We’ve been doing a lot of writing in PR News lately on great PR writing and as I was reflecting on this very intricate craft—a form of writing that requires immense skill—I thought it might be useful to reflect on what a journalist looks for in PR writing—not just press releases, but also corporate letters, comments from executives, and more. So here goes, more or less in the order of importance:
• First and foremost, tell a story, but remember your story is not automatically interesting to the media and stakeholders. You have to anticipate what your external constituents will view as significant from their perspective. But let’s get back to the concept of story-telling. If there’s a narrative—if there’s a sense of progress, or change, or surprise, or accomplishment, that’s what will get the attention of a reporter. Especially if the story is unexpected, or counter-intuitive, or it defies the conventional wisdom. That’s what reporters look for, because those are the things they want to offer to their readers.
• Don’t force big news out of small news. I got a press release just last week from a media company CEO, who assured me this was “big, big news.” Well, it wasn’t. Loss of credibility because of a breathless effort to turn non news into big news is hard to repair.
• Don’t lead with the “what,” lead with the “why.” It’s harder for a reporter to care that your CEO just gave a speech at the TED Conference, or that your company just won a major industry award, or even that you exceeded earnings expectations for the quarter by 4 percent. It’s much easier to care that the CEO’s presentation was really important because it generated news, or caused a stir, or that your earning would have missed except for some specific act. You get the idea.
• When using quotes, avoid “happy talk.” I’ve read 10,000 quotes that proclaim a CEO is “delighted to have Bob join the team…” Perhaps you thought we were expecting to hear that you’re “kind of bummed out that Bob is joining the team, because we really wanted Jane.” It’s better to simply lay out what Bob or Jane is expected to do, and why the hire matters.
• Avoid hackneyed and hyperbolic words. Nothing makes journalists’ eyes glaze over faster than you touting your ”solutions,” your “global” reach and your “industry-leading” position.
• Don’t bury the lead. Usually, you can tell the gist of your story in half the number of words you used. This mainly comes down to disciplined self editing, but you also have to keep in mind the fact that early drafts of writing almost always take their time getting to the point and usually back into the point.
• Don’t use exclamation points. Don’t use bold-faced words. Don’t use all-caps. You’d be amazed at how well-crafted sentences and solid choice of words actually speak for themselves, without any need to call attention to them.
- Tony Silber
On Twitter: @tonysilber
You’re a busy journalist. You’re on deadline. You’re trying to round up sources and interviews for a story you need to crank out today. One of your most promising sources is not responding, gone off the grid. But you’re still hopeful, especially because she and her company have PR representation.
So you go to the PR agency’s website, looking to email or call someone from the agency and either enlist their help or leverage the connection into a direct call with the source.
But wait: You get to the “Contact Us” page, and you hit a wall. What? Instead of a helpful list of members of the team, with their areas of specialty, their email addresses and their phone numbers, not to mention their Twitter addresses, you hit a cinderblock. You get one of those “Fill-Out-This-Irritating-Web-Form-And-Send-An-Email-To-Some-Anonymous-Address” pages.
You get one of those contact pages on websites that force users to send their media inquiries via email to a faceless, nameless depository and hope that they get a response in a timely manner.
Guess what that journalist is going to do? Correct.
Which leads me to ask: Why do PR firms—communications agencies, after all—use those depersonalizing forms? I know a lot of companies do it, and maybe there’s a good reason, but I say not in PR.
In PR, the whole point is to connect with stakeholders—especially the media—in as expeditious a manner as possible. In PR, with a few exceptions, the chance to tell your story is something to be embraced. So why make it hard? It makes no sense. You’re not doing yourself, or your clients, any favors that’s for sure.
For that matter too, the strategy is debatable even for companies that don’t often get a lot of media inquiries. That’s because, due to the rise of “content marketing,” every company is now a quasi-media company and needs to be able to respond to inquiries—from either media reps or customers—with more speed and more substance.
For PR agencies, the whole objective is to humanize—you. Your firm. Your clients. By having a faceless Contacts page you’re ultimately robbing yourself of the opportunity to get your messages out and cultivate relationships.
Social media is rewriting the rules for PR and dramatically changing how PR reps communicate with the media. Fair enough. But PR departments and agencies that insist on using a faceless, “Media Inquiries” page on their websites, are, when you come to think about it, being downright anti-“social.”
Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
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
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.
The Grateful Dead, the Grandaddy of jam-band music, called it quits in 1995 soon after the death of lead guitarist (and first among equals) Jerry Garcia. The Dead’s 30-year run, which included nearly 2,300 concerts and a unique musical styling best described as “electric Dixieland,” is safely ensconced in the annals of Rock and roll history.
But the Dead’s legacy carries on through Furthur, which was founded in 2009 by Dead frontmen Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Similar to the Dead—a pioneer in “social marketing” before the term existed—Furthur offers PR and marketing execs a string of lessons on how to sustain your audience and grow your brand.
As I traveled up and down the Northeast corridor in the last two weeks to catch a couple of Furthur shows during its spring tour, I thought about what communicators could learn from the band:
> Respect your audience: Furthur communicates strictly through its music. Aside from Weir or Lesh saying, “We’re going to take a short break,” at the end of the first set or “Good night,” after the encore, the band doesn’t kibitz with the audience but provides them with three-plus hour of music, which is what people actually paid for. Regardless of your market, don’t distract your audience with peripheral and/or disposable information, but the content that means the most to people.
> Don’t repeat the same content over and over: While most musical artists have a cookie-cutter approach to their concerts (same set lists, same notes and even the same guitar solos in the same slot), Furthur never performs the same show twice. The band is constantly adding (and subtracting) to its song repertoire and developing new musical arrangements, which keep fans guessing. Indeed, to keep your fans engaged don’t rely on the same material but find new PR vehicles to keep your overall message fresh (without having to reinvent the wheel).
> Use your company’s operation as a vehicle for charitable efforts: At every show and just before the encore Phil Lesh makes an impassioned plea for people to become organ donors; in 1998 Lesh underwent a liver transplant as a result of chronic hepatitis C infection. Lesh’s donor crusade is a reminder for brands that, in order for their charitable effort to truly resonate with audiences, the effort has to hit close to home and provide a personal connection to the chairman, CEO or company founder, for example. This way, the effort comes off as the real deal and not something the company is doing just for the sake of doing so.
> Nurture the newbies: Along with Lesh and Weir, Furthur includes drummer Joe Russo and lead guitarist John Kadlecik, who are considerably younger than Lesh and Weir. While Lesh and Weir ultimately call the shots onstage, Russo and Kadlecik are given a wide berth for musical improvisation and exploration. That’s something that should hardly be lost on grizzled PR veterans: Hire younger people who love your brand and are comfortable with your corporate culture, but not so comfortable that they fail to bring new ideas to the table and alternative ways of cultivating your audience, er, fans.
What do you think your favorite band can teach us about PR?
Follow Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1
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.