You’ve done it! You’ve captured the intricacies and practical applications of Professor Mumblemore’s groundbreaking work on glottochronology (or electrophysiology, or perhaps paleoentomology) in crisp, engaging, easy to comprehend prose (or a minute-thirty of video, if you prefer). Good work! All that’s left is to get his A-OK and we can get this puppy published.
Wait… what’s this? Professor Mumblemore returned your piece with notes—lots of notes. Quotes stripped of human inflection, copy sodden with indecipherable jargon, and requests to add various journal citations, peer research, disclaimers and footnotes.
Oy. Head, meet desk. Face, meet palm. Content, meet conundrum.
A Constant Challenge
Whether its for print or web, higher ed communications professionals have long faced challenges in getting content reviewed by faculty without it coming back as something more befitting a peer-reviewed academic journal than the alumni magazine or the research page on the website.
Professors aren’t the only ones whose responsibility it is to share knowledge and expertise—it’s ours, too. It’s our job to help faculty and administrators understand what we need and why when it comes to content, not only so we get what we need, but so they understand the importance and buy into the process.
The best end product is going to be one that meets our standards while providing a faithful account of theirs, but we’re only going to get there if we work together.
Getting to ‘Yes’—for Approved Content
So, how can we foster mutual understanding and get Professor Mumblemore to see the light? I propose the following process. (No, it’s not yet peer-reviewed, but I hope you’ll share your addendums and suggestions in the comments.)
1. Create and share an editorial workflow.
In our own shops, we need to nail down our expectations and process around faculty review for content. Do we just need faculty OK, or do we need review from a department chair or dean—maybe for certain departments and schools, but not others? If so, what are the criteria? Do certain schools have extra layers of approvals (or prickly deans) that we need to account for in our schedule? How many days turnaround will we give them?
From there, we need to make sure that our supervisors (and their supervisors, if necessary), buy into this plan and will back us up if it is called into question (perhaps by said prickly dean). It should also be documented and shared with all relevant staff.
2. Build faculty relationships.
Faculty members need to know us—we can’t be strangers only calling when we need something. If we have beats where we own responsibility for coverage of certain departments, we should seek opportunities to establish a rapport even when we don’t need a quote, interview or review. Good relationships can make for smoother editorial transactions when needs inevitably arise.
3. Proactively educate faculty on content planning, content strategy, and editorial style.
In addition to building relationships, we should show up regularly at faculty meetings to explain the value of the work we do—not abstractly, but with concrete examples (with both anecdotal and analytical support) showing how the right relationship between a communications professional and a faculty member resulted in a successful pitch, or effective content. We need to more deliberately make the case for how our work ultimately helps them, and to do that, we need to share specifics (though you might get the OK in advance from the professor whose success story you hope to share).
4. Define and communicate roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
When you’re setting up your interview with the faculty member, give them a sense of how the editorial process works. Let them know by approximately when you plan to have the content complete, how long you will give them for review (noting that the review is to ensure accuracy and correct any errors, not for rewrites) and when you plan to publish the content. If the professor will not be available during your suggested review window, establish new dates and agree upon them.
5. Conduct interviews with backup and follow-up.
During the interview, take notes and record audio (being sure to let the professor know they are being recorded). The audio will be great for creating a transcript, but it also gives you backup in case a professor asserts that he or she never said such a thing.
After the interview, before you start writing, call them and ask for clarification on anything where you’re unclear, such as the meaning of certain quotes or the explanation of a technical process. Make sure you have the correct spelling for any terminology or proper names.
6. Submit content for review and communicate expectations—again.
Now it’s time to send the content out for review. Once again, remind the professor of the review window, the publication date, and the fact that all you’re looking for are corrections and clarifications. You might add that feedback beyond the facts will be considered—I’ve definitely gotten some edits back from faculty that significantly improved the piece—but will be included only at your discretion (or the discretion of the final editor to review the piece, if it is someone other than you).
It’s also important to state that if you don’t hear back within the agreed-upon timeframe—even after a reminder email if you’ve not heard anything halfway through the review window—that you assume the content is good to go. Your deadlines and calendars are meaningful, so assert their value.
7. Push back (if necessary).
Hopefully, after all of this, you’re well on your way to publishing your content. If not, and you receive content that has been riddled with jargon and other bloat, be prepared to push back.
This can be the hardest part, because some faculty members may be stubborn, or there may be sensitivities around how to handle them. Or, if you’re like me, confrontation just isn’t your bag. But remember—we want faculty to be partners in this process, not adversaries. Sure, we’ve developed criteria around what works and why, but that’s only half of it. The most important part is achieving understanding, both so faculty get what we’re trying to accomplish, and we can see where their concerns lie.
Contrary to what we might fear, there aren’t that many ogres out there—there are probably as many faculty ogres as there are content ogres!—so generally speaking, a reasonable approach and a willingness to listen can win the day.
If you need to push back:
- Explain the value of their quotes as originally expressed, if it was their quotes that suffered in the review process.
- Remind them of the audience—in all likelihood, an audience broader than fellow scholars and researchers—and the need to communicate to them in a succinct, engaging and accessible fashion.
- Share a link to your style guide.
- Share examples of similar stories.
- Remind them that you can link to extra details or resources at the end of the story instead of including the material in the content body. Lastly, if there are specific edits of theirs that you do plan to incorporate, let them know.
And at the conclusion of that barrage, encourage them to respond with any additional concerns, but remind them that you’re still hoping to publish the piece (with your accepted edits) by the agreed upon date.
A for Effort
Sadly, none of this guarantees a headache-free content review process—at least not on the first try. But the more that we assert and educate people about the realities of our work and the structures that help make it effective—not just for us, but for the subjects and ultimately for the university—the better our chances of success.
How do you work with faculty to review content?
Want some additional perspective? Check out the slide deck by the University of Minnesota’s Amanda Costello from her Penn State Web Conference 2012 presentation, “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.—Working with Faculty and the Web.”