The late Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, was a woman of outstanding grit and courage. Until her 40s, she lived a retiring life as the wife of a prominent publisher (who inherited the position from her father). But everything changed in 1963, when her husband committed suicide and Katharine found herself thrust into the job of publishing a newspaper that would soon expose misdeeds at the highest level of U.S. government.
But besides being at the center of the Watergate storm, Katharine was remarkable in many other ways. She had implicit trust in her paper’s writers and editors, believing in the journalistic virtues of pursuing fairness, hunting down unvarnished facts, and writing with honesty. In fact, it is said that all she would ask a journalist before going to press on the most volatile of scoops was, “Are you sure you’re right?”
In the corporate world today, you rarely see that kind of implicit trust of company writers, editors, or any other members of the corporate communications team. For better or worse, most of the stuff we print and post goes through an approval process so Byzantine you’re probably just now getting all the sign-offs for your company president’s 2001 New Year’s message.
True, in the best of all possible worlds we’d be cocky Woodwards and Bernsteins pounding out world-shaking stories fed to us in the parking garage by an informant named Deep Throat. But those of us whose career paths veered toward business communications must deal with the approval cycle. The trick is to manage the process.
If your approval process isn’t working for you, step back and evaluate it for bottlenecks that may be causing unnecessary breakdowns:
- Deadlines. Every communications person agonizes over how to politely suggest to the powers above that their deadlines are important. I recommend shying away from, “If I don’t hear from you by 1500 hours, this document gets posted, Bucko!” (Bucko is a term I usually try to avoid.) However, I wouldn’t recommend suffering in silence and watching the digital clock on your computer tick away as your precious, timely content grows moldy. Instead, build in some extra time for responses from the high-ranking corporate officers. If that’s not possible, try for the face-to-face meeting. Yes, it’s nerve-racking watching your copy get red-lined in front of you — or hearing the words, “Who wrote this dreck?” as you sit and squirm — but you’ll get your copy approved on time.
- Sign-offs. Nothing says job security like a file of sign-offs from the CEO and other decision makers. That includes your legal department if the piece includes information on dicey issues such as mergers, layoffs, management changes, or legal actions.
- Wanna-be English teachers and self-appointed corporate poet laureates. Watch out for those who want to turn your phrases around and hopelessly mangle them. Always let these folks know that you are looking for approval of factual content only. If they send back copy that bleeds with red lines, try providing some education on AP style and other elements of good writing. If presented tactfully, you’ll usually make some headway. Yes, some content management programs give permission to alter only certain parts of the document. This helps ensure consistency, especially of elements that are essential to brand communications. However, there are always ways to get around any system and those who are truly insistent on their changes will make themselves known.
Some communications people have a strategy they don’t always reveal, but it’s very effective. The October 2001 edition of Corporate Writer and Editor suggests finding the one person in the organization with perfect editing and proofreading skills. It could be an executive assistant, a vice president, or just a longtime employee who’s known and trusted. Let it be known that this person has given your copy the seal of approval, and chances are you’ll sail right through.
Of course, we could all hope to be in the situation of a Washington Post reporter 30 years ago. But since Katharine is no longer at the helm, we have to find a way to get our jobs accomplished in a more cautious, doubting world. The best advice is to give ’em copy that’s flawless. After all, that’s what you want them to expect from you.
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