“Journalists are grammar nerds.” – Kristen Page-Kirby, Senior Arts Editor, Washington Post Express
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” – Attributed to several people, including: Will Rogers, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and the U.S. advertising industry.
It was an effective pitch: brief, tailored to the media outlet that received it, clearly and cleanly written. It pitched an essay about a relevant topic: best practices for small companies and startups seeking to obtain media coverage.
That’s why the pitch from a PR firm representing a communications director at a brand made it through several layers of editors until it reached your blogger, with a message from a PR News colleague affixed: potentially usable content.
The writer of the essay, the pitch promised, is one of the country’s “top” PR professionals. At that point your blogger’s radar started making noise, albeit it was a faint ping only. Without seeing evidence of the person’s, er, “top-ness,” it seemed an empty statement.
Some background: This top PR pro is from a country outside the United States and the brand he represents was unfamiliar to your blogger. Had the PR firm doing the pitching provided a word or two about why this person is considered one of his country’s leading PR practitioners (awards, positions on industry association boards, previous publications) it would have helped, or at least saved your blogger time.
Instead, the situation called for research. A very brief search showed the author’s brand seemed legitimate. The brand sells its products and services to businesses of all sizes, including small companies and startups. Revenue was substantial. It made sense that the author of the essay, the top PR pro, would have a lot of experience with small companies seeking to gain exposure. The pitch, which was derailed momentarily, was back on safe ground.
The next step on our end, of course, was to read the attached essay. Unfortunately, not terribly far in there was a grammar mistake; the author misused “it’s” as a possessive. OK, that’s a mistake made all the time and sometimes the culprit is the software an author uses. A yellow flag only—it wasn’t fatal to the essay’s chances, especially since the content, at this point, seemed decent.
A few more paragraphs in and the mistakes were beginning to pile up—words missing from sentences and words out of place. This was troubling. If the author hadn’t proofread his content, how reliable was the work that he was offering?
In addition, every example of best practices the author provided mentioned his own company in a positive light. Again, this was far from a fatal miscue, but the essay was starting to read like a sales pitch instead of a thoughtful article that could benefit our readers. The essay’s chances were looking bleak. Even worse, its sloppiness was overshadowing the content.
In the end, the essay’s content was good, but not great. The chief issue with its content was that the author had written about too many things shallowly instead of picking fewer topics and exploring them deeply. Again, a common mistake that can be corrected. While our assessment of the content was subjective, the mistakes in the essay were objective.
Who was responsible for the mistakes? The person whose name is attached to the essay? Is that person, the “top PR leader,” really the author of the essay? Perhaps the author was the PR pro who pitched it to us or a freelancer working for the PR firm? Without digging, it’s hard to say. We spoke with the PR agency person who pitched the essay. This person was polite and professional. English is the author’s second language, the PR pro said. Fair enough. Is it then up to the PR pro pitching the essay to proofread it? We’d appreciate reader comments on this question.
Considering what had come before it, the essay’s final sentences seemed the definition of irony. The author used a variation of the idiom “the devil is in the details” to urge PR pros to check small things. “Stellar PR is all about the details,” the author wrote. That seems like very good advice.
Follow Seth: @skarenstein