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The art of corporate communications - why Axios HQ keeps it brief, but smart

Alyx MacQueen Profile picture for user alex_lee May 24, 2024
Internal communications is its own art form. Axios HQ claims to be the editor over your shoulder that makes sure you don't lose your audience. Can it be the red pen that cuts through the wordy waffle?


In the land of internal comms, you rarely hear someone complain that a message was communicated too clearly. Much analysis has been done on the best way to get key messages across. Images pop up on LinkedIn with visual cues in ever-decreasing font to demonstrate how readers consume information.

While organizations and devolved teams are regularly responsible for keeping staff in the loop, the art of reaching everyone with timely and digestible information can still be elusive. This in turn can lead to frustrations, mixed results or disenfranchised employees. The days of memos in pigeon-holes may have gone the way of the dodo, but there are still plenty of employees who aren’t tethered to a computer or watching their email like a hawk.

I talked about some of the challenges of internal communications with Jordan Zaslav, Chief Operating Officer at Axios HQ. After training as an engineer, he spent time at companies including JP Morgan and Twitter before joining the organization. During that time, media consumption continued to change as formats shifted to try and capture the attention of modern consumers and get their message across in a short time – and Axios had done a lot of research into the matter.

Smart, but brief

The research by Axios led to the development of “Smart Brevity”, designed to streamline internal communications, making them more effective and engaging. The company initially experimented with machine learning to create a tool that could mimic the editing expertise of Axios's editors. Then came generative AI, which Zaslav refers to as  “a game-changer”. 

Zaslav explained that while media formats were changing, workplace messages didn’t evolve at the same rate:

Axios was really founded around this idea of the way that consumers were consuming information has massively changed. People were creating content and news, including media organizations, yet corporations hadn't changed the way they communicate to their employees in a couple of decades.

We know, for example, that 80% of people don't read past the first 250 words. There's two ways you can look at that piece of information. You can continue to follow the style of traditional media and put the key message at the end to really wow them. But the reality is, most people aren't making it to the end. If you want to serve your reader, you should put the key points and all the context they need in the first 250 words and then earn their attention to keep reading.

(Reader, congratulations if you’ve stuck with me this far.)

Changing the channel

The shift to hybrid work has underscored the need for effective communication channels – with some companies using internal comms as the reason to get people back into the office. SharePoint, Slack, Teams, the dreaded Whatsapp business chat or another online place to share information, the options are endless – but getting staff to engage with them is another matter. Or there’s the “spray and pray” method in the hope that by putting the same information everywhere, the message will get through. 

According to Zaslav, the move to hybrid work has put “more of a strain than ever before on the communications infrastructure of companies” with some feeling the loss of a natural watercooler vibe. The number one issue seen by Axios HQ from teams, leaders, and CEOs falls at the ”intersection of culture, communications, and mission”.

This, combined with the progression of generative AI led to the launch of “Smart Brevity guidance”, built around four principles: 

1. Plan according to the needs of employees/stakeholders. 

2. Compose updates that are distilled as much as possible, but smart and specific. 

3. Aligned to one source of truth so the right actions can be taken. 

4. Measure, track and optimize.

The introduction of generative AI also adds to the editorial experience provided by Axios HQ in-house staff – providing the potential to categorize messages for different audiences, measure engagement levels and adapt for different departments over time. In the end, Zaslav says that the customers are the ones that have helped to push the boundaries of what can be achieved.

Among the tools in Axios HQ’s offering are customizable templates, AI-brainstorming tools, and the ‘Smart Brevity’ guidance that acts like an editor on your shoulder - rating content and recommending improvements to either make it more concise, understandable or conversational. Depending on your preferences, it can either make suggestions, or rewrite the content to distill it for you so that it is approachable, quick, and simple to scan in a realistic amount of time.

One company to benefit from this approach was American Airlines, which used Axios HQ to centralize the planning, writing, sending, and tracking for more than 20 internal email communications, including a daily newsletter to all team members, many of whom are literally on the move. This resulted in a 90% open rate among its 100,000 employees, ensuring critical information reached employees consistently. 

Having a single platform where all stakeholders could write, format, review, revise, approve, and send each edition allowed a more collaborative approach. It was also used to consolidate updates from calls, spreadsheets, Teams, documents, emails, and more.

Zaslav emphasized that keeping it simple but smart was the key:

Our data says that this complicated world of widgets and toys for comms people actually doesn't serve employees. You don't want to flood them. But you can say, ‘Hey, the things you really need to know, you're gonna get them twice a week in your inbox and an email is gonna have 10 things - I need you to really read that.’ Everything else, all that static information lives in the intranet, but email is the lowest friction place.

I know we all wish email could do 100 things, but the thing that it does do is reach the most people in your company. It's a bit of a stubborn old protocol, but we've fallen back in love with email, because strategically I think it's the best way for these one-to-many communications to reach everybody. When you talk about the one place you need to go, I think having that be a channel that pushes and in a format that everybody can receive it is most important. That push is the fundamental starting block for any communication strategy.

Pushing the right things

Even when there’s critical information being shared, it can be challenging to the case for a different way of communicating. An example of this was from working with a police department that realized the high stakes of internal communication when policy updates directly impacted officer behavior and public safety. Zaslav’s advice was to go back to one simple question – why do we communicate?:

We asked, what do you mean when you share policy updates with officers? What if you just stopped doing that? If officers don't know the latest changes in policy, someone could get hurt. The officer could get hurt. It's not just about sharing it - or getting views - but why are we doing this? When you have clarity about that, it helps everyone in the company take communication more seriously and act intentionally.

My take

There are many who think nothing can beat a face to face briefing - watching the news on the television is often preferable to reading it in a newspaper. But face-to-face briefings are much more difficult for corporate communicators and senior managers these days due to their workforce being spread around the world in different time zones, or working from home or in a hybrid way. Some corporations hold these briefings via Teams or other channels, with the chance for those present or watching online to comment ‘live’. But if we really want to convey detailed information, we need to offer the audience a chance to read it in detail, perhaps more than once, before they come up with any questions or comments they may have.

The capability to review key messages, understand what’s working and build engagement helps to align those messages to the company’s values and goals. From crisis communications to change management updates, having a strategic overview is an essential part of the big picture. Communication is never just conveying one message at a time. Nor is it just one-way. Having a channel that is trusted as the source for need-to-know information helps to establish trust – but it’s also something of a holy grail quest, especially for the foghorns who claim to “love communications” but are always on transmit, never receive. 

However, pulling content from a range of sources and working through a longer approvals process could have its drawbacks depending on the number of people involved in the process. For it to really work, it's not just the tools but the house that needs to be in order.

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