How to Navigate the Challenges of Vetting Content Within a Large Organization
Journalists looking to make the switch from a news organization to a corporation’s in-house PR shop will face a new set of job challenges. It’s valuable to know what those challenges are before making the leap.
Nowhere have I seen these challenges better explained than on the careers website of financial services corporation HSBC. The London-based company periodically posts job openings for an editor, and I appreciate the candor within the job description. In addition to duties and qualifications, it lists “major challenges” in five short paragraphs. I’ll boil them all down for you: vetting—getting content approved before it’s made public.
Here’s a key excerpt: “Understanding and delicacy is needed when dealing with HSBC staff and clients. Dealing with a number of stakeholders can result in a time-consuming process[,] which is fraught with bureaucratic challenges.”
Having worked as a newspaper reporter and an assistant communication director for an international non-profit, I’m well versed in the challenges so eloquently stated in the HSBC job description.
Here are seven tips I’ve learned or observed over the years on how to navigate the challenge of vetting content within a large organization.
1. Realize you now work in a supporting department, not as the main event. The pay in journalism wasn’t great, but it was fun getting to play with words, question authority and be part of a machine designed to crank out good stories efficiently. In your new job, your organization’s goal is to earn a profit by serving customers who want your products or services instead of a competitor’s (corporate) or to advance a cause (non-profit). Your department is not the main attraction. You will often need to vet content with multiple departments. Remember that your role is to serve executives, most of whom answer first to the CEO or board, not you.
2. Meet with the executive in person. You can minimize miscommunications by being present when an executive is vetting content—you might even go old school and take a hard copy to their office. The two of you being present during final editing ensures accuracy of both industry terms and editorial style. Neither of you are an expert on both. The executive will want to adjust an occasional phrase to make it more technically accurate, but in doing so, he might not follow the proper editorial style. When you are together, it’s easier to see his changes and make any needed stylistic adjustments to the changes while he sees you doing it. You wouldn’t want to make a stylistic change that unknowingly renders industry terms inaccurate.
3. Don’t get lazy. The following is an excuse for why vetted content isn’t coming back soon enough: “If I just email them, then the ball will be in their court. It won’t be my fault if I turn it in late. It’s on them.” No, it’s still on you. Your job isn’t to wait for people to respond to your emails—your job is to facilitate the publishing of content. Get out there and make it happen. Be pleasantly persistent. Another inadequate excuse for not getting out of your office: “They might be busy when I get there, and I’ll have to come back.” So get out of your office and find out. Besides, when you show up, this will soon earn you the reputation with the executives and their administrative assistants as being a “show-up” type of person. Executives and colleagues will come to think of you as reliable, and rightly so. Plus, you never know whom you might meet in the halls along the way that could help with networking on behalf of various projects and benefit your department.
4. Write “Draft” at the top, in BIG FONT. While most executives I’ve worked with over the years have been excellent, a few made the process more difficult than needed—both for themselves and for me. An unhelpful assumption you might encounter is that you’re bringing them content that is seconds away from being published. Big egos with this assumption might feel rushed or offended they weren’t sought earlier in the process. By writing “D R A F T” in big, bold letters at the top, you can subtly help mitigate any form of that misperception. You can refer to the “draft” citation, if needed.
5. Acknowledge you don’t have total editorial freedom anywhere, even in news. As the HSBC job description mentions, you’ll need to “balance a desire for objective analysis with a determination to present a positive image.” Also, “editorial freedom” may be limited by “compliance,” “cultural” and “political” sensitivities. It’s helpful to realize that every editorial job you’ve ever had or will have is also limited in certain ways. As a journalist, you were subject to the decisions of your editor and had to pitch story ideas and angles, not all of which were approved. You now have different politics to navigate while working as an in-house editorial writer. Politics is part of life—any time you get two people together there is politics. Deal with it. Develop your diplomacy skills and press on so you can make a valuable contribution to your new employer. Certainly you shouldn’t tolerate unethical practices or intolerable stress, but there are otherwise few hills worth dying on.
6. Suggest your employer implement a content management system (CMS). At the very least, you can use Google Drive or another freely available collaborative online solution. If your employer is big enough, it might help to implement a CMS that allows multiple parties to collaborate and edit content. For example, if a document must be approved by HR, Finance and Legal, an email is sent to each department’s representative who can then make trackable changes to the document. Even better, if someone isn’t meeting the deadline, another email is sent to them with a copy to their supervisor. Nice, huh? One thing I will caution though: the face-to-face interaction and understanding is limited when relying on a CMS. Even if you have a CMS, it may help once in a while to review documents in person so executives understand why their exact changes may not make the final cut. Precision is needed for both content and style.
7. Be humble. Acknowledge others were there first. Don’t come blazing into the organization and make it widely known how you’re going to be the one to shake things up by getting executives to vet content faster. Chances are that your PR department colleagues or bosses have been trying to do this for years, and the small gains they’ve made in approval times are wins for them. Don’t announce what you’re going to do; just try to do what you want to do, and see if you’re effective. If you indeed find a way to enhance efficiency: terrific. Just remember to go about this task with humility.
Acknowledging challenges and following these tips will help smooth your transition to an in-house PR department. I wish you well as you continue making a valuable contribution to your new company and are rewarded for the value you offer.
—Ansel Oliver is a manager for special products at SnappConner PR.