Audits Can Be Assets
By Anne Graham
Folio from July 2000
In a recent episode of the "Dilbert" comic strip, the new "company
sadist" approaches Dilbert and introduces himself. When Dilbert asks
the scowling mercenary about what happened to his predecessor, he is
told that the previous incumbent has departed for sadist paradise.
"The auditing department?" Dilbert asks.
Especially in the world of corporate America, audits have often taken
a bad rap. Regardless of the potential benefits, not all workers
welcome the probing glare of an "independent, objective appraisal" of
their processes and products. Within association publishing
environments, however, magazine audits are emerging as a constructive
tool for many staffs.
Moira DeWilde, director of communications at the American Academy of
Otolaryngology in Alexandria, Virginia, explains: "Nowadays we're
communicating with our members more and more via blast e-mail,
broadcast fax and our Web site. We also have a new executive vice
president, and we're developing a new five-year strategic plan. In
light of these developments-all with significant potential to impact
our magazine and its direction-we've decided to seek a professional
For DeWilde and her staff, assessments of editorial and graphic
aspects of the magazine are key audit objectives. "We want to
evaluate the organization of the magazine and the length and style of
editorial, for example," she says. "We want to know if our articles
seem too long or too short, if we're providing the right mix of
information. In addition, we think it's probably time for a graphic
facelift. Our advisory board of otolaryngologists can help us in many
ways, but we feel we need to complement their knowledge of the field
with comparable publishing expertise."
While magazine audits can be prompted by changes or developing
issues, they can also be scheduled as "routine checkups." Some
organizations opt for a top-to-bottom look at the overall
communications effort of the association; although the magazine may
be the focal point of the audit, it is regarded as one of several
channels for reaching members/-readers. Audits can be conducted by a
single expert or by a consulting team with various types of
experience and proficiency.
Christopher Bonner, whose McLean, Virginia, consulting firm, Bonner
Consultants, advises associations and corporations on strategic
communications, believes that effective magazine audits must be based
on the organization's strategic direction and objectives. "The
auditing process should start with a determination of what the
organization is trying to accomplish," he says. "What is the vision?
What are the goals? Where do they want to go? Once we have those
answers, we can apply certain tests to see how the magazine supports
and reinforces the association mission.
"Our objective is to come up with solutions that will help the
association and the magazine strengthen their connection with members
and readers," Bonner adds. "We talk to people who are affiliated with
the organization. We conduct surveys and focus groups. And we zero in
on what readers care about and what the association is doing to
respond to their needs."
When the audit is performed by a consultant from the world of
magazines at-large, rather than by someone with strong association
links, the end product is more likely to be a critique of the
magazine as a somewhat independent entity. The consultant may use the
magazine's mission statement as his or her starting point, with the
assumption that it encompasses and upholds the organizational game
plan. In a typical scenario, the consultant dissects several issues
of the magazine and discusses editorial and graphic strengths,
weaknesses and possibilities in a one- or two-day session with key
staff members. Some budgetary-challenged magazines simply contract
for written critiques.
Although expertise in any field can carry a significant price tag,
most staffs appear to be convinced that the payoffs for competent
audits are well worth the cost. The right specialist can help staffs
in at least five basic ways:
1. Objective, detailed feedback about your magazine from someone
whose judgment you respect is invaluable. Any kind of feedback is
helpful to association staffs, but when a knowledgeable publishing
professional shines a laser beam on your book and shows you where it
flies and falls, it's worth plenty to most staffs.
2. The audit reminds staff members of the big picture. The mission
and objectives of the magazine are likely to be revisited and
re-evaluated in light of current readership and developments within
the magazine's topic area. Audits expose individual and collective
blind spots, and they help to get everyone on the same page and
engaged in a unified effort.
3. The energy and enthusiasm of staff are likely to be buoyed by the
audit. Because audits reveal weaknesses and shine a bright light on
areas that need improvement, they can be painful; but they also help
to identify solutions and chart directions. Having common goals and a
plan for reaching them can give the staff a renewed sense of purpose
4. Even when audits are focused solely on the product, positive
suggestions about processes are likely to emerge. For example, the
auditor's criticism about the placement of ad pages might disclose
flaws in production scheduling and point up ways to tighten the
5. Audits can strengthen the position of the magazine within the
association. Auditors and consultants often make recommendations that
elicit responses from senior management. If the recommendations point
to the need for additional resources, or if they propose a higher
level of magazine autonomy, for example, the consultant's word is
likely to carry weight and increase the likelihood of management
Chris Bonner observes that, in the past, magazine audits were much
more likely to be "courts of last resort." Says Bonner: "We were
usually called in when things were going south. Ad revenues were
dismal; readers and members were unhappy with the service they were
receiving; or maybe membership was down because many people had
joined the association just to get an informative publication-and
they were disappointed in the product.
"Of course," he adds, "we still get called in those kinds of
situations; but more and more staffs are taking a proactive approach.
The definition of association magazines is changing rapidly.
Typically, magazines represent a critical linchpin in the
association's operations. Staffs just can't afford to wait until the
publication collapses-nor can they afford to be producing stuff no
one reads. It's somewhat like visiting the doctor for a checkup. We
may not want to go, and we may tell ourselves that nothing is
wrong-but we still need to do it. In most situations, a full-scale
audit is probably appropriate about every three years."
As expectations for association magazines continue to escalate,
maintaining the status quo isn't enough. Continuous improvement is
mandated, and it's likely to be driven by a new set of tools and
approaches, including audits. And despite Dilbert's attitude, they
don't have to be awful; they can be assets.
to success is the establishment of a safe environment for focus group
participants. Confidentiality must be assured. No one should feel
defensive, because there are no right or wrong answers. Allow members
to be heard but not dominate the stage. Avoid confrontations but
encourage dialogue. Allow the discussion to go where the members take
it because what's important is what's important to them.
This article is also available at: