Is your editorial policy dead, or alive?

Published by in Opinion on April 28th, 2012

Outgoing chair of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, maintains that the BBC editorial policy is “one of the most important documents the BBC publishes”.

I concur.  In fact, I think all businesses publishing corporate information for employees or customers, whatever the channel, should have robust editorial standards in place.

Most of us probably do have some sort of guidelines in place.  But, if you are anything like me, you haven’t looked at the policy since it was signed off because you’ve been too busy chasing copy or liaising with the printers and developers.

This must change.  The role and importance of the editorial policy has shifted.  Not least because the boundaries between the corporate and public domains have been obliterated.

A policy used to be about the purpose of the publication, best practice, standards and principles with a substantial section on the style sheet and, more recently, tone of voice.  A good start, but also reflect on these issues:

  • Marketing considerations – such as the brand and the wider corporate communications effort
  • Legal and compliance – particularly with respect to libel, copyright and data protection
  • Responsibility – content decisions, clear signoff procedures and an upward referral process (An Editorial Board, for example, would ensure a cohesive, consistent and considered communication effort.)
  • Other protocols – such as social media, competition and moderation guidelines

Update your standards.  You need them to protect your business.

Don’t you love a good story?

It was a perfect morning in the most beautiful city in the world and, to top it all, the first day of my first “proper” job.

Fresh out of college, I was thrilled to have landed a two-week contract at a large insurance company.  I was hoping to make a good impression, maybe even secure a permanent contract, and had splurged on a new pair of white court shoes to really knock their socks off (yeah, I know, but it was 1990!).

I arrived a little early and took a minute to study the fine-looking building rising majestically from the cobblestones on Greenmarket Square, in the heart of Cape Town.

I had been briefed by the agency that the head office management team worked on the top floor of the building.   The 7th floor also housed the main reception and switchboard for the company.  I was going to meet Zen Ellis, an exacting receptionist, who would be training me for two days, before going on annual leave.

What an opportunity!  I pushed down the excitement as the sliding doors opened to reveal the stark white marble entrance. There were two lifts on my left and the Head of Security, Patrick Webb, manned the security desk situated against the wall on my right.  I walked over to the desk, introduced myself to Patrick and signed in.   Greeting him with a smile, I turned towards the lifts and pressed the button.

At that moment there was a flurry at the door.  A short, rotund man entered the building carrying a black briefcase.  His head was lowered and he walked swiftly towards me.  There was a loud “ping” and the lift doors nearest me slid open. Patrick leapt out from behind the security desk and, almost elbowing me and the other staff and visitors out of the way, held open the lift door with one arm and ushered the man in with the other.  “Good morning Mr Crank,” he said in a bright voice.  There was a grunt from the recesses of the lift while the doors were closing, but still no sign of the whites of his eyes.

“Sorry.”  Patrick addressed the assembled minions generally.  “Mr Crank likes having the lift to himself.  He doesn’t like talking to anyone.”

It seemed that the CEO had arrived at his office for the day.

In the pregnant pause that followed, I admit to a brief, albeit misguided, feeling of awe.  And, while I didn’t understand the implications of what had happened at that moment, I did realise the power of Mr Cranks little ritual.  There wasn’t one member of staff in the company who would get into the same lift as the CEO.  Including me.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you this not-so-pretty story?  Not unexpectedly, Mr Crank and his fossilised values only lasted seven years before the company was disbanded, sold, and the doors closed for business.

But, just think about the first story you were told by a new colleague when you joined your company.

We all know the day-to-day actions of employees demonstrate and expose a company’s culture and values.  But do we collect these examples, sift through them, and write them down? Do we consider what they say about the company?

Communicated effectively, these stories and anecdotes can prove to be exceptionally powerful communication tools and reinforce the fabric of your brand, to both staff and customers.  So, capture them.  Everyone loves a good story.


Out with spin!

I am sometimes asked by clients to write copy that simply isn’t true, or to present a bad situation in a positive light.

While it could be argued that this is the purpose of my job as a copywriter (!), I can’t help but feel that it is just plain wrong.

Apart from the fact that I have to choose between sticking to my principles, and earning my keep, there is something bigger and stronger holding me back.  And it is this:  Communication based on spin never does its job.

We are not dumb sheep!  We’re smart and discerning.  In fact, it is probably downright impossible to hoodwink us.  Don’t forget, we are exposed to the media’s bias on a daily basis; companies hiding bad management are as common as colds in winter; and the relentless efforts of unscrupulous retailers to move their stock have wised us up to the fact that if something sounds too good to be true, it isn’t (true, that is!).

By making our products and services or our performance smell like roses when it plainly doesn’t, all we’re doing is violating the trust of our key audiences.  And, because there is such a plethora of choice available to disgruntled stakeholders, it is very hard to claw back the lost ground.

In my view, there is only one path to travel.  The Honesty Road.  It’s not a big decision to make.  It’s the right decision.  The only decision, if you want to be in business in the long term.

Come to think of it, how hard is it to leave out the testimonials section on your website until you have some genuine feedback from customers?  Or, to tell your staff you’ve made some bad decisions and you need their help to get out of trouble?

Communication based on honesty is much more likely to hit home with your audience and move them to action.


Don’t brief your copywriter

You want a copywriter to do some work for you.  You’ve even gone so far as to phone a couple and ask them about their availability.

But then you realise that before they can start, you will have to brief them.  Somehow explain exactly what you want them to do.  Ho Hum.

  • Perhaps you haven’t briefed a copywriter before?  (It’s a no-brainer. You’ve written copy yourself.)
  • Maybe you don’t consider it your area of expertise?  (Trust me; you do know your customers.)
  • You think you might get it wrong?  (You can’t possibly fail.)
  • You anticipate it’s going to take you weeks to prepare? (At the most an hour, probably less.)
  • Getting agreement from the management team will be like walking through treacle… backwards?  (You got the job, didn’t you?)

Here’s the buzz.  Experienced copywriters know exactly what to do to create copy that rings your client’s bells.  After all, they need to understand how your business works and what makes it unique.

All you should have to do is make a little time for your copywriter and let them extract the information they need.   It could be over the phone, or even over a cuppa.  Answer in one-liners, or talk for 10 minutes.  The choice is yours.  (And, so it should be!)

Don’t let a brief stop you from making a difference to your bottom line.

How to choose a copywriter

Choosing the right copywriter for your business is not easy.

Above all, you must like the person and feel you will be able to get along well.  Your first impressions will form the basis of a working relationship which will need to withstand frank and constructive two-way communication.  Consider whether the person:

  • will listen, understand and interrogate your brief with intelligence.
  • has an established track record of delivering good quality copy on time.

It would also help if that person understands how design and copy work together.  Always ask for samples of their work.  References or client testimonials also provide valuable insight into the copywriters work history.

Does it matter if a copywriter has experience in your particular market sector?  Bar a few exceptions, I don’t think so.  It is sometimes refreshing to find a copywriter who doesn’t understand the acronyms and jargon that pepper your communication.  It’s all in the interest of Plain English anyway.

If you think you’ve found the right person, ask them to do a short writing test and see what you think.  Good luck!



Everyone can write, right?

Isn’t it wonderful seeing your writing published on the internet? Or a printed brochure bursting with your prose? Perhaps a sales letter painstakingly put together by you and a dozen other interested parties? A press release which made it past a heavy-eyed editor into a newspaper or magazine? I get a frisson of joy down my spine just thinking about it…

We can all write. Blimey, we learned to write at school, didn’t we? Admittedly, not all of us would tackle writing a novel, but writing copy to be diligently read by our staff, our customers and our partners? No problem at all.

Now, despite the fact that I just spent at least 15 minutes on the playground (which is my equivalent of the coffee machine) bemoaning the fact businesses are choosing to delegate business-critical writing to the newest graduate trainee in the office, I am going to restrain myself from being judgemental about this approach. It happens.

But, consider this: Copy has a very serious job to do. It is there to compel your reader to do something.  It may be to buy your product, visit your website, agree to a meeting, order a brochure or to simply keep reading on.  Copy must work hard to stimulate desire and get results.

Yes, we can all write, but can we all get the right results?

Think before you send

Over the last few days I’ve analysed my email etiquette.  I am ruthless.  Email has got to be from someone I know, something I am expecting, or an email newsletter I have opted in to receive.  Everything else gets the delete button, immediately.

And, unless I have time on my hands or I’m accessing my mail via my phone while on the move, most of the email newsletters, LinkedIn group bulletins, Facebook alerts and the like are sent to the trash without even a cursory glance.

Sadly, for us marketers, I don’t think I’m unusual.  The days of sending thousands of impersonal emails to spammed email addresses are well and truly over.  Yes, email can be cost-effective.  But surely only if you get a return on your effort?  And, judging by my merciless approach to unidentified messages, the returns must be pretty negligible.

So, using me as a guinea pig, how could you get past my personal SPAM filter?

  1. Make sure I know you before you send me anything.
  2. Personalise the message so I feel special.
  3. Make sure I am expecting to get an email from you.
  4. Or, get me to double opt in to your newsletter (even if I don’t read every bulletin you send me, I am still being reminded you’re in business).

I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Why do we blog?

Blogging has been trendy for a decade and millions of people who want to share their thoughts, interests and desires have unlocked their secret diaries and published them on the internet.

Why, you may ask?  First, technology makes it so easy for everyone to participate.  WordPress, for example, which was started only eight years ago, is now the largest blog hosting service in the world.  You can set up a free account and be blogging happily in minutes.  Just like me.

Second, I think we all have a deeply hidden desire to be heard, even listened to.  And, best of all, blogging requires absolutely no social skills.  No making awkward conversation or being rejected with standard, meaningless answers.  More introverted people, just like me, don’t even have to get dressed up.  Heaven.  We just sit down in front of our trusty PC’s and give the world open access to our thought streams.

But, oh dear, beware; we’re not protected behind our PC’s.  We have an online identity that can be traced back to our PJ-clad limbs.  Taking responsibility for what we are blogging and the comments we allow on our sites is key to building our online personas and, most importantly, our credibility.

Third, the commercial prospects are minimal.  This, in my view, makes blogging for business a particularly brilliant way to engage both employees and customers.  People love the conversational voice of a blog.  It’s usually a quick read, instantaneous and informative.  Honest blogging can form strong relationships with a company’s stakeholders and, another bonus is that it invites comments and feedback so you can keep your finger on the blogging pulse…

Fourth, readers are ruthless in their opinions.  If the blog is a blur, you’ll be heading down the leader board quicker than you can click on “new post”.  It gives me a warm sense of satisfaction to check the site statistics and see that a few more readers have chosen to dip into my blurb. In fact, it keeps me coming back to write a bit more.  Blogging, it seems, can be a little addictive too…

I can spell (with a bit of help!)

After reading the BBC News article “Spelling mistakes cost millions in lost online sales” by Shaun Coughlin, I decided to test myself on some of the more commonly misspelled British-English words.  It was just me, pen-to-paper style.  My trusty spellchecker couldn’t help me and I wasn’t allowed to bury my nose in the huge dictionary on my desk.

The result was not bad, but not perfect either.  I scored 21 out of a possible 23, which is 91%.  I also admit that I had to rewrite a few of the words a couple of times until they looked correct.  Ho Hum.

This discovery was a bit of a surprise, so I gave it some thought:

  1. My spellchecker is permanently on and automatically corrects any words I misspell as I write.  This reliance is helping me with accuracy, but I need to concentrate more on self-correcting my errors.  [Tip: Make sure you’ve set your electronic dictionary to British-English.  American software usually has the spellchecker set to the American-English dictionary which automatically inserts errors into your work.]
  2. I always check the spelling and meaning of words in my dictionary to make sure I
    am using words appropriately.  In my view, this is an excellent habit which everyone should practice.

So, I can spell, as long as I have the tools of my trade to help me!  And, if no misspelled words make it onto a client’s desk, I should be OK.

If you’re interested, ask a colleague to test you and let me know how well you do!

  • Accommodate
  • Acknowledgement
  • Argument
  • Commitment
  • Consensus
  • Deductible
  • Dependant
  • Embarrass
  • Existence
  • Harass
  • Inadvertent
  • Indispensable
  • Judgement
  • Liaison
  • Licence
  • Occasion
  • Perseverance
  • Prerogative
  • Privilege
  • Proceed
  • Separate
  • Supersede
  • Withhold

So, what is it that you do?

Hello.  My name is Penny Bird.  Would you agree that we spend a great part of the day reading?  Anything from websites to newsletters, maybe even junk mail?  And would you agree that we forget most of it by the end of the day?

Well, I write copy for people to read, and remember.

That’s my 30-second elevator speech. Do you think it ticks these boxes?

  • Does it catch your interest?
  • Does it explain exactly what you will gain if you use my services?
  • Will you remember me?

Rate my elevator speech.  If it doesn’t make a sparkling impression, I’ll rewrite it.  Better still, share what’s worked well for you in a small, enclosed space!

Making a positive impact at a first meeting is critical.  If you get it right, it means business.

© Penny Bird