8My First Rule of Communication: the Hydrant Theory

All communications are like a hydrant and reviewers are like dogs — they have to whiz on it a bit to show you they’ve walked there.

My first encounter with this theory came from starting the PR Department at a Fortune 1000 Services Company. I had to create the annual report. By the time this six-month project was over, 20 people had given me a piece of their minds.

(My favorite horror story on this was dealing with the legal counsel. He said we couldn’t use the term “division” — although the company had for decades. The legally correct term was “strategic business operating unit.”  The full phrase had to be used — and couldn’t be abbreviated as “SBOU.”)

How can you satisfy the needs of 20 different reviewers?

You can’t.

That’s when I started to come up with my Hydrant Theory Bag of Tricks.

Trick #1: Know Who’s the Boss  Just because people are being asked to comment doesn’t mean their thoughts should receive equal weight. Know the most important people for each communication, get close to them and listen to their ideas. When you reflect what the power brokers want — and earn their trust for doing so — they will likely support you should others start to grumble.

Trick #2: Tell Reviewers What You Expect from Them  You’re really looking for two things: 1) to make sure everything is correct (editing for facts) and 2) to ensure everything is said correctly (editing for the understanding of your audience).

I call it the “two colored pen” approach. Tell reviewers if they see something that isn’t right, to mark the change in red pen on a hard copy (or highlight it and attach the correction in a comment box in Change Tracking). Any other changes — such as word choice or style — should be marked in blue (or altered in Change Tracking but without a comment box). Inform reviewers you will correct inaccuracies, but you will use editorial judgment on style suggestions — because that’s why they hired you. 

Remind them that the goal is not to have the piece sound as though they wrote it, but to create something readers will understand.

Trick #3: Invoke the Price Tag  Remember that legal counsel? I asked the report designer how much space would be added if we changed every “division” to “strategic business operating unit.” She said it would add a page. I told the attorney this would add two printed pages. Since I didn’t have the money in my budget, I’d be happy to make the change if he would pony up the dough from his. Apparently he had better uses for his money and chose not to do so.

I’ve often found  when people request a change and discover they must pay for it, they suddenly become more flexible.

Now It’s Your Turn

If you’ve gotten this far, chances are you have an amusing or frustrating Hydrant Theory story of your own — please share it. And if you’ve got tricks for getting around calamitous commenters, please send those, too.

I call it “laugh and learn” and would love your help to do more of it!