How to run the review process so it doesn’t run you
“Sign on a newspaper reporter’s desk: ‘The strongest desire is neither love nor hate. It is one person’s need to change another person’s copy.'”
— Gilbert Cranberg,
Columbia Journalism Review
When I worked at one company, I once had to have — no lie — 100 people review and approve an article I’d written for our employee annual report. (Lest you wonder, this was not the story where we revealed that the company was producing nuclear arms for sale to Iraq.) Needless to say, it took much longer for me to run the approval process on that story than to research, write and edit the piece in the first place.
I’m not alone.
My training business takes me across the United States, Canada and Europe, working in-house with corporate communicators who want to improve their copy, reach more readers with their press releases or make their websites clearer and more engaging. Wherever I go — from Boston to Brussels, Portland to Paris, Hollywood to Helsinki — communicators tell me the same thing:
The approval process drives them nuts.
No doubt about it, the worst part of the communication business is, in the words of Ragan Communications editor David Murray, “the grinding, gut-wrenching, soul-sapping approval process required to get a company to say anything at all.”
A flawed approval process can cost an organization time, talent, credibility, quality and money. I once worked with an organization that consistently took more than a year to approve a single product brochure. The result: months and months of lost or reduced sales.
Still, I wouldn’t want to live without an approval process. (I, for one, never want to spend a day giving a deposition because of something I wrote in a press release.)
So the goal isn’t to do away with the approval process. The goal is to come up with an approval process that does the job without driving you nuts. The long-term way to do that is to take back the approval process. That’s an approach that takes more than a single article to describe.
But, short term, here are four steps you can implement tomorrow for developing a process that works:
1. Rename it.
Why do we call it an approval process? “Approval process” suggests that we’re asking for approval — for permission, consent, authorization, say-so.
And we’re not. We’re asking for help.
So instead of asking your content experts to approve the copy, ask them for help. Ask them to review the story, to check for errors, to assure there are no inaccuracies.
Call it a review, a fact check or a technical verification.
That will change expectations and reduce the chances that Bob in accounting will use your copy to play out his fantasy that he’s red-pen-wielding Mrs. Robb, his third-grade English teacher, grading your paper.
2. Stop emailing Word docs.
In the short run, sending out digital copy makes your life easier. Punch “send,” and you’ve distributed the story to all the reviewers.
But in the long run, sending out digital copy makes your life harder. That’s because digital copy invites wholesale rewriting. (After all, armed with a screen full of text and the Highlight Changes tool, you’d hack away at the copy, too, wouldn’t you?)
Instead of emailing Word documents, try faxing, distributing via interoffice mail or emailing PDFs. This makes indiscriminate revising difficult for the reviewer.
You want your content experts to mark up your copy with a pen, on paper, not slash it to pieces on screen.
3. Push back.
Yesterday afternoon, I was coaching a writer whose lawyers had scraped all the demographic information out of a “Who’s our customer?” story. The resulting piece announced that their average customer was a . . . human . . . of some age or other, with or without income, who lived somewhere.
Me: “Why did they take the details out?”
She: “They don’t want it to fall into the hands of competitors.”
I pointed out that competitive secrets are really a marketing issue, not a legal one. The folks in marketing felt comfortable releasing the information; they had already approved the story. Given that, why were the lawyers concerned?
Now, there might have been a privacy issue or some other real legal problem with releasing those numbers. The point is, we should understand the legal — or other — counsel we’re given. If the lawyers think they’re protecting us from ourselves in issues outside their area of expertise, we need to know so we can decide what to do with their advice.
4. Make a difference.
Finally, here’s the best way to make sure you never have to grovel over commas again: Produce communications that make a difference.
If the powers-that-be see you as nothing more than a comma jockey, they won’t think twice before making changes. But once you start documenting the bottom-line benefits your communications are delivering to your organization it’s amazing how your executives and colleagues will stop worrying about whether you’re running the headlines in bold face or italics.
Become a real player, and the review process becomes a whole new game.