Channel Surfing: The Art of 'Push and Pull' Communications

April 2, 2018

On PRSA’s discussion forums, I’m always perplexed when I see communicators saying they want to stop pushing their newsletters by email, or replace email with social media, or replace their intranet with apps. These changes are never justified by the appropriateness of the channels to the content or the needs and preferences of their employees. In fact, they often say that employees’ behavior will have to change from waiting to be spoon-fed the news to making a habit of searching out information of their own volition. Good luck with that.

Radical changes in the mix of channels used for communicating with employees should happen only in response to survey research identifying which channels employees are currently relying on and which ones they would prefer to use — and these questions need to be asked separately for different major categories of content, not for “all company information.” That’s a stupid question I see asked on too many surveys that will get you stupid answers because no one wants the same channel for all types of information. Do you?

While results vary widely for different companies, and even different types of employees and locations at the same company, there are some trends for preferred push or pull channels on different topics based on survey research with my clients:

  • Email: Even though many employees say they receive too many badly written emails sent to the wrong people on irrelevant topics with too many CCs and “reply to all"s, email is usually among the top two preferred sources of information on topics where timeliness is a factor or some type of action is required. They don’t want to miss getting this information at the right time. This can include reminders of benefits enrollment deadlines, upcoming events, policy or process changes — or any information that is likely to show up in external mass media or direct customer communications. Employees hate being the last to know.
  • Newsletters: These are preferred for topics that they also don’t want to miss, but where timing is less of a factor and no immediate action needs to be taken. This can include information on customer satisfaction, competitors, industry trends, compliance issues, new products in development, benefits changes, financial results, etc. If you don’t want to email a full-blown newsletter, you still need to push out an email with at least the headlines and topic sentences of the stories so employees don’t miss something that’s relevant to them. All the details behind the stories can live on the intranet and be accessed by links in the newsletter. And remember, print newsletters are still your best bet for reaching employees who don’t work on computers all day.
  • Intranet: This is your searchable “pull” home for the detailed information that is not timely, but might need to be accessed at a moment’s notice when employees suddenly realize they need it (after first hearing about it by email or newsletter months earlier). Topics that employees like to find on the intranet for this reason would be the company strategy, financial results, benefits programs, information about other units or locations, recognition of employees or the company, policies, product specifications, etc.
  • Social media: Social media are hardly ever a preferred source of new information on any topic at any company. One reason is that it’s an opt-in pull channel. If you post breaking news on internal social media, only a few people will see it shortly after it’s released — unless new postings come through as alerts on email as well. Everyone else will first hear about the news as a rumor. While employees find their peers’ information to be highly credible, almost no one prefers other employees to be their first source of official company information. Social media are most preferred as a place for discussion of topics that were first communicated through push channels.
  • Senior leaders, either in person, by webcast or written communications: The topics they are most preferred on are limited to company direction/strategy, progress on goals, financial results and any major change initiatives.
  • Supervisors/managers, either one-on-one or in team meetings: For most categories of employees, supervisors are a credible and preferred source only on the few topics that directly touch employees’ jobs, such as how they can contribute to reaching company goals (but not the company goals themselves), how well employees are performing and how their compensation is determined. For employees in jobs with no access to any of the electronic channels above, they may have to rely on their supervisors as their only possible source, but they often would prefer to have other options because of the hit-or-miss competence of supervisors as communicators.
  • Video/podcasts: While employees like to watch videos on topics where visuals and action are helpful to understanding the information, these are rarely selected as one of the top two preferred sources on any surveyed topic. Videos and podcasts are a supplemental source when time is available; reading the same information is much faster than listening to it because they can skim over the sections that are less relevant or interesting.

We have a full toolkit of channels available to us. Let’s make sure we use them strategically, not necessarily in a way that’s most convenient for ourselves.

Angela Sinickas

Angela Sinickas is CEO of Sinickas Communications, Inc., an international management consultancy that researches and measures internal and external communication for organizations around the world, including 25 percent of the Fortune 100 largest global companies (


Shel Holtz says:

A terrific article, Angela, and I'm 99% in agreement with you. In some cases, though, employees don't know what they don't know. (Steve Jobs pointed out "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them" and Henry Ford said if he had asked, people would have said they want faster horses.) Take employee communication apps, for example (e.g., Dynamic Signal, SocialChorus, etc.). If you ask, employees will say they don't want them. Yet repeatedly, adoption and retention rates are very high. Having never used a channel like this (though they do for other kinds of news, hence the success of apps like Flipboard), they just can't envision what the experience would be. As it turns out, employees check these apps at the same time of day they check their other news apps -- even on weekends!

April 5, 2018

Angela D. Sinickas, ABC says:

Totally agree, Shel, that employees don't always know how something new will work for them. But again, research is the answer. I recommend putting together focus groups/study groups where you first explain a potential new communication tool and let participants use it before having them talk about its potential value to them or obstacles that would need to be addressed. As we've seen with electronic communications in our personal lives, we layer on additional new tools and still rely on the older ones for different reasons. We don't drop one tool every time we add a new tool, like having to take clothes to Goodwill before finding enough room in the closet for new purchases. The impetus for my article was frustration with communicators who are determined to demolish old tools that serve very specific purposes and replace them with new tools that don't or can't serve all the same purposes. E.g., I have clients whose employee social media or apps receive very high ratings for overall usage and usefulness, but they're still not selected as the top preferred source for getting many types of corporate information.

April 6, 2018

Adam Hibbert says:

Sound points, Angela, a useful counterweight to the managerial urge to fiddle with the technical aspects of the job. We all need to remind ourselves occasionally that channels are a technical way to think about communicative relationships, between source and recipient. So much of what matters to a given message's value is bound up, in organisations, in who told you, and when. Communicators should always understand what the cultural norms are and how they load a message, dependent on source and timing, with the specific context of the pecking order we're in.

April 16, 2018

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