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.

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

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

Reflections on the State of PR, Via the PRSA Annual Meeting

I attended the Public Relations Society of America’s annual meeting this week in Philly, and as so often happens when you get out into the field to listen, think and discuss things with your peers, I came back to the office with some valuable new perspectives.

The event itself left few stones unturned regarding the immense challenges now facing PR and marketing executives.

Many marcomm issues of today were virtually unheard of five years ago, and many were featured in robust sessions during the four-day program.

Work sessions including “How Brands Successfully Culture-Jack the Big Moments,” and “Understanding and Embracing Open-Source and Hacker-Culture is Critical to PR’s Future” definitely moved the needle, brought new insights both to topics we think we know well and those we’re still struggling to understand.

The event also had solid coverage of traditional PR disciplines, such as demonstrating PR ROI and trends in crisis management and media pitching. There was ample discussion of brand building and corporate philanthropy, as well.

But in so many areas, the conversation is just starting. The lines continue to blur between PR and other marketing disciplines.

Now, back at the office, here are a few things I’m still thinking about:

> What’s PR’s role in an integrated marketing campaign, and who should “own” the elements of the campaign? As media and marketing become more complex, the elements—and participants—in these kinds of campaigns start to span different disciplines. Marketing is involved, right along with the advertising, digital and social media worlds, and PR is the traffic cop. Control becomes more difficult, and much more important.

> Visual storytelling. This is a broad new PR discipline, and one that’s relatively uncharted. There are many channels and many approaches, and PR folks should be eager to hear from marketers and Web-design companies alike on how to build a better a website and tell stories more effectively with pictures.

> PR and the C-suite. With PR at the core of strategic marketing and brand communications, it’s more important than ever to have a direct, and persuasive, line to the CEO. And yet, I sometimes think the opposite is happening. I’m looking for a CEO to share with communicators why he or she no longer looks at PR as a cost center, but a profit center.

PRSA is already starting to gear up for next year’s gathering, in Washington, D.C. Here’s looking forward to next year, and seeing what the next 12 months brings on these and other issues.

Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1

Be Aware: The Percentage of Funds Actually Going to a Cause Will Become Part of Your CSR Story

Amid all the noise surrounding Barneys New York and its alleged racial profiling, and whether the rap mogul Jay-Z should back out of his partnership with the luxury retailer, came this little noticed fact: Only 25 percent of the proceeds from the partnership, where sales are intended to benefit Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation, will actually go to the foundation.

And no doubt, only a fraction of that 25 percent will go to the ultimate objective, scholarships for economically challenged students.

And therein lies a significant issue inherent in all CSR efforts—trust. When people hear about a non-profit entity serving a worthy cause, the first thing many people think is, ‘how much of the proceeds are actually going to the cause?’

It’s a common question people ask themselves before they take out their checkbooks, and it’s legit. For example, Business Insider reported earlier this month that “a shockingly small amount of money from NFL pink merchandise goes to breast cancer research.”

How small? Business Insider said that for every $100 in pink merchandise sold, $12.50 goes to the NFL. Of that, $11.25 goes to the American Cancer Society and the NFL keeps the rest.

What these reports do is dampen charitable giving because people have images of well-paid executive directors, lavish staff salaries and benefits and rich expense accounts.

And so, from a communications perspective, PR pros who manage CSR and charitable giving need to know at least one thing: The actual percentages of funds going to a charity or cause needs to become part of CSR messaging, because the media is going to report on it anyway and it’s better to be ahead of the story.

And by mastering this one thing, you can avoid the reaction that ‘oh, well, it’s just another non-profit enriching itself before doing accomplishing social good.’

—@tonysilber

9 Tips for Public Speakers Who Hate Public Speaking

Butterflies in your stomach. Dry mouth. Fantasy of escaping through the back door. It’s inevitable: at some point in your career, you’ll need to speak in front of an audience. Whether at a small meeting, a conference, a general session, on a panel, or on your own. For most of us, it’s about getting out of our comfort zone. If it’s any consolation, the number-one fear of Americans is Public Speaking. Death is the number-2 fear. So you are not alone (until you die). Based on my own experiences and interviews with countless public speakers over the past year, I offer these nines tips to help you get through your next speaking gig with flying colors:

1. Research your audience: why are they there, what are their job responsibilities, how knowledgeable are they of the topic you’ll be speaking about? If possible, ask the event producer to survey the audience in advance w/a few questions that will help you tailor your presentation.

2. Avoid death by PowerPoint. Put another way, don’t talk them to sleep. Slides are important but they should be springboards to your speech and not littered with words and cheesy clip art. Large point size, consistent style and about half the slide blank are the rules. Show some video if you can – but not of cute puppies or kittens, unless you’re speaking to an animal rights group.

3. Master your content:. a corollary to tip #1, speak of what you know. You’ll be more relaxed and confident if you know your material. If you’re asked to speak about a topic that is complicated and not in your wheelhouse, decline the invite.

4.  Interact with your audience. Build a quick community with the attendees and encourage questions.

5. Limit talking about yourself. You know the speaker bio provided to the audience in advance? They already know who you are. Make it about them.

6. Wear your storytelling hat. There’s nothing better than a story to illustrate your point. That is what the audience will remember. Bring one great story to your speech – not 3 mediocre ones – and you will connect with your audience.

7. Own your content. I was listening to a speaker recently whose entire presentation was about quoting other authors and experts and not sharing an original thought. Find something unique and original to say to your audience. There’s a reason you were asked to take the stage.

8. Remember social media. Be careful what you say and how you say it. One off-color quote can go viral on social media and affect your reputation and your organization’s.

9. Don’t picture your audience naked. This is an old bit of advice predicated on the notion that the naked attendee is more vulnerable than you and so you have the upper hand. This advice doesn’t hold true — better to picture your audience thinking positive thoughts about you, and cheering you on. The crowd wants you to succeed, they are rooting for you. That‘s the naked truth.

What tips would you add to this list?

– Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

What I Learned at Comic Con

For reasons that escape me now, I said yes to my son Max when he asked if we could go to Comic Con together this past weekend.  Sounded like a fun day out in New York City: hanging with 125,000 pop culture fans at the Javits Center, more than half of whom came dressed as their favorite character from film, TV, comics, video games. I learned from Max that this is called “cosplay,” as in costume play.

Preparation was key, so I checked out the Comic Con NY web site for tips. Among them were to Shower and Don’t Make It Too Realistic (ie, don’t bring real weapons into the convention center).  I knew I was in for a crude awakening.

Because I’m not a “real” fan of 97% of the brands and products exhibiting at Comic Con, I followed my son from booth to booth, session to session with the personal goal of understanding what all the fuss was about.  Why would so many people want to spend an entire day or weekend scrunched into a convention center with strangers who clearly didn’t heed tip #3 to shower before attending, and certainly didn’t think their bosses would see them in that Captain America leotard?

It was clear from the moment I bumped into Thor that I was witnessing Real Community. The passion among the fans at Comic Con was unlike any I’ve seen before at an event. The hunger to meet a favorite graphic artist or a cult favorite TV actor, even if it meant standing in line for 90 minutes to get their autograph, was amazing to me – and admirable. The camaraderie among the attendees was so strong that I wished, for a split second, I had dressed up as Katniss so someone would give me a compliment or take a photo with me.

The passion at Comic Con was palpable and the event a complete fish-out-of-water experience. When I first entered the convention center, I said a little prayer of survival – get me through this so I can win Mother of the Year or “of the Day.” Yet I came away from ComiCon with a greater appreciation of the enthusiast/fan market and with a keener sense of what a passionate brand can lead people to do, say and wear. We often talk of Community in the sense of social media, but at Comic Con, the fans came face to face (or mask to mask) to be part of something big, to be the content and the entertainment.  That’s Engagement in action. I thanked Max for taking me to ComiCon and he didn’t quite understand why I was thanking him. It was so out of character.

- Diane Schwartz

On Twitter: @dianeschwartz

 

Breaking ‘Bad PR’: 10 Tips for Better Communications

I am among the unlucky who didn’t watch ‘Breaking Bad’ over the years and missed out on the binge-watching and chatter over Sunday’s finale. We must all make choices in our TV viewing and apparently I made a bad choice and there’s no going back to viewing all the seasons since I now know (spoiler alert!) that Walt dies in the finale.
The good news for PR peeps is you can break out of bad PR habits and live to tell your story. I am pretty sure most of you can’t personally relate to the list below, but in the interest of elevating the PR profession, here are some ideas for breaking bad PR:

1. Don’t email or call journalists you aren’t familiar with. Research their beats, recent articles they’ve written and their media outlet for relevance.
2. When being interviewed by the media, do not say “no comment.” Worse yet, don’t utter those words while chewing gum (really).
3. Your company is not “leading” and does not have the “number-one solution” – remove these and words like them from your press releases and web site.
4. Don’t do anything in PR that you can’t measure.
5. Don’t ask or ponder what the Barcelona Principles are (look them up, memorize them).
6. If your company is green or sustainable, make sure you can prove it.
7. The number of Twitter followers or Facebook likes for your brand is not commensurate with how wonderful your company is.
8. In a crisis, don’t think an apology is a sign of weakness.
9. Don’t hire bad writers.
10. Turn down clients that aren’t a good match for your firm. Likewise, for clients, don’t be afraid to break up with your agency if the relationship’s not working.
11. Don’t ever let someone call you a flack. PR deserves better.

I look forward to seeing your tips for breaking bad PR.

Diane Schwartz
@dianeschwartz

Where You Sit is What You See

I picked up a sound piece of advice the other night, during a college admissions event my daughter and I attended.  Among the questions the prospective students asked of the alumni panel was whether the class sizes are so big that you can’t see, hear and learn in them.  The very articulate Class of 2010 alumnus responded with a great piece of advice that was applicable to me — and you, I imagine. She said: “Just sit in the front of the room.” (Ah, if only it were that easy. Especially in college, when you really aren’t sure if you’ll be staying for the whole class, and what about your friends who wouldn’t dare sit in the front row?)

The high school senior who asked the question nodded affirmatively, but you could see that the sound advice flowed right over her head. I believe she was hoping for a literal answer, such as “Yes, it sucks, but you deal with it.”

The takeaway for me was an affirmation that just changing where you sit changes your perspective, improves your visibility, eliminates distractions, and gets you noticed. To take the advice further, instead of sitting in the back of the room (or being anonymous in your organization, or among your customers), move yourself to get closer, to be seen, and to hear things more clearly. By sitting (or getting closer), you’ll pick up on details that could make a big difference in your viewpoint. Our marketplaces are bigger than any college classroom; if you’re in the way, way back then you’re missing out on the conversation.

I didn’t expect to learn much from this college event – it was really for my daughter, not me.  Which shows you can learn some life lessons from unexpected places and times. Just sit closer, and listen.

Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

 

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