Getting great results from your communications work is often contingent on timing. It needs to get out the door or online quickly to be relevant.
But a painful review and approval process can cripple your creative work, no matter how good it is.
We’ve all been there . . .
- You missed a great opportunity to comment on breaking news and get your organization quoted in a major paper, because you couldn’t get the talking points approved in time and that news cycle is now over.
- Endless wordsmithing of the appeal letter means that it’s going out several weeks late, and now it’s hitting at the same time you are supposed to be marketing a fundraising event instead.
- You had the perfect holiday story lined up, but program staff wavered about whether the subject of the story was really the best client to highlight. Now the holiday has come and gone, and the story lacks the same emotional punch.
Creating a standard review and approval process – and having the authority or sheer force of will to hold people to it – can go a long way in avoiding these situations.
After all, your communications will be stronger if they are produced in a collaborative way. But that collaboration demands a process with firm ground rules.
Just how complicated that process should be will depend on the type of content you creating, how many people internally have a role to play with that content, and how much decisionmaking has been entrusted to you.
Here’s a menu of elements that you might want to include in your own review and approval process.
Use a Creative Brief to Get Buy-In at the Start. Start by discussing upfront and reaching agreement on what the content needs to accomplish. Here are the questions we recommend you answer in a creative brief.
Agree on a Limited Number of Review Rounds. Talk about what’s reasonable before you start and make sure people understand how many times they get to see it and which round or cycle you are on. You might label a draft “Review Round 2 of 3” for example.
Discuss Decision-Making Order to Avoid Bomb Throwing. Those last-minute great ideas and second-guessing at the end of the process can blow up your entire project. Be clear about what’s going to be decided and when, and discourage backtracking. You can even tie these decisions to your review rounds. Make sure that people understand where you are in the process and at what stage their input is appropriate, and when it’s simply too late. This can be difficult with an executive director who only wants sign-off at the end, for example. It’s best to provide updates or check-ins as you go along to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Assign and Limit Who Reviews for What. Not everyone in the office should get carte blanche editing rights. For example, you might tell your program staff to edit primarily for substance, but that you won’t feel obligated to accept their wordsmithing. You might ask your executive director to edit for tone, and to trust that that program staff have the factual substance covered. You might ask another communications team member to proofread only for grammar and typos.
Set Reasonable Turn-Around Times and Hold People to Them. The default should be that if someone doesn’t meet a review deadline, the process moves on without their comments. Of course, things come up and you may occasionally need to push deadlines, but that should be the exception to the rule, not the standard procedure. If getting their feedback into a document is important to them, they need to make time to participate in the process, including meeting deadlines.
Agree on What’s Good Enough. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Decide ahead of time which criteria are most important and in what order. For example, “typo-free” may be more important than “fast and timely,” but “fast and timely” may be more important that including a great level of detail or using the absolute best example possible.
Save the Polishing Until the End. It makes no sense to labor over word choices, the order of different sentences, and the finer points of grammar and punctuation until the heart (the substance) and soul (the tone) of the piece are right. With the big bones in place, you can then noodle around with the smaller decisions, assuming you still have room in your timeline.
Identify the Final Decisionmaker. It’s natural for you to receive lots of comments, and for those comments to be in conflict. We all know the perils of writing and designing by committee. Ultimately, one person needs to make the final decisions, using the creative brief as a guide. Everyone else should agree to disagree.
Who that person is should vary from project to project. It doesn’t always need to be the person with the biggest title – they often don’t have time to resolve these disputes! Who has the most invested in the success of the piece, or who will be using it the most, or who has the most expertise? Those questions, more than job title, will often lead you to your final decisionmaker.
Share the Final Product with Anyone Who Touched It. Don’t forget to let everyone who was involved in the creation see the final result. This is a great time to publicly praise your co-workers’ special contributions or compliance with the process.
Reality Check Your Process and Adjust as Needed. All of this may look great on paper, but human beings have a way of being difficult and complicated sometimes. Talk honestly about what worked and what didn’t and make adjustments where you can.
Take this list to your next staff meeting and talk about applying some of these items to an upcoming project. Which ones will work for your organization and which won’t? What else would you add to streamline your review process?