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How to Develop An Approval Process That Doesn't Drive You Nuts

By Ann Wylie

Originally Posted

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 in Columbia Journalism Review

No doubt about it: The worst part of the corporate communications 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 bad approval process can stall production, garble your carefully crafted copy, and turn you from a professional communicator into a pleading, whining comma jockey. You don't win the approval process war comma by comma. If you're begging for authority, article by article, to choose whether "that" or "which" is the right word to use in the fourth paragraph, you've already lost. In fact, the only way to win the war is for the communication group to own the approval process. How to fix it? My 13-step system for taking control of the approval process is too lengthy to cover here. But here are three ways to start running the approval process so it doesn't run you:

  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, 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 to be faxed back. This makes indiscriminate revising difficult for the reviewer. However you deliver, the point is this: You want your content experts to mark up your copy with a pen, on paper, not slash it to pieces on screen.

  3. Regain control of the approval process When I was at Hallmark, communication leaders did something I've never seen any other group accomplish: They took back the approval process. Reviewers were invited to make factual changes -- but they didn't get to make creative or communication decisions. They reviewed our copy once, but not during each stage of the writing, editing, and layout processes. And they met deadlines: Our reviewers knew that we would assume that no response meant "no problem" and proceed with production. That approach made it possible for us communicators to produce better communications and to get them out faster -- thereby delivering more value to the organization. If you're serious about your profession, you must take action on the approval process. After all, your work will never be better than the copy "they" approve. Copyright © 2002 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved. Want more ideas for regaining control of the approval process? Get your hands on Ann’s "How to Develop an Approval Process That Doesn't Drive You Nuts" handbook, sign up for Ann’s two-day Master Class, and subscribe to Ann's free email newsletter.


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