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?
At PR News’ recent Media Relations Conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Amy Eisman of American University’s School of Communication and a founding editor of USA Today brought up the concept of the “journalist whisperer.” This is a PR professional who can speak a journalist’s language on the platform they want to be reached on. Someone who doesn’t have to use press releases or mass emails but has developed relationships to the point where they are only a call, informal email or G-chat away from the right journalist to cover their client’s or organization’s story.
Isn’t this what the whole media relations function is all about, what it’s always been about? Perhaps in the bygone days of long lunches, ad-stuffed newspapers and magazines and fat expense accounts (both on the PR and media sides of the equation) no one had to be told to be a journalist whisperer. There was time to build relationships.
Now it’s just plain hard to keep relationships of all types together. The pace of life and technology itself seems to have driven wedges between individuals—between family members, between friends, between business colleagues.
It’s up to you to break that pattern. Amy Eisman didn’t cook up the term “journalist whisperer”—she heard it from a journalist friend who made it plain that she needs the help of great PR pros. She needs their help to do her job, more than ever. She wants to forge bonds with PR pros who know her, know her work habits, know the unique pressures she’s under, know what she needs to hit her own deadlines and drive the bottom line for her own media organization.
So commit to building those relationships with the media professionals who matter to you. And the best way to do that is to do what you would do in any relationship. Don’t wait until you need something to reach out to them. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need when you don’t need anything in particular. Just a little whisper, once in awhile.
Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI
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 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:
- An exclusive interview with the CEO or top executive
- An interesting infographic or chart/graphic
- New research or data to bolster the proposed article
- A video clip
- An invitation to a press-only event
- Links (not attachments) to information that will help the reporter do her job better
- If not an exclusive interview, a commitment to an executive interview at the reporter’s convenience
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
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.
Earlier in my career I worked with an editor for a media magazine who moved into PR after the magazine went defunct. We’ve kept in touch, him pitching stories to me for media-company clients, and me always trusting his judgment and willing to take a call.
Why was I so willing? Because he’s a thoughtful PR guy who helps connect me to interesting people and to stories my audience wants to read.
I was thinking about that guy the other day and my thought process then extended to stereotypes—of PR people and reporters.
I’ve learned a lot of things in 12 months covering the PR business, and my experiences have proven many of those common stereotypes wrong. I thought I’d outline a few of the stereotypes and take a look at how perception differs from reality for both reporters and PR people.
How reporters see themselves
• Journalists see themselves iconoclasts—but not Quixotic ones.
• Reporters think they’re fundamentally moral—in the words of the old expression, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”
• They view themselves as wise and hard-boiled.
• They identify with skepticism—they would never accept gullibility.
• They see themselves as real and down-to-earth, unpretentious, even in fashion. Journalists invented business casual as a dress code.
How reporters see PR people
• Sometimes reporters call PR people flacks, and it’s not meant as a compliment.
• The columnist Mike Lupica (among many other journalists) calls PR people “mouthpieces.”
• Reporters see PR people as mostly blocking access, not providing it.
• Reporters think PR people cause their sources to speak in “talking points,” not provide real information.
• Reporters very often see PR people as bossy, officious and shallow in their most benign incarnation, and sometimes obnoxious or worse.
Some stereotype-busting things I’ve learned
• PR is one of the most intensive practice-oriented professions I’ve been associated with. Like law and other professions, PR pros split their skills into various practices—crisis management, media relations, corporate social responsibility and more, and they’re incredibly conscientious about education and advancing their skills.
• PR people (at our PR News events, at any rate) are engaging, courteous, smart and intensely focused on improving their skills.
• Reporters, in fact, can be amazingly gullible. Recently, word got back to me that some industry executive said all you had to do to get good press from us was to take one of our people out to dinner. I don’t believe that’s true at all, but I know from first-hand observation that in lots of other cases, it is.
• Journalistic skepticism sometimes morphs into raw cynicism.
• Reporters are rarely fashionable. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, truth be told.
As I write this I’m watching a report on MSNBC criticizing the apology issued by 60 Minutes for a report last month about the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.
The apology, by correspondent Lara Logan, was not enough—that was the consensus.
“It was not nearly satisfying,” said guest David Brock. “I thought it was 60 Minutes, not 60 Seconds.” The show is all about holding sources accountable, Brock said, and 60 Minutes should do the same for itself.
This has been a big week for apologies. President Obama apologized for the bumpy rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Home Depot apologized for a racist tweet.
And 60 Minutes still hasn’t been able to contain the damage.
Public apologies by organizations almost always fall to the communications team, the PR pros. And there’s plenty of scholarship on how to do apologies best, and put unfortunate mistakes behind your company or organization. Among those things are to act immediately and to commit to an investigation.
But I sometimes think the only way to really handle apologies is to not make mistakes in the first place. Seriously. Think about it. In politics and business, if you make a mistake, apologies are demanded. The volume gets higher and higher, and the demands more hysterical. It’s rare indeed that you can tough things out, although that sometimes does happen.
In politics, there’s an “apology game,” where one side demands an apology for some perceived transgression, whether there’s an actual offense or not.
And then there’s the apology trap—whatever the offense, no apology ever clears the record. Even when apologies are accepted, mistakes are never forgotten. Years—decades—later, whatever the initial incident was, it morphs into a “scandal.” It will remain on your record forever, dredged up in the media whenever it suites the story.
So if you’re a PR pro, what to do? Here’s my advice: Don’t apologize as a way to placate others. Don’t expect absolution, because it won’t come. Apologize because you know you (or your organization) messed up and that it’s the right thing to do. Period.
I’ve been thinking lately about how media is moving increasingly toward a greater technology dependence. I’ve read about how investment dollars, especially in Silicon Valley, where so much media-related innovation is occurring, steer towards technology solutions for media consumers. New utilities—new ways to interact with content—seems to be more important than the content itself.
Think about the major social media and many of the new online-only media businesses like TripAdvisor and Yelp. User interfaces, tools, analytics and more are the difference-makers. They create no content on their own, really, but they have massive audiences. Google commands more ad dollars than the whole magazine and newspaper industries combined.
Which for me (and for PR communicators) raises an interesting question: Should media companies—and the PR departments and firms that create brand content and provide content to the media—be technology companies first and content companies second? Has some paradigm shifted in the media world?
Now, before you dismiss what I’m saying as just simplistic nonsense, consider that not only is Google an advertising giant, but so is Facebook. So is YouTube. Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and others will rise in ad spend, and they all depend on users for their content. They pay no content creators, but they create extraordinary technology-based environments for people to post their own content.
And if you’re looking for consistency in the argument, consider that most media companies acknowledge freely that the one-way form of communication is dead. The old-school model of, ‘we-create-content-and-you-consume-it” is simply incomprehensible to modern media users. They take cellphone photos and videos, and share them easily. Even media companies say that they want to create a platform for community interaction.
In that context, then, should we be focused on content—or technologies that enable the sharing of content? It’s a fascinating question.
There are those who say that without content, there’s nothing. No Google and no Facebook. Which is true. But that doesn’t really address the question of who’s doing the creating.
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.’
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