Press Articles Folio

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 audit."

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 and possibilities.

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 process.

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 blessings.

Proactive audits 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.

Critical 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.

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