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7 Tips For Breaking Down Legal Review Bottlenecks

By Annie ZelmFeb 15, 2016

Legal_Review_Bottlenecks

Nothing puts a kink in your content marketing strategy like the legal review process.

If you're marketing in heavily regulated industries such as energy or finance, you're all too familiar with this, the mother of all bottlenecks. 

Perhaps you've encountered so many hurdles that you questioned whether publishing a blog was even worthwhile.

Take the energy industry, for instance. Changes in the Dodd-Frank Act have given more power to regulators to crack down on any perceived attempts to manipulate energy prices.

According to Oil + Gas Monitor, regulators once had to prove a company had the means, the motive and the intention to manipulate prices. Now, they only have to prove that “manipulative and deceptive devices, i.e., fraud and fraud-based manipulative devices and contrivances (were) employed intentionally or recklessly, regardless of whether the conduct in question was intended to create or did create an artificial price.”

Something as seemingly innocuous as implying your customers will receive lower energy bills in the coming year as a result of your product or service could be perceived as price manipulation.

If concerns like this have caused you to reconsidered the whole concept of content marketing, take heart—there's hope. You just need to be proactive and keep a few of these tips in mind. 

1. Get Legal's Buy-in From the Beginning

If your organization has a regulatory or legal team, it’s critical you involve them early in the content creation process. Early buy-in from your regulatory and legal team can streamline the final review and shave significant time off the entire process, and also prevent you from inadvertently saying something that could ultimately be damaging to your organization.

Express your desire to present the company in the best possible light while also engaging readers with content that is useful and interesting. Ask them what topics or terms are red flags for them so you'll know what to avoid. 

Taking the time to gain consensus on important legal matters will give you greater confidence about your content and help you avoid missteps along the way.

2. Create Content Guidelines

Based on what you learn from consulting legal, create a shared document outlining guidelines for blogs and any other resources you plan to create. Anyone involved in content creation—marketers, internal guest bloggers and even freelancers—should be aware of these guidelines and refer to them often. 

This document should spell out your brand’s style, tone, imagery, terms to avoid and anything else that’s important to note, such as examples of acceptable sources to cite and how to cite them.

Here are a few examples of legal notes spelled out in one energy provider’s content guidelines:

  • For legal reasons, blogs cannot make predictions about specific energy rates or hint at insider knowledge of the market.
  • Avoid using terms such as “hedging,” “pricing” or “partnership.”
  • When referring to sustainability practices, avoid using “sustainable” unless the practices meet specific LEEDS qualifications for energy efficiency.
  • Avoid general references to “green” or “carbon footprint” not backed by facts. (For example, “Greenhouse gases” are quantifiable, but “carbon footprint” is not.)

The more you include in your content guidelines, the fewer red marks you're likely to see later.

3. Spell Out The Legal Review Process

One issue that tends to hold up legal approvals is a lack of clearly defined roles within the process.

You know the drill: The law director defers to the business development manager on an important question, but the business development manager is out of town for the week. By the time he responds, it turns out he needs to consult someone else who is more directly involved in this particular area. By the time the right person revises the piece and then sends it back to legal for a second round of review, three weeks have passed and the topic is old news. And that's only your legal department. If you have customers or other companies involved, it could take twice that long. 

That's why it's so important to identify who is required to review each piece, who should merely be consulted and who has final decision authority.

Larger companies with multiple regions or divisions will likely have multiple stakeholders who need to review content before it's handed off to legal. It's helpful to keep a spreadsheet of your company's key products or services and who has expertise in each area. If possible, designate more than one expert with approval authority in each area in case someone is out of town or hard to reach.

4. Use Collaborative Technology

Ever receive Version 12 of a document that has undergone so many revisions it's barely recognizable? It happens, but it's not particularly efficient. Neither is having multiple versions of the same document floating around, which increases the odds of someone publishing the wrong version.

Fortunately, there's a solution: Stop relying on email and Microsoft Word documents! 

There are plenty of alternatives that make it easier to view tracked changes and version histories. Google Docs is our favorite, but there's also Office Online if you're really loyal to Microsoft as well as Smartsheet if you want a broader solution that includes project management and other features. 

Speaking of project management, there are plenty of software tools for that as well. We live and breathe the subscription-based Basecamp, but others, like Trello, are free. 

Using collaborative tools like these ensures transparency, making it easy to identify the source of your bottlenecks. 

5. Set Mutually Agreeable Timelines

Legal reviews take time, but they shouldn't take months. Find out what turnaround times are typical and when things are likely to get backlogged. Do you roll out a bunch of new programs in the spring or fall that require more attention from legal? Does your legal department take extra time off around the holidays? 

Once you have a better idea of what is realistic, make sure to include a deadline in your submission. Your legal department likely receives hundreds of emails each day, so consider following up with a phone call. 

6. Be Willing to Make Compromises

If it's taking longer than usual for your legal department to get back to you on a particular piece of content, don't assume they don't care. Find out why there's a hold-up. It might be a simple matter you can overcome by including an extra citation or omitting something that's a cause for concern. 

The give and take should go both ways.

If they're asking you to add in a bunch of legalese that disrupts the flow of the piece or makes it difficult for anyone without a finance degree to understand, offer to add footnotes or disclaimers at the bottom of the piece.

7. Be Patient and Plan Ahead

When it comes to working with your legal department, patience and preparation are the two keys that will open almost any door.

Whenever possible, create a stockpile of evergreen content that can be published or repurposed anytime to give yourself a buffer. Maintain an editorial calendar that looks several months into the future. For content that's time-sensitive, set a proposed publish date and work backward, aiming to submit it at least a month ahead of time if possible. 

For breaking news or unforeseen items that need attention right away, a heads-up while it's happening can go a long way to give your legal department time to reshuffle priorities. If you normally give them ample notice, they'll be more likely to understand those last-minute requests than if you mark every other item as urgent. 

Above all, understand that while you have an important job to promote your company, your legal department has an equally important job to protect it. Sometimes it's easy to forget you're on the same team. 

The more you can show respect for your legal team's responsibilities and remind them how much you value their time, the more likely they are to give you the green light—and a lot fewer red marks.

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The Author

Annie Zelm

As the content manager, Annie manages a team of brand journalists and is the driving force behind the content strategy for companies in a wide range of industries, including healthcare, technology and professional services. Relying on interviewing skills she developed in her seven years as a journalist, she uncovers insights about what motivates buyers in these industries and uses that knowledge to shape client websites and editorial calendars.
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