Customer magazines have evolved and improved to the point where the company behind a title can charge consumers for the privilege of reading it, as Waitrose does with Waitrose Food Illustrated. However, when it comes to magazines for staff, internal corporate publications have lagged behind, often resembling nothing more than a primitive newsletter. In some cases, then, companies that produce a glossy magazine for their customers, the internal equivalent is often a poor relation in terms of content, design and budget.
But there are signs that this state of affairs is changing. At the Association of Publishing Agencies Awards last November, internal magazines such as The Job - published for the Metropolitan Police by Seven Squared - showed how far the medium has come. Seven Squared director Sean King says that things have transformed since the days when internal communications were 'the preserve of a style of agency that was fairly basic in terms of production values and creativity'. These days, he adds, client marketers are taking internal communications more seriously.
Publishing agency Summersault has traditionally specialised in internal communications, but, according to managing director Gail Franks, it is increasingly being asked to produce customer-facing publications. She believes this is because forward-thinking clients are working hard to erode the distinction between staff and consumers, realising that its employees are also customers, and just as important.
'Companies realise that they have to sell the brand to employees as well as customers,' says Franks. 'I have been appalled at the poor quality of some of the internal communications I have seen compared with those their customers receive. What does that say to the people who work for the company?'
Another magazine winning plaudits is Fresh*, published for energy supplier Npower by Specialist, whose managing director, Niki Webb, agrees clients are taking internal titles more seriously. 'People are starting to realise that the cost of replacing employees is the same, if not greater, than finding new customers, so it's expensive and foolish to treat them differently,' she says. 'The stakes are high.' Many companies have recently started to increase their investment in internal communications programmes, she adds: 'The production values of internal magazines are not yet on a par with those of the biggest customer magazines, but they are coming closer.'
According to Webb, Npower sees its internal magazine as an important tool for building the brand from within. 'For us, it is all about engagement,' she says. 'Often, the first issue we have to address is to ensure that management knows what the corporate message is, so that they can communicate it in an engaging and interactive way.'
The biggest challenge in producing a good internal magazine lies in developing the required level of corporate confidence. This helps to build trust between the people who run the company and staff on the ground, paving the way for an 'open and shared' communication. 'It's easy to fill an internal publication with puff, but the best ones say something real,' says Webb.
Trust was a key issue faced by Seven Squared when it was hired to produce the internal magazine for the Metropolitan Police. Its strategy was to change the frequency of the publication and shift its editorial focus. 'The Job used to be a fortnightly newspaper, and it was becoming harder to produce because police news is sensitive to publish,' explains King. 'When we moved it to a monthly cycle, we made it a magazine that was much more issues-based and forward-looking, which meant it ran into fewer internal political issues. It also had a dramatic, positive impact on the perception of internal communications among serving police officers in the Met.'
Another important trend is the move toward digital media. With many companies using an intranet for operational functions such as internal directories and meeting planning, it makes sense for content aimed at employees to be available online, too. 'Everything we do on the internal communications side has to have a digital partner, so we either work alongside a company's existing intranet or produce websites,' says Webb.
Franks believes Summersault's work with Siemens shows how well online and offline formats can work together in communicating with employees. Summersault produces a UK-wide employee magazine for the electronics company in tandem with a microsite. While day-to-day, topical news items are published online, space in the print magazine is reserved for bigger stories and more in-depth features. 'The way in which the content is separated makes perfect sense, and we can use the microsite to push the magazine, and the magazine to push the microsite,' says Franks.
'Siemens UK has 20,000 staff, some of whom are not in the office very much at all,' says the company's internal and online communications manager, Kirsty Glennie. 'Online is a great way to maintain contact with these people. It keeps the channel alive and gives everyone a way to interact with the content by posting comments and questions.'
It will undoubtedly be some time before an internal magazine takes on the proportions, or indeed the production values, of a paid-for customer publication such as Waitrose Food Illustrated, but at least the discipline is moving in the right direction.