When Content Approval Needs Legal Review

If you’re a consumer of commercial food products, you probably didn’t sympathize much with General Mills and its recent “forced arbitration” fiasco.

In case you missed it, on tax day, the General Mills quietly changed its privacy policy to force anyone who interacted with the company’s online presence to give up their right to sue and enter into arbitration in the event of a dispute with the company.

By that peak news hour of 10 pm the following Saturday night, after five days of relentless criticism, the company reversed the new policy and decided that you could, in fact, “like” Cheerios and still sue them.

As a consumer, I am all for clear, honest, relevant labeling, particularly for packaged food. Although I’m not going to weigh in on whether the use of subjective terms such as “natural” or “healthy” warrants class action lawsuits, I am far from alone in saying I wouldn’t want my peanut-allergic kid to go into anaphylactic shock because a cookie was falsely labeled.

[do action=”info-box”]Q: How many lawyers does it take to write a product description?
A: Ten. One to write it, eight to revise it, and one to sue the lawyer once it’s published.[/do]

But as a content marketer, I can understand the litigious context in which General Mills acted. The costs that companies like General Mills incur in order to avoid litigation extend far beyond the courtrooms; they also extend into legal review of content production. The constant threat of litigation creates severe marketing challenges.

We’ve worked with many companies that are under significant regulatory pressure to get their messaging right. One of our consumer packaged goods clients is an excellent case in point.

Caught in the Crossfire: Content Loses during Legal Review

We were recently commissioned to produce catalog content for more than 1,500 of their products. This company had several versions of product-detail content that had been created over the years, including product descriptions, ingredients lists, warnings, and so on. It was our job to clean up the inconsistencies and produce canonical descriptions for each product.

We estimated this job would take four months. The actual content production would go fast, but gathering all the necessary content pieces and identifying inaccuracies would take time.

However, we are now six months into the project with no end in sight, and the project costs have more than doubled due to the extensive legal review processes and revisions the company’s legal department has required.
content loses during legal review

The challenges of jumping through their review processes are many, but here are a few of the bigger ones:

  • Inefficient content review process: While all brand managers and company decision makers review dozens of pieces of content in a single MS Word File, the legal team requires that each separate piece of content be delivered as an Adobe PDF file, which they print out, mark up by long-hand, scan, and return to us. Which means we then have to transcribe their chicken scratches back into the original document. This manual process adds considerable time and greatly increases chances for errors.
  • Slow turnaround of revisions: An average copy editor can review a hundred 150-word product descriptions in an afternoon. A typical brand manager might take a day or two to mark up the file. Legal review of content happens at the rate of 25 descriptions a week, which translates to 1,200 per year. At this rate, by the time the last of our 1,500 product descriptions have been approved in the summer of 2015, many of the products will have been removed from inventory, had their packaging changed, or had their ingredients lists altered. Already, one of the company’s brands we’re working with has repositioned its messaging, which will likely render the work we’ve done on their products moot.
  • And most importantly, for every day consumers don’t have access to the most accurate and relevant product information, the company will lose sales and increase consumer dissatisfaction.

It’s clear that this company’s Gutenberg-era legal review needs to take a Google-era reality check. However, as content marketers, we must respect the challenges of operating a company in our country’s litigious context and adjust our processes and expectations accordingly.

Later this week, I’ll discuss several steps we can take to reduce the problems that lawyers and their risk-adverse practices can create.

Mark White is president and a founding member of content26. Continue this conversation with him on Twitter @mwhitec26.