Technology has been both a boon and a bane to large corporations. On the one hand, it has helped them move massive amounts of information to evermore people. On the other, it has created a monster they cannot control.


There’s just too much information coming at consumers, investors and employees, and no one seems to be in charge of it. Chief information officers manage technologies, not information.


Who manages that? Everyone and no one.


Just look at the departments that typically claim a piece of the information pie. There are systems, of course, because its managers know where all the information resides, at least the portion that’s digitized and distributed through the powerful technologies they control.


There’s also the obvious owners: marketing, communications, advertising and public relations. Sometimes managed centrally, sometimes not, these departments control the origination and creative development of most information that ultimately sees the light of day.



Then, there’s the lawyers and compliance cops. Historically, they have had strong sway over the information produced for public distribution, keeping companies inside the lines of government regulations and outside the courts.


Given this remarkable degree of fragmentation in information and communications management, one might suppose that integrative management processes would abound. Not so. These various departments and centers of power are usually left to fend for themselves. Some reach for idiosyncratic solutions; most succumb to the weight of “the way things are.”



Communications transparency has now become the Holy Grail of more and more government funded and regulated programs. There’s plain English mutual fund prospectuses, mandated 16 years ago by the Securities and Exchange Commission. There’s plain English credit card agreements required by the Credit Card Law of 2009. And more recently, the Affordable Care Act set the standard of comprehensibility for all Health Insurance Exchange materials at the fifth-grade level.


Now that the government has increasingly come down on the side of transparency, I’m curious. Will their plain English requirements change the communications practices of American companies? Here are five areas of business that should, I believe, register a change for the better.


1. Culture

Most branding, advertising and marketing professionals in companies today are steeped in the imperatives of design overwriting. If a communication looks good, presumably, it is good. But if clarity in customer communications is now also one of their goals, then communication professionals will have to strike a better balance between these two communication components and the creative processes behind them.


2. Staffing 

To create materials understandable to all consumers, managers will have to add new skill sets and specialties to their teams. In addition to creative copywriters, for example, they must also have content analysts and plain-language writers on their teams. And, along with traditional graphic designers, they will also need the skills and sensibilities of "information designers," who are trained to clarify rather than merely beautify content.


3. Governance 

Many companies are organized around silos with managers in different departments working at arm's length or cross purposes of one another. To communicate clearly with one voice, companies will have to accept more centralized governance models for their marketing and communications operations.


4. Process

Beyond writers and designers, there are many other managers and professionals who exert an influence on customer communications—legal and compliance officers, systems programmers and operations personnel. To achieve communications transparency, companies must formulate new creative and review processes that will give all these players their due without allowing any one group to dominate or undermine the company’s transparency goals.


5. Guidelines


Ask any company today for its graphic standards and you'll get a weighty tome at the click of a mouse. Ask for content and writing guidelines and you’ll get a page or two at best. If clarity in all communications is to become an important business goal, corporate guidelines will have to include robust rules for content and copy as much as they presently do for design.

Ms. Haykel will be c0-presenting with Robert Frump, the former editorial/content director for Merrill Lynch, on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at the DOCUMENT Strategy Forum. Don't miss her case study “Is Less Worth More? What Merrill Lynch Learned by Simplifying and Streamlining Its Communication Systems, Content and Documents.” For more information, visit www.DOCUMENTstrategyForum.com.