English has 1.1 million words, more words than any other language, according to the Global Language Monitor and other sources. That’s double the next most prolific language. And English adds about 15 words per day, or one every 98 minutes.
So 400 years after the greatest English wordsmith of them all, William Shakespeare, the language remains a living, changing, vital form of communication, something PR folks use every day. And they work hard at it. It’s said PR is, at its core, storytelling. But if that’s true, then storytelling, at its core, is about words.
It stands to reason, then, that as words get added, other words become obsolete. Who uses “groovy” anymore? And as technology transforms our lives, the lifecycle of some words speeds up. In that spirit, we offer a list of words we came across as 2014 dawned that should be banned, starting now.
Words to be Banned, Generic Edition
(Courtesy of Lake Superior State University, and selected by them for the sins of misuse, overuse and general uselessness)
• Mr. Mom
• _____ on Steroids
A related list, from USA Today, gets at a few more words and phrases that have become persona non grata.
• Combined celebrity couple names
• “Abbrevs,” like “ridic,” “totes,” “obv,” “cray,” and lots more.
Phrases and Words to be Banned, Work Edition
(Courtesy of USA Today)
• Noncommittal language
• Describing things as “surreal”
• Saying “quote-unquote”
• Starting all sentences with “So,” and ending them with “right?”
Phrases and Words to be Banned, PR Edition
(Courtesy of Yahoo Tech’s David Pogue)
You’ll never catch me using terms like “price point” when I mean “price,” or “form factor” when I mean “size.” I’ll never say “content” when I mean video, “solution” when I mean product, “DRM” when I mean copy protection, or “functionality” when I mean “feature.” Also, I will never refer to you as “the user.” (If you think about it, only two industries refer to their customers as users.)
So there you have it. What do you think? So when I was compiling this list, it seemed like a valuable study in the use of language, right?
The good thing about New Year’s resolutions is that no one is really listening closely to what you are resolving to do. But resolutions do crystallize our goals and make the month of January, at least, a little more interesting. For communicators the world over, you should expect 2014 to bring the following:
> Crises, smoldering or quick
> Reputations under fire or on fire
> Media coverage, for better or worse
> Employee morale issues
> Financial ups and downs
> Product and company launches
> Product and company failures
> A new social media craze
These are just a few of the sure things in PR as we herald in the new year and perhaps a new approach to PR. In my nearly two decades covering Public Relations, I have never seen a bigger opportunity than now for PR practitioners to be the dominant force in brand leadership, message management and tying intangibles and tangibles to the bottom line.
There are many ways to not screw up this trajectory and to possibly make 2014 the most exciting year for you in PR. To do that, however, will take some commitment to the core tenets and practices of the best PR practitioners. Here at PR News we benchmark outstanding communication leadership across all areas of the market. From our Platinum PR to our PR People Awards, from Corporate Social Responsibility to the Digital PR Awards, we see a pattern in excellence that underscores why resolutions are worth keeping. Like many New Year’s Resolutions, the following list may sound familiar but I submit that the best ideas are worth repeating:
* Find the interesting story behind your message – and tell it
* Measure your PR and be bold enough to make adjustments
* Listen to your stakeholders: your customers, investors, employees are your keys to success
* Learn to work across silos – marketing, HR, IT, Finance, Legal
* Become a better goal-keeper: of your goals, your department’s and your organization’s
* Collaborate internally and externally – 1+1=3
* Hone your writing skills: you reach more people when you can spell, turn a phrase and use your words correctly
* Foster diversity: in thought and experience
* Don’t fear missing out: resist the urge to be on every social media platform
* Be transparent: people are smart enough to see through the BS anyway
* Advocate for PR: become a voice for Public Relations inside your organization and in the marketplace of ideas.
What are some of your PR resolutions for 2014? Please share with your fellow PR News blog readers.
Best of luck to you and your team for a meaningful and memorable 2014.
– Diane Schwartz
PS – Check out more of my blog posts from the past few months:
There are certain people who even when they’re smiling warmly have a certain gravitas. They have a certain air that suggests intelligence, calculation, control, even as they engage the people around them. Bill Clinton has that. So does Denzel Washington. Oprah Winfrey. Colin Powell does, and Ronald Reagan did too. One thing that struck me about the photos and the movies of the late actor Paul Walker was that he had that quality as well.
Last week, at our annual PR People Awards presentation, our featured speaker was John Neffinger, co-author of the book, “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.” Neffinger’s talk was filled with specific, compelling points, all based around a simple premise: People judge other people based on two things, strength and warmth. Strength is the root of respect, and warmth is the root of affection. If you plotted both qualities out on an X axis and a Y axis, the ideal location would be the upper right quadrant, where strength and warmth are maximized. Any of the other three quadrants means a bad mix—either too much of one and not enough of the other, or too little of both.
Neffinger’s whole point was that this is the essential way all humans size each other up. And that only relatively few people ever master the ability to project both qualities at the same time.
And it seems to me that for communicators, especially those who spend a lot of time in public, representing the company—or interacting with employees, for that matter—that Neffinger’s counsel is important. Here are some highlights from his talk that are relevant to communicators looking to sync verbal messaging with non-verbal cues to convey both strength and warmth.
• Try to develop the knowing smile that the people mentioned above have. Neffinger describes is as “feeling the bottom eyelid.”
• Stand up straight. Posture is extremely important, but not used enough.
• Use poised but open gestures. Holding the hands up, Neffinger says, conveys warmth and openness. Holding them down conveys the opposite. Similarly, the chopping gesture with the hands conveys strength, as does holding an imaginary ball in hour hands while speaking.
• Replace all the “ums,” and “uhhhs” in your communications with silence. It’s more powerful.
What are the tools you use to project strength and warmth?
It’s said that we speak an average of 16,000 words each day. That’s a lot of talking. As communicators, we appreciate fine words and clever turns of phrases. But on this day after a long holiday, still recovering from a turkey and pumpkin pie stupor and constant conversation with distant relatives, I challenge you to insert into your dialogue or work- day imagination at least two of the quotes below from the blockbuster movie The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
On the surface, there’s little we can find in common between the roles of Katniss, Peeta, President Snow and Haymitch Abernathy and our role as communicators. But scratch just a little beneath that surface and you may find that the lines below could be very helpful as you get your week off to a fiery start:
“No waving and smiling this time. I want you to look straight ahead as if the audience and this whole event are beneath you.” (possible scene: you are at a meeting with new competitors)
“Remember who the real enemy is.” (scene: at the meeting above you realize your competitors are not really your enemies)
“You’ve given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.” (scene: you give your team a challenging project to take on)
“Chins up, smiles on!” (scene: instead of ending your meeting with “OK, that’s all” you decide to shock the attendees with this uplifting, inspirational decree)
“From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” (scene: you’re moved from PR to HR)
“So far I’m not overwhelmed by our choices.” (scene: you’re at a business lunch at a restaurant with limited, unappealing menu choices)
“I wish I could freeze this moment, right here, right now, and live in it forever.” (scene: the media loves your story idea and you are inundated with interview requests)
“This is no place for a Girl on fire.” (scene: Katniss or someone similar to her shows up to your afternoon meeting)
“Convince me.” (scene: the response from your boss after asking for a bigger PR budget in 2014)
You might be thinking your job is not scripted nor are you an actor in a major motion picture. But after testing these quotes on your unsuspecting colleagues and peers you’ll realize that the Hunger Games isn’t as fantastical as originally thought.
– Diane Schwartz
(Join me on Twitter)
“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:
- Do I like going to work every day?
- Am I appreciated by my manager and my peers?
- Did I help someone in some way in the past 48 hours?
- Do I understand what I’m doing at my job? If not, where do I get help?
- Are the goals achievable?
- Is this job too easy for me?
- Are my stakeholders benefiting from my contributions?
- If this a job or a career?
- Can I make a real impact?
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
What is it about CEOs? How can so many of them be so smart and so accomplished, and yet still say so many bad or dumb things?
It’s enough to keep a communications team up at night—and if they get to sleep, they have anxiety-driven nightmares.
Just this week, Guido Barilla, the CEO of one of the leading pasta makers in the world, brought a boycott down on his company for remarks that were viewed as homophobic. Within a few hours of the news, according to the guardian.com, the hashtag “boicotta-barilla” was trending on Twitter.
“For us, the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company,” Barilla said in a radio interview when asked whether he’d use gay people in advertising. “I would not do it, but not out of a lack of respect for homosexuals who have the right to do what they want without bothering others. I don’t see things like they do and I think the family that we speak to is a classic family.”
This all comes just months after Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy renewed an old controversy he created in 2012 by tweeting his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.
Also this year, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries brought negative attention on himself and his company when older comments surfaced where he said he only wants good looking people to buy his clothes.
And American Apparel CEO Dov Charney seems to be just minutes away at any given time from another lawsuit.
I think CEOs are smart, for sure—but they’re also human. And once people get to the top of their profession, they’re a) accustomed to thinking they’re always right, and b) used to subordinates telling them they’re always right. That leads very quickly to hubris and arrogance for most people, excepting only those who are really disciplined and have a very solid sense of self.
What’s a communicator to do? Here are a few options:
• Engage the executives in your company in media training. Not in sporadic episodes, but sustained programs. Don’t do it yourself. Bring in experts.
• Challenge the boss. Oftentimes, you’ll be putting your job at risk, but heck, it can’t be good for you or your company if you merely go along and get along.
• Know your executives. Know what their personal perspectives are. Respect those views, but help them understand that those views and the company’s marketing messaging are two different things.
• Offer yourself as a sounding board to flippant top executives—have them bounce their public statements off you first. And if they reject that idea, then it might be time to think about your own reputation and find an environment that is more receptive to good PR counsel.
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.
Last week, Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti published a long memo on LinkedIn. It was titled a memo to the staff, but really was only partly directed to the staff. It was also a PR message to all stakeholders as well as competitors.
At any rate, it was brilliant. It was the most clear-headed, fully thought-out description of where media are going, and what attributes are necessary for success in a completely transformed media era. For those reasons—because it serves as both a great example of executive communication and helps PR pros understand where media is going—it’s worth discussing.
First thing Peretti did was thank his team in what seemed heartfelt and was certainly gracious:
“Before anything I want to thank you for all your amazingly great work over the last year. All of our success is because of you. BuzzFeed is on a significant roll, we have reached new milestones and our future looks tremendously bright.”
And that’s just the start. Peretti cited statistics illuminating BuzzFeed’s staggering Web growth. He outlined non-Web initiatives, such as an app, a YouTube channel and live meetups. He indicated the things BuzzFeed will not be doing: Live paid events, print magazines, white-label versions of BuzzFeed. And he reveals that his company is profitable—a rarity for Web-only startups.
As part of his thank-yous, he cites the work of various content, technology, data and marketing teams. Then Peretti gets into some interesting territory.
“Most other publishers integrate off-the-shelf products built by others, but this full-stack, vertically integrated approach was worth the significant, multi-year investment and is paying off fantastically today,” Peretti said. “There are great tech companies and great editorial institutions, but it is very rare for one company to take both as seriously as we do.”
This is an important point. Very few traditional media companies look at their businesses this way. And that serves to ensure that they are perennially a half-lap or more behind technology companies like Google and Facebook, which understand the direct relationship between content and technology, and how it drives the new types of media consumption. It’s simply not about monthly magazines, with a front-to-back pattern, and traditional devices like the TOC and a feature well.
This leads to the really interesting core of the memo, where Peretti pivots into a discussion of the characteristics and economic prospects of BuzzFeed (and presumably other pureplay media companies) compared to traditional media companies.
“Facebook, Twitter, and the other Silicon Valley-based social sites are amazing distribution platforms, but user generated content alone isn’t enough to fill the hole left by the ongoing decline of print newspapers and magazines,” he said. “The world needs sustainable, profitable, vibrant content companies staffed by dedicated professionals; especially content for people that grew up on the web, whose entertainment and news interests are largely neglected by television and newspapers.”
This is all true. It’s important to hear, even if his point about the “Silicon Valley-based social sites” ought to be looked at with skepticism. That’s because the basic dynamic of social sharing undermines the profit-generating ability of news organizations, and because BuzzFeed’s founding idea is about creating (and also finding and sharing) content for those same “Silicon Valley social sites.” You can’t have it both ways.
Still, Peretti is pointing to a new future, and he elaborates in nine additional points, covering everything from news to mobile to international coverage.
(The point about being an international brand is especially valuable. Old-school media companies launch international editions. Technology companies, and, Peretti said, BuzzFeed, are one brand, one content package, translated and presented to different markets.)
One of Peretti’s points is that his company is investing in news. “There is a huge opportunity to be the leading news source for the social, mobile world,” he wrote. “As we saw during the 2012 election, the Boston bombings, and our LGBT focused coverage of the Sochi Olympics, a new generation of readers are turning to us for news.”
You didn’t need to search very hard last week to find a contrary perspective, one that Peretti never addresses. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO who just bought the Washington Post for $250 million, gave his first interview—to the Post. Said Bezos:
“The Post is famous for its investigative journalism. It pours energy and investment and sweat and dollars into uncovering important stories. And then a bunch of Web sites summarize that [work] in about four minutes and readers can access that news for free. One question is, how do you make a living in that kind of environment? If you can’t, it’s difficult to put the right resources behind it.”
Bingo. If BuzzFeed is truly going to succeed in homegrown news, it needs to crack that code. Nothing that I’ve seen indicates anyone—including anyone at BuzzFeed—has figured that out.
And then there’s advertising. “Part of being a great business is being a “must buy” for advertisers who have many options,” Peretti said. “This means giving advertisers the full advantage of our scale, our data, our creative team, our social and mobile reach, and our technology platform. We have more expertise about social content than any other company. We can light up the social web for an advertiser across Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, with content that is worth clicking and sharing.”
Peretti has done a lot of thinking and writing about how content is shared. He’s serious and knowledgeable about his business. The challenge with that is that BuzzFeed’s own advertising model is based on a trend that works against media companies. BuzzFeed specializes in native advertising—advertising that looks and feels like and lives in the same format and in the same context as BuzzFeed’s (and other media companies’) own content. That is innovative, for sure, but it plays into another major trend—companies creating their own content and building audiences on their own, without the traditional dependency on media companies. This, combined with the targeting capabilities social sites and Google, enables non-media brands to create content, engage audiences, identify leads and sell products and services without the same level of reliance on third party companies.
I love the clarity of Peretti’s vision. That doesn’t mean there aren’t significant trends playing against BuzzFeed.
Women are being told to “lean in” to advance their careers; others are encouraged to lean out. I’ve got some advice that’s gender-neutral and is in response to a troublesome trend permeating society, from business meetings to social gatherings, from conference rooms to concert halls, from boardrooms to, um, bedrooms. The advice? Look Up! Move your focus from your phone to your physical environment and you’ll be pleased with the meaningful connections you can make in real-time.
This is not a lecture to stop texting, emailing, posting or pinning. Rather, it’s a reminder to be in the moment. To embrace the conversation in front of you without the distraction of the cloud. Without the addictive need to upload a photo, tweet a thought or respond to an email that really can wait. Sometimes you must look down and away, sending out an important message or just taking a break from the real world. It’s forgivable.
I am sometimes guilty of Looking Down and I try to catch myself – before I either walk into a wall or become so disoriented with what’s being discussed in the room that I’m scrambling to come up with something smart to say to prove I was listening. But those of us who regularly Look Down are not fooling anyone. Over time, you become “that person” who is always on her phone, that person who has better things to do than Look Up and engage. That person who thinks sending a Selfie in the middle of a meal with colleagues will keep you in the loop, in the know. Don’t be that person.
In the business of communications, it is imperative that we listen and engage. We are storytellers, and the cumulative effect of always Looking Down is we miss the story. For those in management or mentoring positions, modeling the Look Up behavior will go a long way toward creating knowledgeable and focused apprentices who will not only learn to Look Up and listen, but will inevitably look up to you as a shining example of restraint and engagement in a noisy, digital world.
– Diane Schwartz
In the tech world, one of the iconic moments of the 1990s was when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. He went to Macworld and gave one of his best speeches, during which he announced a partnership with Microsoft. Bill Gates made an appearance during that speech, projected on a giant screen behind Jobs.
Jobs was said to have always been uncomfortable with the visuals of that moment, where Gates was the giant presence, overwhelming the tiny Jobs, and symbolically, Apple itself.
Never mind that that actually was true in 1997. It got me thinking about how important the visuals are in public relations and overall communications, planned or spontaneous. It applies in every human endeavor, not just tech and not just business. Think politics. Michael Dukakis’ campaign was derailed in 1988 by that photo of him in a tank. He didn’t look presidential, to put it mildly. Or think about an iconic sports image, the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony where two American track athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised their fists in the black power salute. The third medal winner, Australian Peter Norman, appeared to be ignoring the other two, but he was involved and supportive in advance and actually wore a badge to show solidarity.
Great imagery that underscores a message—whether for a brand or politician or athlete—doesn’t just happen. It requires thinking and planning and in the case of public relations, collaboration. Back in the 1980s, Michael Deaver was a master image creator for Ronald Reagan, notably, with his speech at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe.
More recently, the MTV Video Music Awards created a stir that continues even now, as the one-time tween star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” performed a song at the event that made the term “twerking” a household word and left a big slice of the country revolted. But I suspect that somewhere, some publicity team is saying, “mission accomplished.” In that case, I suspect, the image (an adult, racy Cyrus—not Hannah Montana) is exactly what Cyrus wanted.
So it was dissonant last week when Vogue Magazine published a rare in-depth article on Marissa Mayer. The Yahoo CEO opened up for really the first time in her headline-generating 13-month tenure in a long and essentially positive article. But accompanying the article was a weird photo of Mayer lying on a couch/lounge type of furniture, upside down, in a blue dress.
And what struck me most was why a Stanford-educated technology-company CEO would allow her image to be undermined in a way that no male CEO would ever do and frankly, in a way that no male CEO would ever be asked to do. Would Tim Cook be asked to pose in that manner? Would he do it? How about Warren Buffett?
So in the end, an epic fail for Mayer, and in a way, worse for her personal brand than spending $30 million on some teenager’s app.