud to work for that company.

When was the last time one of your stories did that?

(I don't mean to belittle what you do. I'm an internal communicator, too. It's just that the stuff we're forced to publish is so laundered. We bleach all the life out of our stories. They're safe - no worries there. They're meant to offend no one who is not directly connected with the subject of the story and boost the egos of those who are. Those people are made to feel proud. The rest just yawn, read the first three paragraphs and flip the page.)

I would have written that the best way to find that very human story was to look for a candidates in the company's elite, someone who had risen quite high but, because of circumstances beyond his/her control, likely wasn't going any higher - yet was quite satisfied and happy. Someone who didn't have anything to lose by appearing human in the internal publication.

Early on at this company, I had heard that this person had beaten leukemia several years ago and still received regular chemo. I toyed with approaching him but thought better of it. When the leukemia came back, I thought, well, it can't hurt to talk to him if he's willing. I'd just wait it out and see what happened. The subject received his marrow transplant and, though it looked dark at times, kept getting better - so I stuck with the story.

I would have written that your choice of photographer was as important as your choice of subject. Find one with newspaper experience and a good "bedside manner." You want a sincere extrovert. I happened to find a hungry young photographer with a history of cancer among his relatives and friends. He and the subject hit it off right from the start. And the photographer, Matt Hagan, was let into places I never could have gone. On the day of the bone marrow transplant, Hagan was in the hospital room. He captured the subject, prone in bed, spent, as a nurse hooked up the IV. …

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