The Content Strategist, by Any Other Name…

Over at Happy Magic Fun Time Kenny Meyers discussed the fragmentation of job titles amongst Web service professionals: Titles. In particular, he is not happy with the Web content people, some of which call themselves content strategists, the new buzzword it seems.

The problem is simple. It’s literally simplicity.

The people responsible for delivering and directing meaningful, understandable and appropriate content couldn’t do the same for their job title. >What does content strategy mean? It’s vague enough to be deadly; empty enough to cause starvation. It’s synonymous with a term like thought >leader, dangling near the deadly cliffs of terrible portmanteaus.

Why get rid of great titles? Writer, copywriter and editor. They have a rich history.

And:

Is it not an editor’s job to understand the entire scope of the project, to set the tone, direction and message for months to come?

I don’t want to discuss the necessity of a specific job title for a person who does content strategy. Quite frankly, as long as the work gets done in an appropriate and professional manner, I don’t care whether you call me an editor, content strategist, or a Web content’s trauma surgeon…

However, it does make a difference for those who aren’t insiders to the peculiar fence wars that newly emerging Web disciplines seem to stir up amongst the established professions. It does make a huge difference with regards to what work these people are hired to do and what kind of mandate they get from their clients.

This is about managing expectations. When a business or organisation of any type seeks the help of external consultants to take care of their Web content, online strategy or Web presence, a content strategist better has a robust mandate, i.e. the authority to affect change within the organisation. The power to do so needs to be backed by senior management and the executive levels. As Erin Kissane writes – under the headline «Getting it done»– in The Elements of Content Strategy (p. 67):

Designate an editorial lead with strong organizational and editorial skills. Whether you rely on internal writers or hire outside creators, this person will manage the content development process. Give that person as much authority and backup as possible. If the leaders of your organization make it clear to internal writers that your content lead’s requests are high priority, the work tends to magically get itself done.

This authority does not come naturally and is usually not conceded to the copywriters or other tactical personnel «in the trenches». Would an editorial role accommodate most of the tasks falling under the umbrella term «content strategy»? The required skill set is quite similar and successful editors are able to execute on the practice of content strategy. As are other experts, such as marketers, communications and PR folks and Web copywriters.

Even in organisations in which editors have the power, authority and job description to «run the show» – their job titles and the nature of their work situation is often not as straightforward. The spectrum of editorial staff in organisations within the publishing industry is very much fragmented indeed. There are line editors, picture editors, acquisition editors, production editors, the editor in chief, managing editors… and so forth.

In any case, it is essentially the role of an executive editor, you'll try to fill when appointing a designated content strategist in your organisation, as Kristina Halvorson writes in Content Strategy for the Web:

Your organization needs to have an empowered, informed individual who is The Person in Charge of All Things Web Content. This doesn't mean this person needs to be solely responsible for all web content creation, delivery, and governance. It means that this person is charged with the same duties as an editor-in-chief (or executive editor) is for a print publication (p. 15).

Who's in charge, here?

Without an empowered, informed content "sheriff" at the table, no one is (p. 19).

In most organizations, no one actually does own the content. No one is truly empowered to set policies and standards. No one is acting as your content's "executive editor", ensuring accuracy, timeliness, consistency, clarity, relevance, and style (p. 20). 

Sure, the title of the editor has a rich history to it. However, as we are working with a young medium in a field that automates everything that can be automated, what can we tell the so called «Web editors» who spend their working days essentially copying & pasting, not allowed to fix even apparent typos? Despite the historical accolade of their job title, their job description is fulfilled by slavishly copying prescriptive content which has to go through legal before even minute changes can be made.

How do we reconcile the nature of these non-creative jobs which have to be done but cannot be quite automated (yet)? This within a community that craves myths of «the creative and the inspired mind»& and pays premium attention to narratives of such good fortune.

I am all for simplicity and clear communication. I fully agree that the «label» content strategist is not as well defined and meaningful to the potential client base as it should be.

In 1947 Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with the words:

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

I think somewhat similarly about the label «content strategist».

I see the title of the content strategist as a necessary evil, to a certain extent: It can help you to get buy-in from management that won’t work closely with your fantastic copyeditors on a day-to-day basis. It communicates the explicit permission to work, think and act strategically. Furthermore, the title allows the person(s) in charge of content strategy to speak truth to power in terms of Web content as a business asset.

In my understanding, the label content strategist carries a notion of executive autonomy. It is a clear mandate to «make things happen», to implement new workflows, to take new routes toward publishing and managing quality Web content. Content strategy has an organisational psychology and management angle to it. It entitles the content strategist to take a certain kind of approach which is usually not bestowed upon the (Web) editors, Web writers and Web marketers in organisations – however much content strategy they may put into practice.

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Wed, 20/04/2011 - 19:59