Recently I’ve been getting a lot of calls from companies concerned about yet another impending hike in postal rates. The natural reaction to every USPS increase is for companies to seek ways to “turn off paper.” The desire to cut costs has companies sending out feelers for technical expertise, design expertise and marketing expertise but often fails to look into the core governance functions that will help them to meet their goals.
Consider, for example, a healthcare insurance organization that wants to consider options for moving members online. Their first question was “what documents can we send electronically?” Their first question should have been “who are we permitted to contact electronically?” followed closely by “have we collected the information necessary to contact them electronically?”
As healthcare insurers have expanded into the direct-to-consumer market with individual insurance plans and Medicare supplement offerings, communication requirements have changed. Many companies, while scrambling to launch new products for these markets, have failed to create and document effective communications governance policies to manage their communications processes.
According to a study by Towers Watson, formerly Watson Wyatt, published by the Harvard Business School Press companies with the most effective communications processes earned a 26 percent return for shareholders over a 4-year period; a return 11 percent higher than companies in the study with the least effective communications processes.
In order to effectively manage your company’s communications, you have several factors to juggle: The people involved, the process you’ll follow, technology you’ll use, and regulatory requirements are some of the major ones. If no central person or governance team is overseeing all of these factors, you’re more likely to have a scattered, ineffective, confusing mess of a communications process.
The first step toward gaining control is to prioritize the stakeholders for each type of document. Overlooking this step can lead to serious conflict. Different stakeholders will have different goals and you need to determine who’s going to have final say. In companies where a document goes through several different departments before being finalized, this is even more critical.
Standards and Documentation
You’ll also have to create a set of standards and guidelines that everyone must follow when creating communications for your company. These standards should address issues like corporate identity and branding, rules for customer communications, and what review process each document must go through before release.
Your communications policy also needs to address legal and regulatory issues that your company needs to follow regarding how and what you communicate to customers. You need to set guidelines to ensure that:
- Content is appropriate
- Content is sent to the appropriate customer/member
- Authorized to send that content to those customers/members (and other constituents)
- Resulting inquiries receive an appropriate and timely response
- Communications are retained for an appropriate amount of time and then deleted
In the heathcare example, this includes guidelines for content that can be sent to members under group plans versus members under individual plans and for sending content to insured children versus the child’s parent or guardian under different age scenarios or sending information to divorces spouses covered under the same insurance plan. The rules can for sending communications can be quite complex and they must be balanced with guidelines for securing the communications and retaining or deleting communications.
Once you’ve created your guidelines, you must also conduct periodic audits to make sure they’re being followed. This ensures not only that you’re staying within legal guidelines, but that your standards are resulting in an efficient process.
Your governance team will also need to make sure that guidelines and processes extend to third-parties involved in the creation, delivery or management of your business communications. Common issues include developing contracts and service-level agreements that reflect corporate privacy and retention guidelines.
By placing oversight of these responsibilities in the hands of a communications manager or governance board, you’re creating accountability that will help clear up and streamline your corporate communications — and keep them on track.
I’m a big fan of agile design and development processes and find that in some cases, centralization can burden otherwise efficient operations. Communications governance is not one of those cases. Without centralized governance and clear guidelines, individual groups find themselves re-inventing the wheel and the company is exposed to unacceptable and unnecessary risks. Good guidelines actually leave implementation teams with more freedom to pursue value-added opportunities and make it easier to question guidelines when changes are needed.