Has writing become a lost art, a nice-to-have skill but not a necessary one? I sure hope not. For those of us who cherish the written word and are prone to find typos on cereal boxes or wine bottles, we appreciate a well-constructed sentence that concisely conveys a point. Smart communicators know that good writing is essential, not optional.
PR News hosted a Writing Boot Camp at the National Press Club on May 14, and I was pleased to see hundreds of PR professionals of all levels taking time to hone a skill that can be a game-changer for their career. That is, if you’re a terrible writer, how far can you really go at your company? If you can’t consistently communicate a message creatively and succinctly, how likely is it that your stakeholders will look down on your brand and possibly move on?
If you recognize you have writing deficiencies, do something about it now. Don’t wait. It’s all well and fine to be a social media expert or a great account manager. But sooner or later, you will be found out:
“She’s great with the clients in person, but have you seen her emails? They make no sense.”
“We can’t give him that report to write, because we’ll be up all night rewriting it.”
“Did she miss the punctuation class in grade school?”
To avoid such maligning, I’ve compiled seven tips to help you become a better writer:
Read at least 3 articles a day: Whether online or in print, read about current events and take note of how the writer is articulating a point, how quotes are being used, how the article begins and ends.
Resist the urge to abbreviate: In a short-messaging world, we think what works in a text or tweet is OK in an email, a memo or a press release. It’s not. Spell out words. Make your sixth grade English teacher proud.
Say it out loud: after you’ve written a business piece, read it out loud. Does it make sense? Can it be improved? Is it so long that you tire of hearing your own voice?
Avoid jargon: At the Writing Boot Camp, trainers implored the audience to avoid hyperbole and be real about how “innovative” your company is or whether “best” and “great” are really the right words to make your stakeholders believe in your product. For more tips on avoiding jargon, check out my Boot Camp coverage.
Know your channel: It’s been said that Twitter is the office and Facebook is the dinner table: your messages should reflect the channel you’re writing for. Where it gets sticky is with email communication. Know these things about email: your email can be forwarded, especially if it’s irresistibly incomprehensible; don’t use emoticons in emails to people you’re not close with, and (drumroll…) you can use spell check with your emails.
Break the right rules: let’s face it, the AP Stylebook is a guide not a rule. You can break rules in writing in the interest of creativity and keeping people awake. Every now and then start a sentence with the word “And” or remove a verb from the sentence, for effect.
Think in headlines: As you begin to write a piece, ask yourself what the headline would be. Likely you’ll change that headline several times. If you can’t come up with a headline, then you are unclear about the message you’re conveying. Every story has a headline.
Any other tips you’d like to add? If so, please chime in. And don’t abbreviate.
- Diane Schwartz
On Twitter: @dianeschwartz
In ‘Iron Man 3,’ there’s a scene featuring a reporter shoving his iphone in Tony Stark’s face asking him to make a public statement to his enemies. Stark stares into the iphone, makes his superhero threat, then throws the reporter’s phone into oblivion. The press just can’t catch a break these days. Like many CEOs, Stark could use some media training.
In the spirit of heralding the start of summer blockbusters and because this blog can’t really be a movie review, I give you seven practical communications lessons from ‘Iron Man 3′:
- Keep your sense of humor. If Tony Stark can get kicked, smashed and thrown out of airplanes and still have a sense of humor about it, surely you can handle a disappointment at the office.
- In a press conference, do not give out the home address of your CEO. Repeat, keep executives’ home addresses confidential.
- Look for answers in less obvious places. Clue are everywhere – check the shadows, look around you, ask questions. You’ll eventually find what you’re looking for.
- It’s hard to get close to someone if you’re wearing armor. Shed the pretenses, be yourself.
- Don’t discount the people you meet at parties, on elevators and places in between: they may come back to haunt you, or help you.
- Stay until the end: anyone who has watched a Marvel superhero movie knows to be on the lookout for the Stan Lee cameo and to stay until after the credits, when there’s a short reel featuring another Marvel superhero and a forthcoming movie. It’s the treat you get for surviving all the credits. (By the way, check out the incredible overhead on this movie.)
- Test your piece of work in other markets: Even before hitting U.S. theaters a few days ago, ‘Iron Man’ bagged more than $500 million at the box office overseas. Success begets more success. If you know you’ll get a great reception from other audiences, start there to increase buzz and confirm the epic quality of your work.
- Kids are cute and lighten the mood when you’re trying to beat the competition. Feature them in your next campaign.
- Diane Schwartz
There you are, reporting to your CEO on the outcome of a recent PR campaign you spearheaded. Your excitement is contagious as the CEO wants to know more about the positive tone, product awareness and visual dimensions, more about your company’s share of voice and the way you were able to tie sales to the efforts. He asks you what the ad equivalency would be for this PR campaign and you explain, patiently, that AVEs are not how we measure anymore; that’s for amateurs. You refer a few times to the Barcelona Principles, but you had him at “awareness.”
Measurement is the new black. Those who measure their PR understand the profound impact the activity can have on a company’s brand and bottom line. Measurement experts go far in their career because they have gained a keener understanding of their activities by tracking what’s important and by dispensing of activities that bear either no fruit or rotten fruit. One of the best indicators of an organization’s support of the PR department is its investment in measurement and its willingness to listen to the results (however tough they may be) and heed PR’s counsel.
What used to be cordoned off as the geeky discipline within PR, measurement and research is now integrated into everything communicators do. Or it should be. Whether it’s measuring the impact of a tweet or analyzing the performance of a year-long community relations effort, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
In a recent PR News/CARMA survey, roughly 10 percent of respondents admitted they don’t typically set objectives for some campaigns and don’t measure social media, and nearly 64% still use clip counts more than other metrics. And surprisingly, 32% said the primary reason they measure is because their boss or senior management requires it. Until we get the 32% of PR pros to measure because they want to be better at PR and until we get 100% of communicators setting real objectives, then we are not done with evangelizing the power of measurement.
- Diane Schwartz
PS: At PR News, we are bringing hundreds of communicators to the National Press Club on May 15 for our annual PR Measurement Conference. We’ll share measurement tips, tactics, war stories and advice. Hope you can join us for this “sexy” event. I hope you’ll join us. Email me your hot-button measurement questions to pose to the speakers at email@example.com.
Oscar Wilde once said that the “question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.” For sure, asking the right questions early and often is the answer to a lot of problems we face as communicators. Inundated with projects, challenges, crises, pitches and meetings, we are easily seduced by the sirens of Completion: get it done, no tough questions asked. Throughout your week, you are inherently set up to ask tough questions. How often do you ask the right ones, however difficult the answers might be?
Below, I’ve started a list of key topics and questions to ask in your PR life. Please add to it – what do you have to lose?
* A PR Campaign: Can it be measured and what will the key performance indicators be?
* Interviewing your Next PR Star: What’s your best mistake and why?
* Choosing a PR Firm: Whom will I be working with day to day and what’s his/her experience?
* Choosing a Client: Are their expectations realistic and will we click on a human level?
* Forging a Nonprofit/Charitable Partnership: Does this organization align with my company’s goals and do we have time for this?
* Your Team: Whom can I recognize today for a job a well done?
* Your Customers: How can I “wow” them this week?
* Pushing a Viewpoint: Is it really worth pursuing?
* Managing a Crisis: Who is affected by this crisis, and what’s the worst that could happen?
* Social Media: Do we really need to be on this platform? If yes, why? If not, let’s not waste precious time.
* The Media: What great story do I have to tell and why should they care?
I look forward to your contributions to this list!
- Diane Schwartz
The commonly used word “pitch” can be a disservice to the PR trade. Pitching a story to a reporter assumes there’s a catcher (often there is no one on the other end to receive it or the recipient isn’t paying attention). Pitching an article idea assumes there is a distance between the pitcher and the catcher. In reality the best PR pitches are those in which the distance between the two players is short.
My colleague Tony Silber wrote a telling blog post for PR News this week on why he eventually ditched a story idea from a PR person and left the situation annoyed rather than nonplussed. The good news for the PR person was that Tony opened the email and considered the idea. That’s the first step. But in the end, the pitch was poorly conceived, so the results were even worse than if he ignored the pitch altogether.
The PR industry has gotten considerably better at media relations. There are less bad pitches and more effective media outreach than ever before. As with every profession, there are people who give PR a bad name – “I wish that flack would stop calling me” is a common refrain among journalists and the equivalent of “You smell!” on the school playground. But for the most part, PR is doing a better job at partnering with the media and shortening the distance between the two closely-linked professions.
As the group publisher of PR News, I receive about 15 emails or calls every day from communicators hoping to get coverage in our newsletter or on our web site. In my 17 years with the brand, I am pleased to say that the likelihood of my forwarding those emails or calls to someone on our editorial team is higher than ever. Why is that? It’s not because I’m more patient or gullible. It’s because many of the story ideas are compelling, timely and designed for PR News. Here are a few pitches I didn’t ignore in the last few weeks:
* An interview with the team behind a new social media analytics platform
* The author of a book on morale in the age of cubicles and how “Lean In” will have an impact on telecommuting
* A Q&A with a communications consultant on how the Catholic Church can overhaul its communication efforts
* An interview with a consultant to the cruise industry on crisis management do’s and don’ts
* An infographic on the most over-used words in press releases
Additionally, there are countless PR professionals with whom I have developed great working relationships. Over the years, we have had conversations in which no story idea was pitched to me but we shared “war stories” from each other’s camps or exchanged observations on a hot topic. If they call or email me, I respond. The distance between us — pitcher and catcher — is short.
My colleagues and I won’t ignore your pitch if we recognize who you are and your aim is true.
Last week I got a pitch from a PR person related to the magazine industry. (I’m also general manager of Min and Folio:, brands that serve that market).
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but the pitch was a followup from one the day before, and that one was a followup from one sent two weeks earlier, which I didn’t respond to.
But there was a reason I ignored those e-mails, and perhaps there’s a lesson for PR professionals in an exploration of that reason.
The e-mail was a press release announcing how a supplier to the magazine industry that serves a narrow and declining niche had deployed a new software solution. Essentially it was a commercial.
The writer was very cordial, even after my first two non-responses. So far so good. I know how difficult it is to not get replies, and how you can sometimes get irritable when people don’t acknowledge your work at all. But there were larger challenges. The pitch was for a “case study.” Then it became a suggestion for a “post.”
Those suggestions for format demonstrated a lack of understanding of the mission of my magazine-industry brands. That is usually a non-starter for a journalist. It’s cognitive dissonance. Apples and oranges. Square peg in a round hole. Folio: is about case studies of how media-company operators run their businesses in new and innovative ways. Min is about the people and the community around consumer-magazine publishing.
Neither brand is remotely likely to do a case study or a blog post on how a vendor rolled out a new software capability. For busy journalists, it’s kind of a non-starter. Even if it was a good story and not a commercial for a supplier, it’s hard for the journalist (remember, the mission is to find innovative publishers and write about what they’re doing) to take that press release and think through how it might morph into a story.
It would have been much more effective—though not necessarily successful—for the PR communicator to pitch me with a case study of one of the vendor’s clients, demonstrating how the use of this new software tool helped the publisher doe one of three things: Generate revenue, reduce costs, or work smarter and faster.
My advice to the writer of the e-mail? Help me understand why the press release is a story for me. Read my brands in advance of your pitch. Understand my mission. Be creative in showing me how it’s a story for my brand.
That’s the clearest and smoothest path to publishing your press release. Otherwise, suggest it as a “vendor briefs” item, which is what it was. Unfortunately, neither Folio: nor Min have vendor briefs columns.
By Tony Silber