Case Study: Evolutionary—Not Revolutionary—Changes to Internal Company Newsletter Update a 60-Year-Old Tradition


WilCon Trader, the Wilbur-Ellis Company’s internal newsletter, has undergone not only a   visual transformation (old design at left above, new design at right), but it has also gone digital. Photo courtesy of Peppercom

Company: Wilbur-Ellis Company

Agency: Peppercom

Timeframe:
Jan. 2011 - Present

From founding editor Justin Radin riding a camel during a 1977 trip to open the company’s Cairo office to the company’s ongoing and far-reaching philanthropy today, the internal newsletter WilCon Trader has long followed and reported on the corporate journey of Wilbur-Ellis Company. Since its inception in 1947, what has consistently been at the center of these colorful chronicles is the company’s people and their adventures in 216 countries throughout three continents.

The internal newsletter for one of the largest private companies in the U.S., the Trader belongs today to nearly 3,500 employees. For more than 60 years—as it documented the company’s many forays into new markets and geographies, and the people who took it there—the newsletter has reflected a long-standing Wilbur-Ellis value: a business built on the quality of its employees.

SEEDS OF SUCCESS

Today, Wilbur-Ellis is a $3 billion family-owned international marketer and distributor of agricultural products, animal feed and specialty chemicals and food ingredients. Over the past 90 years, it has evolved by capitalizing on global market shifts, customer and supplier needs and the capabilities of its people.

The Trader, too, needed to evolve to keep up with the pace of not only the business but the evolution of the world and how people receive their information. Although the Trader was in lockstep with the company’s progression, “it had started to fall behind,” says Ann Barlow, partner and president at Peppercom West Coast. In what ways? Barlow says both the design and the relevance of the content needed sprucing.

MODERNIZING A TRADITION

Peppercom, Wilbur-Ellis’ agency of record for six years, was determined to elevate the Trader to become—along with the company’s intranet—a central hub for internal communications, one that better represented a vital, evolving and global employee population.

To reinvigorate the Trader, the Peppercom core team of seven (four on the content and three on the design side) identified key objectives of the newsletter refresh:

• Drive new interactions between the Trader and WEconnect, the company’s intranet hub (where none existed before).

• Augment the traditional printed publication with new digital and social technologies.

• Establish a regular quarterly rhythm with occasional special editions throughout the year.

In terms of the program’s content, Peppercom considered the following: the editorial needed to engage the widest demographic spread in its history; it needed to fairly represent three corporate divisions, and—turning the conventional agency role as external writer on its head—Peppercom and Wilbur-Ellis agreed that content needed to originate with employees.

In 2011, Wilbur-Ellis and its corporate communications specialist Sandra Gharib led the charge in inspiring company-wide participation in editorial development, as opposed to forming a select group of employee contributors. “Everyone is challenged to participate,” says Barlow. Peppercom’s role has been to facilitate the process, merchandise the program and package the end product.

CONTENT CALENDAR

Peppercom began with the development a WilCon Trader editorial calendar, which is distributed electronically and showcased on WEconnect. Employees in all divisions have information on key dates and deadlines, feature articles and topics for dedicated sections at their fingertips—including special editions like the landmark commemorative issue created to celebrate the organization’s 90th year in business. Supplementing the calendar, each issue of the Trader includes calls to action, inviting employees to submit stories—which has enhanced company engagement.

TRADER FEATURES

Teasers regularly drive readers to the intranet, where visitors can access podcast series that point interested listeners to the site for the full interviews (see the sidebar for podcast tips), and additional feature articles, announcements and press coverage that are abbreviated in the newsletter run in full on WEconnect.

And, to educate employees on how to snap newsletter-worthy images, Peppercom also created a “Photo 101” document for reference. It has come in handy for the “WEfaces corner,” where employee “M&A” activity is documented with wedding and newborn photos.

HISTORICAL REFERENCE

While WEfaces focuses on the future, the program also launched a new series that peeks into the past: “Into the Archives” aims to keep the company’s history alive by providing a forum for reprinting decades-old Trader stories, such as “W.S. Allen Reports on Japan Mission, December 1947.” For the 90-year anniversary issue, another inventive initiative was to locate and interview retired leaders from different divisions for their unique perspectives on the anniversary.

But still, the issue wasn’t just about looking back. The CEO, John P. Thacher, had a vision of “let’s be proud, but we must be thinking of what’s ahead,” says Barlow. The commemorative issue did have a unique feature that helped look back at Wilbur-Ellis’ history: an interactive timeline that appeared on the Web site, with a gatefold in the print issue. “But there was also a ‘March to 100’ component that looked ahead,” says Jason Dodd, senior director of creative services at H2O, a division of Peppercom.

DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION

Each issue is printed and mailed company-wide, the new HTML version with page-turn technology is distributed electronically and key content is syndicated strategically online.

The biggest project challenge? Wilbur-Ellis is a tradition-filled company, and the changes didn’t sit well with everyone.

“I think anytime you change something, there always will be people who say ‘I like the old one,’” says Dodd. “We were ready for that.” Gharib confirms that the digital version wasn’t widely accepted by senior management at first. “But we’re hiring a lot of young people, and they like the digital platform,” she says.

POWER OF THE NARRATIVE

Peppercom has walked a fine line between preserving the authenticity of the Trader and keeping it current. It’s a strategy, says Gharib, that has dramatically improved the performance of the newsletter, increased interactions with the company intranet and enhanced global company communications. During this process of renewal from 2011 on, the WilCon Trader has itself come to be highly valued. Anecdotal evidence finds that employees look forward to contributing to the publication, and they look forward to receiving it.

In fact, an unexpectedly broken podcast link in one 2011 issue had 200 employees generating trouble tickets to the company’s IT department within minutes of its distribution.

What’s down the line for the Trader? Barlow says the goal is to more closely integrate the publication with the intranet.

Dodd says that this year they are working with IT on developing robust analytics for the Trader, as well as surveys that will measure employee preferences regarding the publication.

“We bring new ideas to the table each quarter,” says Dodd. The key, he says, is to find the tactics that help accentuate the Trader’s value.

As a result of the transformation efforts, the homegrown newsletter is thriving in modern and inclusive ways to record the legacy of the company as it unfolds. PRN

CONTACT:

Ann Barlow, abarlow@peppercom.com; Sandra Gharib, sgharib@wilburellis.com; Jason Dodd, jdodd@peppercom.com; Dan Lyons, dflyons@gmail.com.




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About Scott Van Camp

Scott Van Camp is editor of PR News, an executive-level, reader-supported publication that helps enhance the business impact of PR. Scott has a rich background in both journalism and PR/marketing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer/editor at various consumer and trade publications. Scott was with VNU Business Publications for five years, including stints as managing editor at IQ News and Technology Marketing magazines and senior editor at Brandweek. In the PR/marketing sphere, he has served as corporate communications manager at MarketBridge, a marketing and sales consultancy, and as editorial director for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council. While at the Council, Scott led several high-profile marketing research projects. He has also operated his own communications and media consulting firm, SVC Communications.



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