Why it’s a good idea to go special ops on your comms

special ops team

Over the years we’ve worked with quite a few organisations who have high levels of stakeholder involvement in all things marketing and editorial.

These stakeholders can include subject matter experts, marketers, senior leaders and a variety of other interested parties. And of course, in regulated industries, there are almost always legal and compliance professionals involved too.

All this means that when a marketer produces a new piece of collateral – a sales kit, for example – the number of people who get a say in how the sales kit is worded can be large.

In these situations, it’s not usual for a document to be shared with 10+ people for their feedback and comments. These people then send their comments back to the marketer, who either has to make sense of them herself – or pass them on to the copywriter. The marketer and copywriter rework the document to accommodate the comments.

The document is then recirculated at least once – and sometimes many times – for additional comment and feedback.

This approach is often seen as highly democratic, inclusive and thorough. After all, it seems to make sense to loop everyone into the process. But in our experience, over-inclusion can be problematic. We think that instead of involving everyone, organisations would benefit from taking a special ops approach.

Read about how to maintain document integrity

In a special ops team, a small number of highly trained specialists work to a very specific brief to get results in the most efficient ways possible.

It’s the direct opposite of how many sign-off approaches work. Instead of all players participating with the grace and technique of Liverpool Football Club, the process sometimes has more in common with the Atherstone Ball Game.

So why doesn’t the all-inclusive approach work? Here are just a few of the things that can go wrong with it:

Involving too many people burns resources

We don’t think we’ve ever seen a situation where an organisation has defined – ahead of the creation of written collateral – how many hours of feedback and amends it’s going to budget for.

If you compare this to something like beta testing new software, this is odd. With beta testing, best practice would be to budget for a maximum number of hours. It keeps project costs within budget – and there’s a sense that putting parameters around the amount of time taken focusses minds.

However, when it comes to feeding back on written communications, there’s often a sense that the task should simply be squeezed in amongst the rest of the stakeholder’s duties. The amount of time taken by stakeholders to take part in the sign-off process doesn’t generally feature in a project management plan – and isn’t costed out.

As a result, not only does sign-off burn up resources, it does it in an undocumented way – which can make it difficult to bring a case for streamlining or improvement.

You may also enjoy this post on communicating with stakeholders

It also burns goodwill

When stakeholders have to squeeze feedback on documents and collateral into their busy work schedules, they can begin to resent the time they spend on it. That, or they rush through – leaving incomplete comments.

When they receive all this feedback, colleagues in marketing or communications can begin to feel a little frazzled. Some of the comments are contradictory – so whose opinion should they follow? Who knew that the MD disliked that particular word and would prefer them not to use it? And why does Dave in compliance have to be so patronising? When the document has done another couple of rounds, the communications professionals don’t care any more. They just want to see the back of that document before they start the process all over again with the next one.

And it makes it harder to hit deadlines

When you have large numbers of people giving general feedback, timelines inevitably slip. Senior leaders are busy. Lawyers are busy. Everyone is busy. So it’s easy to forget or put off giving feedback – even when you know there’s a timeline. And when comments come in late – or right up to the deadline, it’s difficult to schedule time to input amends. Everything, inevitably, slips.

The role of the professional communicator can be undermined

Organisations across the world hire extremely skilled communications professionals. And then in a standard sign-off process, they invite their colleagues with technical skills that don’t involve communication to tell them where they’re getting it wrong.

In an ideal world, technical experts would only highlight instances of inaccuracy to their communications and marketing colleagues. However, what often happens is that sign-off is positioned almost as “marking”. So the professional role of communicators is undermined. They’re no longer seen as technical experts in their own right. And when this happens, their role can begin to be seen as a service to their colleagues in other teams.

This doesn’t help organisations to create great communications – because when everyone except the professional communicators are in charge of what the organisation says, then comms can become diluted and lacking strategic direction.

The results of over-inclusion can be lacklustre

If everyone gets to throw their two-penneth into the pot and expect to have it included, the focus of communications can easily turn away from customers and end users. And when the focus is on keeping everyone happy internally, communications can become a mess.  Communications should only ever prioritise the people you want to read or consume them.

Read more: Where does complexity come from?

And: How expertise can get in the way of clear understanding

So what does a special ops approach look like?

A special ops team’s purpose is to get a tricky task done efficiently and expertly. And to do this, it needs a super-focussed brief and a small, crack team.

A special ops sign-off team needs to be small. It needs to be well-briefed. It needs unwavering focus. And each member needs to take full and complete ownership of her role in the mission.

Here are some things to consider if you’re moving from an all-inclusive to a special ops approach:

Keep the team size to a minimum

Recruit the bare minimum number of subject matter experts. Have legal and compliance input only if strictly necessary.

Have protocols in place

Everyone in your special ops team must know what the rules of play are. They should only give feedback on accuracy or points of legality.

Deliver your own skillset – and let others deploy theirs

Everyone has words they prefer and words they don’t like. But your colleagues in comms know how to deploy words to get maximum effect. They should respect your know-how – and you should respect theirs.

Agree timescales and track time

Efficiency is important for business performance – so don’t let the hours spent on review and feedback slip by unaccounted for. It’s only when you have data like this that you’ll be able to review processes and further improve them.

Debrief for continuous improvement

When a project is complete, analyse the time invested and interrogate it. Could you learn anything that would allow you to be more efficient next time? Have you thanked and congratulated your colleagues when things have gone brilliantly?

Sign-off is important. Managed thoughtfully, it can improve productivity and morale. The opposite is also true. Which is why we think special ops is the way to go.

 Find out what we advise clients in our How to Give Feedback guide.