Access Denied: The Other Kind of Writer’s Block

Nov 29, 2017

One of these days I’m going to put together a sort of “Road Warrior Olympics,” in which contestants compete on how well they can conduct business while riding in an Uber, going through security at the airport, and even in the midst of the plane’s takeoff and landing. That’s how impressed I am with the multitasking skills of the thought leader healthcare executives I regularly interview for various writing projects. I probably have more interviews with people driving to the airport than I do while they’re in an actual office building.

Just last week, I interviewed the CEO of an operating room analytics company while his Uber driver took him to Heathrow. Just as he was arriving at the airport, he discovered his flight was actually leaving from a different airport. He was only momentarily at a loss for words then crisply told me he’d call me right back. Expecting it to be more like a day, I wished him good luck getting on his flight.

Five minutes later, my phone rang. The CEO was back on track to the right airport and we picked up where we’d left off.

These are the dream accounts the ones where thought leaders are actually available to share their thoughts with the writer who will create a byline or case study that’s hopefully as compelling as the way the thought leader made his or her points. I cannot overstate the importance of having access to these people.

Yes, a preliminary brief on the topic is a good starting point. But in my experience, when information is transmitted through multiple middlepersons, the thought leader inevitably reads what was written and either deems it way off track or missing key points.

If you are the person who is the main liaison with your PR agency, resist the temptation to take the following shortcuts which I’ve put in the format of some common excuses for blocking writer access to thought leaders:

“She’s just too busy. Can I just give you the salient points and you can dash a quick byline off?”

At this point in my career, I probably can do this more or less effectively. But something will be missing: the thought leader’s voice and latest insights. The information that a skilled interviewer which PR agency writers must be, and that’s non-negotiable knows how to draw out of even the most reticent interviewee.

Also, you are presumably paying good money for the services of a professional writer. Why not get all the value you can from your investment? Blocking the writer from an interview that would likely result in a much better byline, simply for the sake of convenience and speed, is like filling up on all the cheap starches at buffet instead of selecting the more delectable treats.

“It takes us so long to get writing projects through the review queue. Let’s just use language that’s already approved.”

You mean that language that’s staler than a loaf of bread with a missing zip tie that’s been sitting on a kitchen counter for over a week? This is marketing messaging suicide. Just like other departments in the business, marketing must be able to move nimbly. If it really takes that long to get projects approved, you must fight for a more streamlined process. Or else your marketing department will become known as the graveyard for ideas.

Can we write a byline based on these three or four existing pieces? That way we won’t have to interview anyone.” This is similar to the above scenario. And sure, I can do it, but again you’re wasting the resources of a professional writer by basically having them do assembly line work. You could hire an el cheapo content mill writer instead if all you really need is to put a donkey’s tail on a fish’s head.

Now some thought leaders themselves are the cause of the block. Perhaps they are under the impression they are too busy or are just too inexperienced at being a thought leader. They may not be the right thought leaders for you to develop. But sometimes it just takes an interesting interview and byline to get these promising thought leaders on board. Some tips for finding their thought leadership mojo can be found here and here.

Another benefit for these newbies is that interviewing with a writer is great practice for subsequent interviews with the media.

What writers should bring to the table

Thought leadership time is valuable, and writers should make the most of it. Here is what a thought leadership should expect from a writer:

  • An advance idea of questions if possible. This gives the thought leader time to process and give thought to what will be under discussion. Of course, the conversation doesn’t have to stick exactly to these questions. But the thought leader should go into the conversation with more than just a broad idea about what will be discussed.
  • An opportunity to review the proposed draft. These are your words, your ideas, your thoughts. It’s also your name on the byline. As such, you deserve to have the opportunity to review all drafts, especially the final set for publication. I’ve seen a byline author horrified when a piece he didn’t sanction get published with inaccurate information which was called out by industry peers. (Obligatory side note: it wasn’t a piece I wrote. In fact, it was the impetus for bringing us on board.)
  • Openness to giving and receiving feedback. This is your byline. Let the writer know if that isn’t your voice or if points are incorrect or missing or need further clarification. But resist the urge to “just write it yourself.” That’s like hiring a chef to cook you a meal and then going in and adjusting the seasoning yourself. Tell them what you want. If they are a professional, they can do it. In my experience, fewer drafts result when reviewers contain their edits to comments in the margins.

To recap: a good writer is a budding thought leader’s best asset. Rather than keep them apart, foster this relationship to the fullest extent you can. Soon your thought leader will leap from “budding” to “champion” and not just of the Road Warrior Olympics.

Stephanie Janard

Stephanie Janard has over a decade of experience as a professional communicator in the business-to-business technology arena, with additional background as a newspaper column and features writer. Stephanie began her career as a marketing and public relations manager for a software company and then went on to become a freelance writer for a diverse set of clients and industries. Stephanie has written for media outlets including the Raleigh News & Observer and The Daily Courier in Forest City, North Carolina, where her weekly column is in its third year of print and online publication.