This story was co-authored by Anna Balkrishna.
The PR director was excited to post her first infographic to the company’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. She’d hired a terrific artist to create a vertically scrolling illustration of the unique challenges faced by families whose children have special needs. She wanted to run it during the Paralympics, which were a month away. So she sent it through for legal and compliance review… and waited.
Three months later, the infographic was approved as-is, with no changes. There was, however, one odd, vexing requirement: Compliance declared it could not be displayed on the web as an image file. It had to be featured as a letter-sized PDF. Users would have to download the PDF in order to see the infographic, which had to be spread over two separate pages. The reasoning? In its original form, the legal disclaimer would not be seen by readers who didn’t scroll to the bottom of the tall infographic. When downloaded and printed, however, the legal reviewer felt confident they could say the disclaimer was delivered to the reader.
These kinds of stories make us want to cry.
“Two decades into the Internet era, most companies continue to operate as paper-first organizations.”
Let’s get this out of the way first: It’s too easy, and too unfair, to just blame the legal department when things like this happen. A three-month infographic approval process is just one symptom of the larger challenge organizations face when it comes to producing content at the speed of digital. Despite spending millions of dollars on technology, few established companies have significantly changed their organizational structures or business processes to take best advantage of those investments. More than two decades into the internet era, most companies continue to operate as paper-first organizations.
Transitioning to enterprise-wide content strategies and transforming into brand publishers is not going to happen overnight, but there are a few ways to improve the speed and quality of the legal and compliance review process that we’ve found invaluable at Huge:
Create a shortlist of the brand’s unique content requirements.
We typically start by compiling a one-page list of all the specific feedback we received in past legal reviews that would have been good to know upfront. For example, knowing in advance that every time a particular partner’s brand name appears in copy it also needs to include the ® mark might save your team a crazy amount of review and editing time.
Most companies have developed legally approved ways to talk about their product offerings in order to adhere to regulatory requirements. For example, Hilton allows its loyalty program members to “exchange” points from other loyalty programs, whereas Virgin Flying Club members “convert” points and Citibank’s ThankYou Rewards program allows you to “transfer” points or “transform” points. Each word choice has a specific rationale based on whether the loyalty points or miles have a one-to-one value or not. For any company, these terms are not interchangeable. It is critical for copywriters to understand these legal nuances and implications before they get started writing.
At the beginning of a project, it’s a good idea to interview stakeholders so you can get beyond the 101 level of UDAAP rules to the specific dos and don’ts for the organization. By identifying the top things to avoid from the start, your content can get approved more quickly.
Agree upon turnaround times for different kinds of content.
Legal teams often confront a long queue of content for review, and prioritizing which content gets reviewed first is a constant organizational challenge. So it’s important to set expectations for when your marketing content needs to go live—especially if reviewers are used to print lead times that are several months long. Some organizations have clear “service level agreements” (SLAs) that govern the expected response time of reviewers, ensuring greater predictability when setting and meeting deadlines. Blog posts might take a day to review, while updated product descriptions on your website might take a month, and effective marketers help their legal teams understand the publishing cadences of their particular digital channels. One company we work with has established a one-hour turnaround time for Tweets, with a dedicated lawyer assigned to help speed up social media engagement.
Make friends with the legal department.
We’re amazed at how often legal reviews happen in a closed black box—marketers submit their content, then wait and pray without knowing whether their ideas will pass inspection or not. Sometimes, marketers don’t even know the name of the person reviewing their content.
Get to know your legal team! Talk to them about your project plans, and ask them what their biggest pet peeves are in the review process. Make them a part of what you’re doing. More often than not, lawyers are a very reasonable bunch. Your job is to help them find ways to say yes to what you’re trying to do.
“Pre-flight” legal workshops are a great way to set your project up for success. By the time content reaches a formal legal review, there’s usually no time left to suggest major revisions. But when you build legal workshops into your production schedule, you’re giving lawyers a chance to identify red flags earlier and work with you on solutions that will make everyone happy. Unlike one-sided reviews, workshops allow for a healthy dialogue. You might go back and forth over one tricky line of copy—but it’ll be worth it when your lawyer finally says, “Okay, I can live with that.” After that, the review should be mostly a formality.
If you have many teams of content creators to manage, you can also work with legal and compliance to create a rating system. Grade content teams on how well their content meets legal requirements and complies with brand standards. But again, grades are way more useful when they’re accompanied by feedback. Make grades a starting point for real conversations with your lawyers about what to watch out for and, more importantly, why each particular requirement exists.
Avoid the pitfalls of legal jargon—by thinking like a lawyer.
When legal fine print takes five times the space as your content, it erodes trust in your brand. As one user told us, “I feel like they’re trying to trick me.” Ironically, the purpose of the legal terms and conditions should be the opposite: to be transparent and upfront about exactly what you’re promising.
Of course, humanizing the fine print is just one half of the puzzle. The other half is making sure that legal jargon doesn’t creep in and dilute your marketing content. When a lawyer wants to make changes to your content, it’s hard to push back by arguing that the changes aren’t “on brand” or “user friendly.” Reviewers are paid to assess how well your content complies with regulations, not how awkward it looks or sounds. Think like a lawyer first, and then apply your creative marketing skills to the task at hand. Can your copywriter find a friendlier turn of phrase that means the same thing, and doesn’t allow for misinterpretation? If you take the time to understand the requirements your legal team is actually trying to meet, chances are you can create content that satisfies their needs and still works for your brand and audience.
Your content finally got approved. Now what?
The best practices we’ve described here can help speed along legal approvals for any form of marketing copy, whether print, digital, or otherwise. But they’re especially helpful for navigating the realities of 24/7 digital publishing—with more and more content to publish and refresh on an increasingly rapid basis, streamlining the review process becomes not just a nice-to-have, but a necessity.
Of course, there’s more to digital publishing than just vetting copy. As digital experiences evolve, so do the ways that users consume, interact with, and save content—all of which has implications for legal compliance. Traditional compliance rules don’t always work for new digital channels, as we saw with the infographic that got posted to Twitter as an unwieldy two-page PDF. Next up, we’ll talk about some of the legal trends we’ve seen when designing for digital content.