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Successful benefits communication programs are built on simple, personalized information that keeps the audience in mind.

That's the consensus of the 14 judges of the 1997 Business Insurance Employee Benefits Communication Awards competition.

But the judges said making the connection with the employee is only part of the communication process. It's important to evaluate programs based on how actively they participate in making benefit decisions.

"It's a really difficult job to communicate something that is complicated for most people," said judge Christopher Finn, senior vp and account director for New York-based Citigate Albert Frank, an advertising and public relations agency specializing in business-to-business communications and financial services. "There's a certain anxiety" that they're not making the right decisions. Part of the employer's task, he said, is to convey benefits as "not a burden, but what it is. . .a blessing."

Nancy McAdams, customer communications manager for Warren, N.J.-based Chubb & Son Inc., said it is one thing to boast about the benefits and another to help the employee maximize them. "The benefits package plays such a significant role, maybe as much as 30% of an employee's total compensation," said Ms. McAdams, another judge. "Companies are extremely proud of what they think the benefits components are."

Employers want to fill the need for thorough information, but workers don't want to be overwhelmed with large volumes of dry material.

"In our zeal to communicate with employees, we sometimes overload them with information that is very technical," said Shelley Karins, vp and creative director for Creative Insurance Marketing of Red Bank, N.J.

The judges applauded communications that included less jargon without taking on a demeaning approach.

Sheila Flood, benefits administrator for insurer GEICO in Washington, said finding "the appropriate balance of verbiage and graphics was important."

Fred Burns, vp-human resources for Capital One Services Inc. in Glen Allen, Va, said, "I want people to be less confused and more empowered." Assessing the entries, he saw many creative programs "responding to the needs" of diverse workplaces.

Other judges for BI's 25th annual EBC Awards competition were:

Lyn Siep, manager of employee benefits communication for The Boeing Co. in Seattle.

Richard Chesnik, vp of benefits and employment law for White Consolidated Industries Inc. in Cleveland.

Marty DuRall, director of human resources for service lines and clinical support of St. Vincent Hospital and Health Services in Indianapolis.

Jeff Reisman, executive producer for Crain Communications Inc. in New York.

Cheryl Flynn, corporate vp of compensation and benefits for LSG/Lufthansa Service-SKY Chefs Inc. in Arlington, Texas.

Bernard Knobbe, director of employee benefits for Morton International in Chicago.

Aldy Duffield, manager of benefits programs for Oracle Systems Corp. in Redwood Shores, Calif.

Judy Hoffman, manager of benefits planning and communications for Ralston Purina Co. in St. Louis.

Belinda Bewkes, manager of benefit plan development for Texaco Inc. in White Plains, N.Y.

In the 25 years BI has conducted the competition, the entries have served as a barometer of communications developments. Entries have ranged "from 16-millimeter filmstrips" in the '70s to "running communications programs off of the Internet" in the '90s, said Ronnie Drachman, director of communications for BI.

Developments in content and technology changed the entry categories, responding to the growth of company newsletters, booklets, enrollment packages, Intranet and Internet programs and other special projects. Ms. Drachman said despite today's high-technology communications capabilities, print communication probably still is the most dominant form.

Entries were judged on objectives, strategy, content, presentation and effectiveness.

A luncheon honoring EBC Awards winners will be held today at the Grand Hyatt in New York.