This past week I had the opportunity to attend STC Summit 2012 in Chicago: three days of back-to-back sessions covering everything related to communications from MarCom to agile communications practices to information design and video training. Among the insightful talks was one by Elizabeth Reese, a senior editor at Microsoft. Her presentation described how Microsoft uses collaboration and a service-oriented editorial board to create and maintain a single voice across the organization. Coming away from her session, I realized three important and portable points about the issue:
- The challenge of maintaining a consistent voice increases as the number of communication channels grow.
- We all face the same fundamental problem of consistency in voice across our organization, regardless of size.
- The solution to the problem scales to organizations of any size.
The first point is important to acknowledge, as we’ve seen how many organizations are faced with an explosion of communication channels sprouting from within. These are often new media channels (such as blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and Pinterest streams) that develop from different nodes on the organizational chart and as such, may not fall under the governance purview of traditional teams handling the organization’s established communication assets. This is likely the new reality for many organizations: there are always going to be new channels gaining prevalence in the market that someone within your organizations wants or needs to use.
Even if you already have a handle on new media, any organization with more than one content contributor quickly runs into the problem of maintaining a consistent voice. Usually the first step in acknowledging and addressing the problem is a corporate style guide. The shortcoming of this, however, is that a section in an arcane document hosted somewhere on the intranet isn’t always accessible to the people that increasingly find themselves assuming communication responsibilities in the organization. Furthermore, describing a style or something like voice in a style guide doesn’t guarantee comprehension on the part of the reader.
The last point builds on the previous two: the solution to the problem scales to (or can at least inform) organizations, regardless of size and degree of departmental fragmentation. In fact, I’d venture to call the solution a fundamental design pattern (to borrow a term from software development) for communication governance. Reese’s presentation clearly spells out the core components of this:
- Establish an editorial board composed of representatives of the various silos within the organization and charge them with collaborating on governing a consistent voice through all communication channels. At Microsoft, this board meets once a month. It is responsible for the ongoing maintenance and development of the style guide, and is chartered with a strong service responsibility in the organization (see below).
- Establish an accessible service arm of the editorial board whereby anyone in the organization can ask a question and get guidance, direction and advice on their content issues. Reese noted that at Microsoft this service arm consists of an email distribution list and an online forum, but you can use any number of channels at your organization to provide the service component of your editorial board. The trick is to use something that’s accessible, is a good fit for your culture, and that can provide timely responses to queries.
By establishing an editorial board responsible for creating and maintaining a consistent voice across all communications channels, and by establishing a strong service component to this board within the organization, there is a clear opportunity to maintain a consistent voice across your content channels. This solution has been employed by Microsoft to effectively govern voice across departments and organizational silos, and is likely a useful pattern for most organizations to adopt.