Business pays lots of attention to communication with customers and shareholders. Advertising Age reported $24.38 billion was spent in 2006 on ads, marketing services and public relations. Add billions more for Web sites, e-mails, and face-to-face meetings, and pretty soon you're talking serious money.

But there's more to effective business communication than buying ads to reach customers. Businesses are realizing that they need multiple layers of communication to keep everybody in the loop. That includes external communication with customers, suppliers, professional service providers, distributors, and resellers. But it also includes internal communications.

We've all heard that Federal officials sometimes learn about government operations by watching CNN. Don't let your valued employees be the last to know. Of course, some information is sensitive, proprietary or confidential. That's not what we're talking about communicating here. Nor are we talking about the easy stuff - company picnics, sales wins and other good news.

Effective communications come in many forms - a note pinned to the wall at the coffee maker, a broadcast e-mail, a meeting to share news and get feedback. Some of the best communications come immediately after a crisis. At a recent meeting of company presidents, one noted she sent an e-mail to staff following a potentially explosive incident at a company facility. In addition to describing what happened, the e-mail included the actions of staff and the reasons for them. Her e-mail guaranteed that everybody got an accurate account of the incident and that staff received credit for acting quickly and effectively. It also provided a sound plan for future response and a forum for feedback.

Most internal communications aren't incident-based. They are regularly scheduled notes to groups within your business or to all employees. They keep everybody "singing off the same song sheet," boosting trust and insight into daily and strategic decisions.

Finally, there are communications among employees - supervisors, staff, owners. Many of these are verbal. Keep them short, keep them smart, keep them positive. More damage can be done in a 30-second conversation than a 30-page report. Conversely, small conflicts can be kept small through skilled communication.

One caution about both internal and external communications. Even if you're comfortable with your writing skills, have somebody check your work. We all write things that others interpret differently than we intended. Running it by a colleague may help keep it off the front page of the morning paper.

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Art Hill is VP of economic development and director of Small Business Development Centers at Blue Mountain Community College. He can be reached at (888) 441-7232 or through ahill@bluecc.edu.

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