How to Write Content That Gets Quick Legal Approval in Times of Crisis

By Ryan Brock 

The job of today’s digital marketer to produce effective content is difficult in any industry. It’s not enough to toss up the occasional blog and hope it will work. Every piece of content has a wide variety of considerations to address, from its place in a broader marketing strategy, to SEO, to the immediate needs of the target audience.  

But in the banking industry, it’s much more complicated than that.  

Compound the standard demands of an effective content marketing strategy with the rules and regulations placed on any financial company by the Securities and Exchange Commission and suddenly your legal department has as much to say about the quality of your content as your VP of marketingand maybe even more.  

Right now, during the COVID-19 crisis, essential businesses such as banks are working hard to communicate clearly and quickly with customers struggling to adjust to new and serious financial concerns  

Speed is essential with these communications, so it is critical to wrap a process around your creative work to make sure a compliance review is more of a formality than a reason for a full reset. Here are some quick, practical tips to help you do just that. 

Establish clear brand guidelines 

Before giving a writer an assignment, take a step back: Are the rules about what your brand can and cannot say clearly established? While the SEC provides ample resources to help banks, credit unions and other financial entities understand what kinds of promises they can make in marketing materials, it’s much easier for a writer to understand those rules if they are presented in context. As part of your broader brand guidelines governing things such as colors and logo usage, include an extensive section that lists examples of phrases your brand commonly does and does not want to use.  

For example, if you provide 3(38) fiduciary services, offer standard language to describe these services (something like, “we act as an investment manager so we can select, monitor and update your investments on your behalf) to avoid making statements legal won’t be comfortable with. 

Avoid overly prescriptive language 

On an even more granular level, there are some words and phrases that have a high likelihood of catching up an attorney: 

  • Always 
  • Must 
  • Should 
  • Standard 

The moment a financial institution of any kind declares that something “always” happens a certain way is the moment it is making promises in conflict with SEC guidelines. The same logic applies to describing a scenario as “standard,” only because that phrase is so absolute. When talking about a normal aspect of your business, rely instead on words such as “typical” and “common” to show that, while something is usually the norm, exceptional cases exist 

Likewise, when writing educational content for customers and prospects it is easy to tell them what “must” be done or what they “should” do. To tap into a relevant example from the coronavirus crisis, on the surface these two phrases appear to communicate the same idea:  

  • While your employees may be scared about the market, employers should review their retirement plan’s investments once a year and not in response to market changes.” 
  • While your employees may be scared about the market, it’s a good idea for employers to review their retirement plan’s investments once a year and not in response to market changes.” 

The first example can be interpreted to be a hard-and-fast rule your institution is offering as investment advice. The second option is much improved because it communicates your firm’s belief that regular investment review is important, without telling the reader what to do. There’s an added benefit, too, that the second phrase is more accessible and sounds less stuffy or less scary. 

Lean on authoritative sources  

While the second example above outshines the first, a third option would be even better in the eyes of your legal department: 

  • “The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recommends that employers review their retirement plan’s investments annually.” 

Whenever your insights can be presented as being in line with the best practices condoned by authoritative bodies like the IRS, the Department of Labor or the SEC itself, it removes a lot of uncertainty from the minds of attorneys reviewing content. In this case, cutting out excess qualifiers about scared employees and market changes helps you to focus solely on the advice from the IRS, which is what’s most important for employers to consider even in times of uncertainty. 

Make it clear to your writers you prefer government sources whenever possible. In some cases, linking directly to guidance issued by the IRS can offer additional insight while fulfilling your duty to attribute recommendations to a proper source (there may be an SEO benefit, as well). Other times, adding a footnote for a lawyer’s quick edification can help to breeze content through review.  

When a government source won’t cut it—maybe you’re looking for broader business trends to point to, or statistics gathered as part of a private sector study—it’s a good idea to build out a list of sources widely accepted as authoritative. 

Speak with whoever conducts your legal reviews to make a short list of sources they will inherently trust. Despite the name, a website like Motley Fool might make that list, but a competitor’s website might not. Then again, your competitors might produce insights that can benefit your content. In either case, making it a standard practice to footnote any idea or claim derived from a third-party source will give your attorneys a quick way to confirm data and your interpretation of it, and also to vet the source on a higher level. It will also offer convenience to writers looking for quick, legitimate stats to include in content. 

The bottom line: Communicate with your legal team throughout the process  

 As a final note, and this underscores some very specific advice touched on above, make it a priority to include your legal department in your content development process on a high level from the beginning. Submitting a list of article topics for their approval is an easy way to get everyone on the same page and offers legal an opportunity to provide insight to keep in mind while drafting from the beginning. While you can learn a lot about what the lawyers will and won’t approve on a piece-by-piece basis, proactively seeking guidance from legal will help you address any concerns they might have before a piece of content ever hits their inbox, saving everyone time and resources.  

With proper documentation, solid process, and a clear set of best practices, legal review can look less like a hurdle to cross and more like a valuable asset to improve content you’re building for your bank.  

Ryan Brock is the Founder & CEO of Metonymy Media, an agency of creative writers that helps businesses and organizations grow by creating content that is consistent, accurate and compelling. 

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