Transform your stakeholders’ objections into opportunities to create content solutions that everyone buys into

by , Founder, Together London

When stakeholders push back on your content recommendations, you don’t need to cringe. When they share opinions and anecdotes, insist on using jargon, or appear to ignore the data, resist the temptation to argue your case. Objections are opportunities. They show that stakeholders care about content and want to be involved in making it effective. All it takes to move from conflict to productive dialogue is to change how you hear feedback. What if your stakeholders aren’t trying to undermine you, but instead want to work with you to find content solutions that work for users?

When stakeholders have a different perspective to ours, it’s easy to get trapped in either-or thinking. The way out is to integrate both perspectives and find a third way that works for everyone. Here’s a three-step process to make that happen:

1. support stakeholders to hear each other fully
2. derive shared content principles from each perspective
3. create content solutions that satisfy as many of the principles as possible

I’ll demonstrate this process using a case study from a well-known UK organisation. It starts with a difference of opinion between the digital team and the communications team about how to manage a blog on the corporate website. The digital team were responsible for the website as a whole, and were concerned about how the blog posts, written by the communications team, were performing. The posts were long and analytics suggested that readers were dropping off early without taking the action the organisation was looking for (e.g. subscribing.) The digital team thought they knew how to fix this problem–edit the posts for brevity, add subheads for easy scanning, add tags to improve findability—standard fare for content experts. But when they suggested these changes to the communications team, they were surprised to encounter resistance. A conflict emerged.

“Hands off my blog!” was one response from the communications team. “We need accuracy, not dumbed down content,” said another. They were also concerned that the changes would take too much time, would “add something” to the publishing process, and that they, “wouldn’t be able to think of tags” to classify their blog posts with.

This is a classic either-or situation. Digital want to change how the blog works, communications want to keep it the same. In these situations it seems like the only options are for one side to get their way and the other to lose, or to compromise so that neither side gets their way. But there’s another option: integrate the perspectives to find a third way that everyone buys into.

Support stakeholders to hear each other fully

Step one, support stakeholders to hear each other fully. When we’re in conflict, we tend not to express ourselves clearly enough for the other side to fully understand us. In this case, when the digital team heard that time was a concern, they offered to rewrite the posts themselves. This met with even more resistance from communications. What’s happening here? The objection, “it would take too much time,” isn’t a literal description of the problem, so the solution, “we’ll do it for you,” won’t resolve the conflict. It does offer an opportunity to hear the need more clearly though, by asking, “would you explain why digital rewriting the posts doesn’t work for you?”

Derive shared content principles from each perspective

Which takes us to step two, derive shared content principles from each perspective. When communications answered the question, it turned out that they:

These responses suggest some content principles. Our objective is to come up with a list of principles that everyone is willing to support. To pull this off you often need to write two principles that are in tension with each other. For example, in response to the confidence concern, a principle might be, “everyone contributes within their skillset.” While this principle satisfied communications, on its own it raised concerns with digital about consistency. They added, “content meets shared standards for the organisation”, which communications were willing to accept.

So far we have two principles:

Now to deal with the accuracy concern. The first principle is straightforward: “ensure integrity of meaning through accuracy and an appropriate tone.” That worked for communications, but digital didn’t like it because it didn’t address their concern about readers dropping off. What’s to stop communications from just pasting in their press releases? The challenge for content professionals here is to demonstrate what we’d like to offer, without criticising. The answer the digital team came up with was this principle: “content is seen and understood by a non-technical audience.” This sits in tension with the “accuracy” principle and acknowledges the contribution digital want to make. After all, if the content is only intended for a technical audience, there’s no reason to publish it on the corporate website. Communications could just send it to a closed mailing list instead.

Here’s the complete list of principles:

Depending on the number of objections you have, you may end with more principles. The technique is the same: try to reframe objections as principles that everyone is willing to support. Where there are concerns, see if adding another principle, in tension with the first, can resolve the problem.

Create content solutions that satisfy as many of the principles as possible

On to stage three, create content solutions that satisfy as many of the principles as possible. The idea here is to set up teams to collaborate on designing content solutions that satisfy as many of the principles as possible. These solutions could be editorial processes, tools, or even pieces of content. One approach is to get stakeholders with different perspectives to work together in these teams to design potential solutions. The teams present their proposals to the wider group which assesses whether they satisfy the principles. From here we can move to pilot projects or even final implementation if support is unanimous.

In the case study example, the digital and communications teams decided to create a new editorial process that involved one person from each team working together. After some iterations they had a content solution that everyone bought into. It took a lot of work, but the outcome was worth it: more effective content and renewed trust between departments.

So if you’re sick of arguments, conflict, and slow progress on content, why not try to transform your stakeholders’ objections into opportunities to create content solutions that everyone buys into?

Keen to learn more?

If you’d like to learn how to find breakthrough content solutions that everyone buys into, come to agile content conf, 29-30 Jan in London. We’re featuring case studies of collaboration from Global Radio, GOV.UK and Breast Cancer Care, and workshops where you can practise collaboration techniques. Register by 15 January to save £100.

About the Author

Founder, Together London

Jonathan Kahn organises agile content conf, where you can learn practices to help teams work together on content. He also organises the London Agile Content Meetup which has 2000 members. He’s @lucidplot on twitter.

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