Bringing a Newsletter into the 21st Century

In March of 2012, Katie Torrence, the co-Community Liaison Office Coordinator at US Embassy Brasilia, happened across the Kalemegdan Khronicle, a blog run by the Belgrade CLO. Katie contacted the Belgrade CLO for advice on her excellent online resource, and approached Morgan Loosli, the Brasilia embassy newsletter editor at the time, regarding setting up a similar blog at post. Morgan was all for the project, and with her background in website design, had a basic “beta” blog set up in short order.

After consulting with the Regional Security Officer, Katie, her co-CLO Rebecca Singleton, and Morgan made the blog publicly available. The RSO was primarily concerned with advertising embassy events in advance and having photographs, especially of children, on the blog. The simple solution to this was to password-protect make those types of posts.

The Papagaio was launched in April, 2012, and readership now includes most of the diplomatic community of Brasilia as well as other English speaking expats, and teachers from the American School of Brasilia. Such a wide readership has presented problems, which I will address below, but the benefits have far outweighed them. Having a one-stop online resource that we can point newcomers and potential bidders to has been invaluable. Instead of contacting us with every little question, anyone researching Brasilia as a post can go to the Papagaio, type their question into the search box, and chances are, the answer (or multiple answers) will pop up.

The Papagaio has become a comprehensive tool for navigating life in Brasilia. We offer information on jobs, schools, Brazilian laws and customs, local restaurants, volunteer opportunities, education opportunities, and much, much more. The blog is constantly growing; as new information comes into the CLO that might be of interest to the community, we put it in the Papagaio and tag it appropriately, so it’s easy to find in a search.

The CLO-run blog has brought together the wider diplomatic community. We allow other embassies to advertise their events and happenings, and that has enabled diplomats to reach out and build friendships from outside their own embassies. We also allow non-American diplomats to place classified ads on our blog, which are of interest to our own staff as well.

In order to keep the Papagaio visible within the community, we send out a mass email every Friday. The email is organized with categories (news, columns, school, advertisements, events, etc.), and each category has links below it to the articles which have been published that week. We are also able to highlight any deadlines, etc., for events and important news this way. The weekly email has been extremely important in getting people to read the Papagaio. On weeks when no email has gone out due to staff vacations, blog viewership has plummeted.

When I began as newsletter editor, a few months after new co-CLOs Heidi Inder and Liz Hilliard, we all sat down and talked about what was and was not working with having an online-only format for our embassy newsletter. We followed this discussion with an informal poll within the embassy community. The main complaint people had was that the online Papagaio was lacking in familiarity: it didn’t have a “community feel,” even though most people loved having it as a resource. The other complaint was that the password protected posts were a hassle; nobody could remember the passwords if they wanted to go back and read an earlier article.

We solved both of these problems by introducing a PDF-format newsletter that comes out once per month. The Periquito goes out only to US Embassy families, so we are able to include embassy-only events, photos, and “sensitive” information. We include Hails and Farewells, events and happenings at the American School, birth announcements, and special recognitions. The response to the monthly newsletter has been overwhelmingly positive as a companion to the Papagaio.

Although I did not create the Papagaio blog myself, I have created two personal blogs, and it is really easy to do. WordPress and Blogger are the two most commonly used free blog sites, and trust me when I say anyone can create a blog using these formats. I’m not exaggerating when I say I don’t even know how to turn on my TV (why are there four remotes?) Any time I have run into a problem, I just type it into the “help” box, and step-by-step instructions appear. Read more about how to start your own blog in the article “Build a Community Website with WordPress.”

We in the CLO office here at US Embassy Brasilia love having an online resource for our community. Updating or posting can be done in an instant, and we are able to constantly control what information we want the public to see. Advertisements can run for as long as they are useful. The Papagaio is a great tool for either researching or living in Brasilia in part because we welcome submissions from both inside and outside the mission. And just like that, we have entered the 21st century.

More Thoughts on Modern Newsletters

From Morgan Loosli, former newsletter editor US Embassy Brasilia and designer of the Papagaio website.
Embassy newsletter have two purposes: sharing news of interest and facilitating the buying and selling items within the embassy community. In many communities subscribers include large numbers of local employees and expats. This provides buyers with sellers and is a win-win situation. But the same newsletter also often contains information that needs to be contained within the embassy community.

An emailed PDF is out of your control the moment it is sent. Photos, phone numbers, names: all of the sensitive information that usually provokes concern is untraceable after that point. People are more comfortable with the idea of emailed newsletter than a blog because it is what they are used to, but in reality an emailed newsletter presents more security risks than a properly designed online version does.

A blog, on the other hand, can be made completely ‘private,’ requiring registration and logins. Individual viewing privileges can be revoked at any time. A CLO can see exactly who has viewed pages on the blog (or at least who has logged in to view it). The physical locations and IP addresses of blog viewers are visible to the blog author as well.
These privacy measures can be combined with a public blog: some posts can be password protected while others, such as classified ads, are made public. Individual posts, or even the entire blog, can be deleted at any time.

When Kate Torrence, Rebecca Singleton and I decided to make the switch to digital, I researched the privacy settings on various blog platforms as that was our primary concern regarding going online. Since the Papagaio has such a large non-American readership we wanted to keep most of the information publicly accessible without a requirement to register, but still keep some items behind a password.

WordPress ended up being the best fit for us, with the added advantage of offering a lot of customization options for advanced users. I come from a web design background, but WordPress is designed for amateur users. It does not require any knowledge of HTML, and there are lots of help files and videos to show you how to do anything you’d want to do on your site. All it takes is a little time getting to know the WordPress editing interface.

My advice for anyone considering taking their newsletter online:

  1. Take the time to figure out how to best organize the blog for your readers. Before the switch, I sent out a survey to the Papagaio readership asking for input on what part of the Papagaio was most useful to them, (classified ads, events, school information, etc.) and then used the results of the survey to design the blog.
  2. Before you launch the site, sit down with at least five different people and ask them to navigate the site while you watch and listen. See if they can find the ads, or ask them to find information about a school. Take notes and change anything that is difficult for people to navigate.
  3. When you launch, be patient with your readers. Some will not be happy with the change and need more help to transition. Offer group tutorials or telephone support for a couple of weeks.

This article originally appeared in the June, 2013 issue of our Global Link newsletter

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