11 Sources of Literary Inspiration for PR Pros

When I want to cleanse myself of all the bad sentences I’ve read or written, I go back to the same, reliable tonics: the books and stories written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Whether you’re a PR professional or a journalist, you deal, essentially, in sentences, and you probably have your own writing masters or beautifully told stories that you turn to time and again to rid yourself of your own bad habits and reconnect with the inspiration that put you on your career path.

At PR News’ Writing Boot Camp in Chicago this month, we asked our attendees what literature they love and turn to for inspiration. Here’s a list of some of their true loves. It’s an eclectic list (presented in no particular order), but many of them have one thing in common—a magical allure that demands repeat readings.

1. “The Purpose-Driven Life,” by Rick Warren. Though based in Christian scripture, this book appeals to readers who yearn to find their true direction in life, and who find the search itself to be a spiritual endeavor.

2. “True Compass, A Memoir,” by Edward M. Kennedy. American royalty, the Kennedy clan continues to fascinate. Ted Kennedy could have been the source of a series of plays by Shakespeare.

3. “Jackie After O,” by Tina Cassidy. See above.

4. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. Smalltown America, Southern-style, seen through the eyes of a young girl.

5. The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. The Young Adult genre comes of age for all ages.

6. “Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center,” by Daniel Okrent. Money, power, creativity and master planning converge in midtown Manhattan during the Great Depression.

7. “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” by Hunter S. Thompson. The apotheosis of HST’s reporting skills, deep compassion, savage political point of view and humor. Thompson had the gift for writing sentences that sing.

8. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams. The sci-fi novel even sci-fi haters love.

9. “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. A character-driven tale of the civil rights movement in the South.

10. “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you want to be a great leader, you might as well learn from masters who’ve been given the historian’s seal of approval.

11. Marvel Comics. Victor von Doom’s thwarted love of Sue Storm turns him into a vengeful, ultimately self-destructive monster. Who hasn’t been there? Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and their colleagues combined soap opera, saturated images and a spirit of adventure decades before David Lynch conceived “Twin Peaks.”

What’s on your nightstand, or in your e-reader?

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI

The Give and Take of Media Relations

It’s not everyday that PR is taken to task for sending unsolicited emails to reporters. Oh, wait – it is every day that this happens. And sometimes the magnifying glass is placed directly over the Public Relations trade, as is the case this week with an unflattering article by The New York Times’ Haggler (Pulitzer Prize winning reporter David Segal) that took to task emails the columnist received and persistently tracked back to an industry vendor’s media database. It doesn’t help that the headline is”Swatting at a Storm of Public Relations Spam.”

Whether fair or not, this sort of coverage sets us up for the defensive.  Even with fantastic media databases, dedicated PR reps tracking down the right beat reporters, and guerilla PR efforts targeted by time, day, demo and topic, no media relations effort is perfect.  And to blame a database for an incorrect email campaign is akin to blaming the tools, not the carpenter, for shoddy construction. But we can all agree that a bad PR pitch is a bad PR pitch in whatever form, format or formality it’s received.

Email remains the “killer app” for communicating with our stakeholders.  By “killer” it can also mean relationship killer. The result of targeting the wrong reporter too many times, or the right reporter with the wrong pitch, usually is one of nonchalance — of just ignoring, deleting, opting out. The Haggler is an extreme version of one recipient revolting, perhaps for the sake of writing a column about it.

At the PR News Writing Bootcamp last week in Chicago, a panel of reporters reviewed mock email pitches from an audience of PR pros and implored the audience to keep their email pitches simple, short and crafted with an obvious reason for the reporter to care.  The journalists on this panel — from Chicago newspapers and a mommy blog — were characteristically cynical. They are inundated with email pitches daily, and as with press releases, you have 7 seconds, at most, to get their attention.  The panelists advised to think of an email pitch like it’s a movie trailer: grab the viewer’s attention but don’t give away the plot.

Assuming you have a story to tell, you still need to give the reporter something. Here are a few somethings to consider:

Before you send out your next email pitch, make sure “the give” is in there. Media Relations is the art and science of give and take.

- Diane Schwartz

Twitter: @dianeschwartz

PS: I’ll be at the PR NewsMedia Relations Conference on Dec 12 at the National Press Club. If you’re attending, DM on Twitter so we can set up a time to chat in person.

Perception Versus Reality in PR

Earlier in my career I worked with an editor for a media magazine who moved into PR after the magazine went defunct. We’ve kept in touch, him pitching stories to me for media-company clients, and me always trusting his judgment and willing to take a call.

Why was I so willing? Because he’s a thoughtful PR guy who helps connect me to interesting people and to stories my audience wants to read.

I was thinking about that guy the other day and my thought process then extended to stereotypes—of PR people and reporters.

I’ve learned a lot of things in 12 months covering the PR business, and my experiences have proven many of those common stereotypes wrong. I thought I’d outline a few of the stereotypes and take a look at how perception differs from reality for both reporters and PR people.

How reporters see themselves
• Journalists see themselves iconoclasts—but not Quixotic ones.
• Reporters think they’re fundamentally moral—in the words of the old expression, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
• They view themselves as wise and hard-boiled.
• They identify with skepticism—they would never accept gullibility.
• They see themselves as real and down-to-earth, unpretentious, even in fashion. Journalists invented business casual as a dress code.

How reporters see PR people
• Sometimes reporters call PR people flacks, and it’s not meant as a compliment.
• The columnist Mike Lupica (among many other journalists) calls PR people “mouthpieces.”
• Reporters see PR people as mostly blocking access, not providing it.
• Reporters think PR people cause their sources to speak in “talking points,” not provide real information.
• Reporters very often see PR people as bossy, officious and shallow in their most benign incarnation, and sometimes obnoxious or worse.

Some stereotype-busting things I’ve learned
• PR is one of the most intensive practice-oriented professions I’ve been associated with. Like law and other professions, PR pros split their skills into various practices—crisis management, media relations, corporate social responsibility and more, and they’re incredibly conscientious about education and advancing their skills.
• PR people (at our PR News events, at any rate) are engaging, courteous, smart and intensely focused on improving their skills.
• Reporters, in fact, can be amazingly gullible. Recently, word got back to me that some industry executive said all you had to do to get good press from us was to take one of our people out to dinner. I don’t believe that’s true at all, but I know from first-hand observation that in lots of other cases, it is.
• Journalistic skepticism sometimes morphs into raw cynicism.
• Reporters are rarely fashionable. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, truth be told.

—Tony Silber
@Tonysilber

The Deadening Consequences of An Overreliance on Data

One of the more insidious aspects of living in a digital age is not having enough time to read full-length articles as much as I like.

Sure, I make a valiant effort to read that wholly absorbing, 20,000-word piece in The New Yorker or a wonderful essay in Harper’s.

But then the distractions kick in, most of them self-inflicted: I check my iPhone and/or email inbox, indulge in some guilty pleasure on YouTube or simply give my eyeballs a rest from the constant exposure to one screen or another.

My guess is that these days most if not all PR pros also find it challenging to make the time to read long-form articles, watch epic documentaries or curl up with a good, thick book.

But if there’s one long-form article you read this month it should be “The Great Forgetting,” by Nicholas Carr, which runs in the November issue of The Atlantic.

The piece should be required reading for PR pros, particularly in light of the growing influence of data on marketing communications.

Carr, author of “The Shallows” and the forthcoming “The Glass Cage,” makes a convincing case that our growing reliance on data is making us less innovative and creative.

Carr splashes cold water on the notion that automation saves us time to pursue other tasks, what scholars of automation have dubbed the “substitution myth.”

“A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job or other activity,” Carr writes. “It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes, and skill of the people taking part.”

He adds. “Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action, software ends up narrowing our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.”

“Less distinctive” will do the PR industry no favors. As more and more of the business becomes commoditized, the last thing PR departments and agencies need is to rely on automation tools that may render their work generic.

Indeed, the article should give PR professionals pause about putting an inordinate amount of their eggs into the data basket.

Yes, we’ve all heard the phrase “If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth doing,” and verbal variations therein. But what if measurement tools and data sets provide us with the analytics but at the same time compromise or, even worse, suppress our creativity?

The PR industry has strived long and hard to better distinguish itself from other marketing disciplines. Don’t let an overreliance on data rob those gains. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

When to Apologize

As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.

The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.

“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.

This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.

And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.

Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.

But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.

In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.

And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.

So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

What’s First, Technology or Content?

I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.

Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.

Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?

Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.

And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.

In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.

There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.

—Tony Silber
@tonysilber

The 10 Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Now

“Anything bothering you?”

That was the question posed by my physician during a recent annual check-up. As he peered at my chart which was looking pretty boring in a good way, I wondered whether I should share something small, like “I get headaches every now and then.” Or should I tell him I’m feeling great, so I can take off the paper robe, get dressed and carry on with my day?

“I’m feeling great,” I declared. And that was my annual exam.

If only our personal career check-ups went so easily. I’m not referring to an annual review but to the regular self-assessment of how we’re feeling about what we’re doing every day.

With winter approaching and conference season in full force, there’s no time like the present to conduct an annual self-exam. Many of us have attended conferences at which we hear lots of great ideas, brush up on skills and meet new people. At the same time, we’re trolling social media and fear we’re missing out on other meetings, parties and opportunities. Instead of feeling empowered, the learning, networking and hyper-interactions can make some people feel bad about themselves.  (These are the people not doing the regular self-exams, by the way.) I was at a conference a week ago where I saw an attendee eating a brown bag lunch in the ladies restroom. Aside from the sanitary aspects of such a decision, I wondered if she was pushing herself too hard. She clearly needed to put on the metaphorical paper robe and conduct a self-exam, asking:

In the case of the woman-with-the-brown-bag-lunch and for those who are workaholics, another question might be: Do I eat alone (at my desk) more than twice a week?

These are just suggested questions and some can be painful to answer. But necessary. It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — if you answered “No” to most of the questions above then it’s time to make a change in mindset, action or venue.

- Diane Schwartz

Take off your paper robe and join me on Twitter @dianeschwartz

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