Getting Along with Your Gatekeeper: How to Work with Communications Reviewers

A satirical article about working with reviewers of the Legal and HR ilk apparently hit home for a lot of communications pros, judging by the comments.

Let’s face it: anyone who serves as a gate rather than a conduit for communications is going to conjure up some ire from time to time. But, are reviewers such easy targets? Are they entirely to blame for uncomfortable review sessions? Do they always turn prosaic prose into tangled turns of lawyerly phrases?

I’ll be honest: my immediate inclination was to add a “Me, too!” kind of comment to that article. But, in all fairness, I’d answer each of those three questions above with a resounding “No.”

I’ve worked with reviewers for three decades in this industry – from the Legal, HR, Marketing, Regulatory, and Employee Assistance departments, to outside legal counsel and senior business unit leaders. While it’s true that communications reviews are more detailed and onerous than ever before, I find them invaluable, not simply for ensuring accuracy, but in improving my writing.

In my last job, especially, where the content was incredibly technical (yet needed to be explained in every day English) and highly regulated, our R&D, Legal and Regulatory reviewers kept each description and sentence honed to the core of its meaning. There is no wiggle room in the increasingly regulated health-care industry for language that isn’t exact. If I’m honest about what I try to do every day as a writer, I couldn’t describe it any better. And our reviewers helped me achieve that goal of being a clearer, more specific writer, even as they red-lined words and whole paragraphs.

In short, they’ve made me a better writer, one who demands more of my own skills. That’s a definite upside.

There are edit sessions that lean more to the downside. We’ve all been there (as the many comments attached to that article testify). But, in today’s – and tomorrow’s – communications environment, I don’t expect we’ll ever be without reviewers. How do we make these partnerships work so that we communicators don’t feel like we’re constantly bashing our heads against an immovable obstacle?

Here are a few thoughts on maintaining a good relationship with gatekeepers:

Have a known review process
Whether you’re just starting to work with reviewers or have had a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach for years because you all know each other, take the time together to establish a process and put it in writing. Having a known route for review and approval is crucial – even if the process differs slightly each time based on content and new subject matter experts. When things are running smoothly, this doesn’t seem as important; when an error occurs, it can be the only thing that guides your team to a solution and a way to prevent the same problem in the future.

A slightly different interpretation of the same topic: Let each reviewer know who else will provide reviews and, if you’ve got a new player in the mix, what area each person is responsible for, so that no one assumes that certain fact-checking areas are covered when they’re not.

Schedule enough time for reviews
Whether your review cycle involves concurrent reviews (with everyone providing feedback to you, the writer, to collate) or sequential, build a schedule that is fair and respectful of everyone’s workload. This includes yours, if you need time for a final polish before the communication goes live.

Five business days is common courtesy, though unlikely in today’s corporate world. Two-to-three days is fair (if the reviewers agree that’s enough time), however, if you find yourself continually sending out review requests with High Priority exclamation points on them, it’s time to revisit the review process and talk with the team about adjusting the timeline so that everyone has enough time to cover the content they’re responsible for.

Meet your deadline – and help everyone on your review team meet theirs
Showing respect for your colleagues means not shortchanging their review time because you deliver late. If one of your reviewers is consistently missing her or his deadline, bring the team together and show them the review cycle in the form of an MS Project plan, with each person as a linked dependency to the other people in the review process. Note how one weak link in the chain can create havoc for everyone downstream. More to the point, link the seniors leaders or company initiatives that are dependent on this communication and explain what delay means in business terms.

Create understanding for the role of Communications
Surprisingly, this can create tremendous confusion in the review process. Legal and HR reviewers typically see themselves as the safekeepers of corporate reputation and information. If you find yourself repeatedly frustrated by disagreements over what cannot and what can be shared in corporate communications, what you may have is a misunderstanding about the role of Communications. (Or your reviewing departments may have mandates that you’re unaware of because you never explicitly asked.)

It’s worth at least a process check to help your reviewer colleagues understand that communicators have the exact same mandate to protect the company’s reputation and proprietary information and that you follow this mandate to the letter. Getting agreement on a shared set of values can go a long way toward cementing understanding of and team spirit around the work.

Share the purpose of the communication
You don’t need to go to great lengths here, simply include in your cover email the corporate goal, initiative or business unit that the communication supports; list the key messages you want to get across to the audience; note whether the audience is internal, external or both; and itemize key facts that you and your sources feel are vital to making the communication substantive. Be up-front about your goals, and you’ll create a clear sense of why certain information is included.

Find compromises
If an especially descriptive section or paragraph that you feel absolutely must be included – in fact, if it’s the heart of your piece – is causing consternation among your reviewers, and they won’t budge, ask them to be as specific as possible about what can’t go in. Sometimes it will be a single word that’s causing alarm or a turn of phrase that’s setting their teeth on edge. In these cases, your willingness to remove the cause for concern and finesse the language will enable your reviewers to see how the section contributes to the goals for the communication and greenlight what used to be a sea of red ink with only a minor change.

Be prepared to double-check facts
As part of the team, it’s important to share the work and worth the effort to re-check something, especially if it comes back with a red line through it. That senior business leader may, on second viewing, be glad his 10-year outlook on the company’s stock price was removed or revised to something a little less crystal ball-like.

Acknowledge reviewer contributions – before publishing and after
Thank reviewers for their help and their time and include a bulleted list of the agreed-upon changes you’ve made to the piece. Wait a week after publishing and consolidate all of the audience feedback and share it with reviewers.

Never respond to public comments by blaming an error on a reviewer. Ever noticed author acknowledgements in books? Paraphrased, this is what most of them say: “The things that make this book helpful and easy to read were contributed by my reviewers; all errors are mine.”

Follow up on errors offline, one-on-one. It’s a generous and team-spirited approach and one that goes a long way toward creating a conducive long-term working relationship with your gatekeepers.What about your department? How have you created effective partnerships with your reviewers? What tips would you share with fellow communicators?