Write exceedingly well and you’ll increase your chances of succeeding in your workplace and in the job market. Write poorly and you’ll increase the burden of work for your colleagues and be seen as potentially expendable in economic downturns. That’s just how it is.
This is doubly true if you’re a PR professional or journalist. In both cases, good writing ability should be a point of entry and not an aspirational goal. If you’ve ever edited PR copy or journalism professionally, you may have learned that this is sometimes not the case. PR and journalism attracts people who say they love to write, but many of them apparently feel it’s fine to wing it with grammar, spelling, capitalization and punctuation.
While they wing it, others labor to clarify their sentences and paragraphs, rid them of errors and keep their style consistent. Wing it with your writing and you’re narrowing some career horizons.
Many PR pros know this to be true—we can see this at PR News from the many people who sign up for our Writing Boot Camps. Judging by the availability of online grammar tools, insecurity about writing ability goes far beyond PR and journalism to the general workforce. One such tool, Grammarly, scored a lot of attention online last week when it published an infographic called “The MLB Grammar Power Ranking,” in which it ranked Major League Baseball teams by their fans’ ability to write with the fewest grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. (Cleveland Indians fans came in first, with 3.6 errors per 100 words; New York Mets fans were last, with 13.9 errors per 100 words.)
The infographic and ensuing media coverage—including this post—has raised awareness for Grammarly, which offers three paid plans in which you can use its online program to proofread your copy, improve your word choices, avoid plagiarism and minimize grammatical and punctuation mistakes.
I’ve never used Grammarly. Perhaps I should. I am convinced, though, that this is not the entryway to the kind of excellent writing that’ll make a difference in your professional life. It’s probably a very useful tool, but depending on technology is not the way.
Commit to being your own writing teacher first, then pay for the tool and sign up for the class. Don’t wing it with punctuation, capitalization and grammar. Get copies of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and never stop referring to them. Be your own editor and keep rewriting your sentences. Develop that ability first, so that when a trainer, author or computer program exhorts you to avoid walls of text and make every verb count, you’re already on the endless road to writing a little bit better with every passing week.
—Steve Goldstein, @SGoldsteinAI
It’s not every day that you get a free scoop of ice cream with your bacon and eggs, unless you’re eating breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s. The iconic Chicago diner has been surprising first-time customers and delighting return diners with this extra touch. When the waitress handed me the check, then asked if I wanted some ice cream, I looked around as if I had won the lottery. The last thing I really wanted was ice cream after a hearty breakfast but I didn’t realize how much I loved being surprised by the offer.
Surprise: it’s surprisingly powerful!
When was the last time you offered your brand’s version of ice cream with breakfast? When you provided an unexpected benefit or show of appreciation for your stakeholders, be it a customer, a reporter, an employee, an investor, a client? Even the most beloved brands shouldn’t assume they are good to go with their customers, who are just a click or step away from turning their attention to your competitor. MasterCard is just one of many smart brands employing “surprise and delight” to build customer loyalty. Through its “Priceless Surprises” campaigns, cardholders have randomly received a gift, such as a meeting with Justin Timberlake, and are encouraged to send surprise gifts to friends and family (using MasterCard).
When Tania Luna, co-author of “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” keynoted our PR News Digital PR Conference earlier this month in Miami, attendees expected her to talk about how to communicate via surprise tactics given the name of her new book. What the audience didn’t expect was to be handed a pack of Pop Rocks and asked to place the fizzy crystals in their mouth and create a symphonic sound with fellow attendees, with Luna as the conductor. “At the count of 3, this side of the room should start swirling their Pop Rocks in their mouth,” Luna instructed. Amazingly, the attendees exploded with glee and there was a communal sense of pleasant surprise at the activity, the nostalgic quality of Pop Rocks and the silliness they found themselves in. They weren’t expecting this activity at a PR conference. Surprise!
In a recent interview with PR News’ Steve Goldstein, Luna offered 9 surprise tactics and implored communicators to remember that acting human is different than being human. She suggests that communicators “scriptease” to build trust with stakeholders, especially with the media. Put your scripted pitch aside and just have a conversation with the reporter like you would with a friend.
And never stop surprising and delighting: To wit, if you’re waiting in the long line at Lou Mitchell’s or as you’re leaving the restaurant, there’s an endless bowl of fresh donut holes for the taking. Just another way for this brand to sweeten the experience.
- Diane Schwartz
The melding of PR and marketing is one of the biggest challenges facing communicators of all stripes.
As C-level managers demand more accountability from their PR departments, communicators increasingly are trying to take their lead from marketing when it comes to measuring activity and demonstrating value. And, unlike even a few years ago, a growing number of PR execs now report to CMOs.
Wide disparities remain between the two disciplines. Marketing is conditioned to showing fairly immediate returns on the investment—PR, not so much. Indeed, it might take years for PR efforts to flow to the top and/or bottom lines.
But the arc of media consumption is bending toward PR. Online consumers have much more interest in having a conversation with brands, the domain of PR. Still, if they’re to succeed in the future, both marketing and PR need to work together.
How marketing and PR are collaborating on digital was discussed Monday during PR News’ Digital PR Conference.
“Communication pros who think like brand marketers will have a better appreciation of the purchase path,” said Torod Neptune, VP and head of corporate communications for Verizon Wireless.
Neptune has made several moves to provide for better collaboration between Verizon Wireless’ PR and marketing teams. They include:
- Expanding the PR department by hiring executives from digital agencies, as opposed to traditional communications professionals, who are well-versed in all things digital.
- Training PR execs to speak in a marketing vernacular and learn the terminology that the marketing department uses. “This should be the way we talk about our craft, which is one of the big opportunities” for PR, Neptune said.
- Encouraging PR execs to be more proactive, rather than reactive, about establishing the corporate narrative and speaking in the brand voice.
Jody Sunna, executive VP for Havas PR North America, stressed that bolstering fundamental communication between marketing and PR is key. She recommended the following tips for better collaboration:
- Maintain message consistency across all channels and all platforms.
- Look to bring all marketing, PR and digital team members to the table from the get-go to uncover opportunities and workarounds.
- Cross-promote and amplify content outside of your channel. Share PR stories with sales teams and across social channels. Share fan feedback from Twitter and Facebook with PR and marketing, and share marketing sales figures with PR.
Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1
The series finale of ‘Mad Men’ left it up to us to decide if Don Draper took on a new, third identity or whether California bliss and an inspired retreat experience led him back to the advertising life and to create the iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial.”
After 92 hours of great storytelling by show creator Matthew Weiner, we say goodbye to Don, Roger, Peggy, Joan, Pete, and the iconic, misogynistic and inappropriate ’60s workplace. So one cliffhanger from the show which may frustrate communicators is: Where was the HR director at Sterling Cooper & Partners? Today, that HR dept. would be working overtime to deal with the goings-on among its troops.
To wit, I recap wonderfully horrible lines from ‘Mad Men’ over the years that hopefully you don’t hear in the workplace anymore:
“Give me more ideas to reject.” – Don Draper
“Well, I gotta go learn a bunch of people’s names before I fire them.” – Roger Sterling
“Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face.” – Roger Sterling
“I’m Peggy Olson and I wanna smoke some marijuana.”
“Say yes with your voice not just your eyes.” – Pete
“I’m not a solution to your problem. I’m another problem.” – Joan
“Remember when God closes a door he opens a dress.” – Roger Sterling
“I know you’re ashamed of your body. Or you should be at least.” – Stan [to Peggy]
“Although things are precarious financially, it’s been a magnificent year.” – Lane
“Could you keep it down? I’m trying to drink.” – Don Draper
‘Mad Men‘ is arguably one of TV’s best written stories and will be fondly remembered for years to come. The workplace culture and the dialogue that accompanied it? It’s good to know we’ve progressed, or as one ’60s advertising slogan noted, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
– Diane Schwartz
—inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
In 1967, in what seemed like a far less-complicated time, a McDonald’s TV commercial, borrowing the tune from “Down by the Riverside,” claimed its burger restaurants were “my kind of place, a hap, hap, happy place, a clean and snappy place.”
Today McDonald’s is a public company, a global behemoth, with nearly 2 million employees serving 68 million customers daily in some 118 countries and territories.
Last year, for the first time in nearly two decades, the company’s quarterly sales fell. That downturn mirrored what has been happening in McDonald’s’ country of origin. U.S. same-store sales at some 14,000 McDonald’s have been mired in a five-year slump.
As a result of the sales downturn, every move this traditional Wall Street darling makes as it attempts to return to glory is scrutinized, picked over by restaurant insiders, not to mention financial analysts and the media, PR News.
Whether it’s simplifying what some believe has become an overly large menu, changing prices, serving breakfast all day or becoming more transparent about its food suppliers, the former hap, hap happy place is becoming a tes, tes, test case. As such, PR pros are anxiously watching how the world’s largest burger chain attempts to reinject gold into its arches and how clearly it communicates those efforts.
The corporation’s biggest move to date had president/CEO Don Thompson, 51, announcing he was stepping down in late January. Steve Easterbrook, a 48-year-old Brit and one of Thompson’s former lieutenants, has replaced him.
In a PR News piece last month that discussed Easterbrook’s first visible moves—closing 350 restaurants—it was argued that changing consumers’ perception of McDonald’s will be critical to a turnaround. Mark Renfree wrote:
“McDonald’s product isn’t the problem; it’s how customers perceive the Golden Arches. The brand has become synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and horrifying factory farms.”
One of the great things about watching McDonald’s as a case study is that for every solution proposed, there will be someone who takes the opposite view.
Embracing Fat, Grease and Friendly, Clean Environs
While Don Draper and later Peggy Olson once counseled their clients saying, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation,” this may prove difficult for McDonald’s, according to Professor Adam Galinksy of Columbia University’s business school. In a book to be published in September, Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (Crown Business/Random House), Galinsky and co-author M. Schweitzer discuss whether brands should fight to change public perception or concede on certain points. Successful brands have done both, they argue. Can McDonald’s win by admitting that the burger chain ‘is what it is’?
Several brands have responded to less-than-flattering perceptions by changing their names—the Patagonian toothfish resurfaced as Chilean Sea Bass, Philip Morris morphed into Altria, Kentucky Fried Chicken modified slightly to KFC. McDonald’s is an icon, so a name change would appear to be out of the question, Galinsky says.
McDonald’s is fighting on select fronts and is succeeding. To combat the pasting its food has received on social media, McDonald’s has chosen to go to battle in the arena where the damage was done. McDonald’s has used social media to make a foray into transparency. Its “Our Food. Your Questions” has attracted more than 31 million social media views, outdistancing successes the campaign has enjoyed in other countries.
On the other hand, attempts at changing perception also have hurt McDonald’s. Adding healthier items to its menus, some argue, has damaged one of McDonald’s’ hallmarks, fast service.
This leads to the thought that perhaps part of Easterbrook’s resuscitation plan should include McDonald’s embracing its image. “We’re a hap, hap, happy place offering good-tasting food that perhaps is not the healthiest choice, but who cares? We serve you quickly, inexpensively and in a clean, kid-friendly atmosphere.”
For years PR pros have advocated a version of this prescription, even in the volatility of the digital age—have a sense of humor about your brand, own your image. In a situation where your brand is the punch line of jokes on social media, if they constitute a relatively minor threat, you could do worse than to laugh, Ivan Ristic counseled recently.
Healthy Eating or Pass the Coke?
Yet the McDonald’s case may be different. There’s deep, well-documented resentment against McDonald’s on several fronts and healthy eating indeed has risen in the public’s awareness, else Coca-Cola wouldn’t be reeling also.
Still, Americans have a long way to go before we can be said to be healthy eaters. We may be health-conscious, ie, we know we are ingesting too much sodium, fat, sugar and calories and getting too little exercise. For some reason, however, those misgivings recede quickly as we devour a few more of those delicious French fries and slurp an icy, cold Coke.
Another thing to consider, with all the moaning and groaning about lower sales and reduced income for McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, Americans likely will drink more than 100 servings of Coke this year and McDonald’s boasts a consistent average of selling 75 burgers per second worldwide. These brands are not going away soon.
Still, it won’t be easy for McDonald’s and Easterbrook to laugh at and accept the perception of the brand as a purveyor of unhealthy fare. As noted above, sales are down. Shareholders and franchisees, owners of 80% of McDonald’s restaurants, are looking to Easterbrook for solutions. Of course this could be a situation for PR and communication pros to come to the fore, crafting a strategy where McDonald’s embraces its unhealthy image, but in a subtle, constructive way that helps boost sales.
Will McDonald’s admit to what it is and own its image, warts and all, or try to revise its public perception as a purveyor of healthy comestibles? It’s clear what Galinski recommends. “Stigmatized companies aren’t better off hiding from their characteristics,” Galinsky says. “They’re better off owning them.”
Most likely Easterbrook’s rescue plans will include elements of both approaches. In any case, McDonald’s will supply plenty of food for thought in the weeks and months ahead. Let the fun begin.
Seth Arenstein is Senior Editorial Advisor to PR News
All the talk about mentoring can make you feel a bit left out. If you are neither a mentor nor a mentee, then what the heck are you doing with yourself? The truth is, you are probably mentoring or being mentored without even knowing it. It’s the new fabric of our work culture – people helping people. If you’re not guiding someone or asking for help on a regular basis then you are missing out in a significant way.
As communicators, we need to recognize that our pace of advancement might be inversely affected by the age of our mentors. The older you are, the better off you may be if you are mentored by a Millennial. The concept of Reverse Mentoring, first championed by GE’s Jack Welch more than a decade ago, is not only a great way for senior executives to learn the nuances of social media, it’s a way to bridge the communications gap between generations, increasing morale, retention and knowledge.
Three influential PR executives I met with recently were eager to share their experiences with reverse mentoring. Said one: “One of my young employees has been showing me how to do a tweet chat. I had no idea.” Said the other: “They are taking over – best to get to know how they think.” While much of the conversation was centered around social media and younger generations holding comfortably the Digital Native mantle, it goes without saying that Millennials and the Generation Z following them into the workplace are the future leaders, current and future customers and business creators.
Identifying a mentor – formally or informally – who is of another generation than yours and embracing the unique perspective and skills that person holds will take you far. And many Millennials are schooling the senior set to great effect for the company’s brand, too.
If you’re not engaged in some sort of reverse mentoring, you are not only missing out, you will be spinning your wheels until they eventually fall off.
– Diane Schwartz
The story about the little engine that could is a familiar and heart-warming one, a tale of a determined underdog fulfilling a difficult task against all odds. “I think I can, I think I can” is a commonly used refrain at challenging moments.
Sometimes, though, we might be stronger to think we can’t. To admit, “I think I can’t. I think I can’t” and to seek help.
This idea was brought to light last week during PR News’ Top Women in PR Awards ceremony when keynoter JJ Ramberg, host of MSBNC’s Your Business, reminded an audience of high achievers to ask for help without the fear of reprisal or embarrassment. The women who make up our 2015 class of top female communicators are a determined group that can relate to the little engine that took on the challenge of taking a stranded train over the hill while the bigger, more able locomotives refused.
I’m fairly certain that leaders of either gender know they can’t do everything well and will seek assistance every now and then. Aside from having mentors to guide us, it’s imperative that we as communicators are also able to communicate our (momentary) weaknesses and our need for assistance. To occasionally ask for help from colleagues, peers, friends and new-found business connections is to acknowledge our limits, to learn from the assistance we receive and to pay it forward.
The next time you think you’re the little engine that could or the big engine that should, consider your options. Could you use a little help?
– Diane Schwartz
When a Florida sheriff’s office recently noticed its new crest-engraved office rug read “In Dog We Trust,” rather than “In God We Trust” it turned a $500 typo into a nearly $10k opportunity. It held an auction for the grammatically incorrect rug in which proceeds would go to the local animal rescue organization. If we could raise $9,650 (which the sheriff’s office did) for every typo, grammatical error and poor turn of phrase, bad writing and editing could actually be spun into a rather beneficial side business. Alas, poor writing or sloppy editing persists among the best brands and among the best of us. It just happens. But we can do better.
It certainly doesn’t look good for communicators when a press release is riddled with errors, when an email to a reporter is lacking punctuation and clarity or when a business memo is strung together with disparate ideas and fails to cut to the chase. Spell-check cannot save a poor communicator.
There are a few quick fixes to our post-college national writing problem:
Find an Editor: Someone on your team should serve as your editor. Never let a press release go on the wires or an important document be distributed without another set of eyes. Don’t just have anyone edit your copy – identify strong writers who have a discerning eye. Just as importantly, track the changes your editor makes so you can see for yourself what is being changed and understand your writing weaknesses.
Read Two Great Articles a Day: Whether online or in print, read something in the news or within your markets and observe how the writer grabs your interest in the first 15 seconds and how the article articulates its main points and concludes the piece. You are reading a great story, and as a storyteller you can be as interesting as that journalist.
Let Your Best Work Marinate: By this I mean don’t rush your messaging. You need to let your writing evolve over the course of a few hours or even a few days. Come back to the piece and you will always find it needs polishing and you will embrace the act of polishing because a sparkling piece of work will get noticed.
Elevator Pitches Have Legs: Sometimes an overused reference is overused because it works. If you think in terms of how you’d convey to a colleague the main points of your press release, your content marketing piece, your client email on an elevator ride from the lobby to the 10th floor, what would you say? What you come up with forms the headline and lead and helps crystallize your message. Elevator pitches get easier the more you choose to take the ride. Which leads me to the last piece of advice:
Write Your Heart Out: While writing well is not yet a lost art, the less we write complete sentences (thank you, texting!) and the less we hold up great PR writing as a benchmark of communications excellence, the more likely we are to lose ground with our stakeholders. Take your writing seriously. Craft something interesting every day. And prepare to be edited. It’s part of the writing process.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: Check out our PR News Writing Workshop on Feb 10 in San Fran. I hope you’ll be able to attend!
A while back I compiled a list of annoying phrases and words we utter as communicators (and human beings), from “at the end of the day” to “guru” and “epic”. The list, via my blog post, grew as you added your own phrases that annoy (“I don’t hate that” and “synergy,” to name a few).
When the other day I heard someone complain about not being able to take a campaign viral, I knew it was time to create The Epic List of Useless PR Tactics. To make this epic, you will need to add to it, shamelessly and without hesitation. Every profession has tactics that consistently don’t work because the very premise of them is flawed.
I should preface by stating that most PR people I know, and whom we cover in PR News, are hard-working, intelligent and effective. But we all know colleagues who subscribe to one of the tactics below that only serves to set PR back as a profession:
Creating a viral campaign as goal #1: it’s gratifying when a campaign goes viral like the Oreo blackout tweet or the ice bucket challenge and social media has accelerated our ability to spread our messages (for better or worse). But understanding the motivations and psychologies of your stakeholders rather than making the medium (Twitter, Facebook, etc) the central focus will more likely result in spreadable content.
Using ad value equivalencies as a metric: While public relations is still struggling to agree on a standard metric, it has come a long way with the Barcelona Principles and matrices to better measure the value of PR in general and a campaign in particular. Applying AVEs to PR is the best route to going backwards.
Spraying and praying: you need media coverage, so the best way to get that is to send the same email and press release to thousands of journalists, most of whom do not cover your industry. Wrong! Even with updated and accurate databases at our disposal to target the appropriate journalist or influencer, telling a story to the right audience is still elusive to many.
Baiting and switching: there’s nothing a client hates more than thinking they’ve just hired a seasoned PR counselor only to be met the next week by someone a few years out of college who’s the lead on the account. After nearly 20 years in the PR space, I can say that there’s more transparency in agency-client relations and less bait-and-switch; the minority cases drown out the advancements.
Forgetting you have a voice: Email is an excellent communication tool but nothing beats talking to someone in person or by phone. Go retro and phone an industry friend, meet with a reporter or client and meet up with stakeholders on their turf (industry conferences, for example)
Forgetting you have ears: as with most disciplines, PR suffers from hearing loss. Listen to what your stakeholders are saying and be present in the places they are saying it. Listening is a workout: you have to discipline yourself to do it regularly but the rewards are noticeable.
Working in a silo: if you want to limit what your organization can achieve, then it’s important you stay neatly tucked into your department. But if you see that the lines have blurred and that it takes a village to raise the bar, then you know that aligning with your marketing peers (see my last blog on this), and even those in IR, IT, HR and other two and three letter departments will be the way forward for effective communications.
I want to hear from you. You’re on the front lines. What are some PR tactics we need to put an end to, stat? Please add to my list.
On twitter: @dianeschwartz
At yesterday’s Communications Week “PRx” event in New York, Barri Rafferty, CEO of Ketchum North America, said that women need to stop saying “I’m sorry” if they want to become chief executives. The phrase “I’m sorry” is used too freely by women, according to Rafferty. It’s usually a thoughtless preamble to a statement or mere entrance into a room, and is a signifier of a lack of confidence and feeling of unworthiness.
“Have swagger,” Rafferty said. “Don’t be sorry—shine and be strong.”
I couldn’t help being reminded of her advice to women when I read today’s article in the New York Times about the Council of Public Relations Firms’ “soul-searching.”
The Times reported that the council, which is holding its annual conference on Oct. 23, adopted an informal name, the PR Council, and that in discussions of the rebranding the council had considered eliminating “PR” entirely.
The article points out that although social media and content marketing have expanded the role that PR plays in brand communications, PR—in particular, PR agencies—“has also been under scrutiny recently for a string of flubs and foul-ups.” The council was seeking a new moniker that would encompass PR’s past, present and future, but drop-kicking the term “PR” into the waste bin would have betrayed PR’s own lack of confidence and sense of unworthiness.
For generations, PR practitioners could only look on with envy and perhaps disgust at the budgets thrown at ad agencies and marketers, but the evolution of technology has been on their side, whether they realize it or not. The Council of Public Relations Firms–make that the “PR Council”—recognized that truth in the end.