An unusual invitation arrived in my inbox the other day. I was invited to lecture on writing to New York University’s PR graduate school. My first response to Professor John Doorley was to say cynically, “Who writes any more? If you can write, you can write.” Then I looked back on my day of writing. As Marriott International’s digital media person, I wrote a TV script, a Facebook post, four tweets, posted a blog and uploaded a photo to Instagram using three hashtags. Not bad for a (young) Boomer. At no time have PR professionals been challenged to write for so many different outlets. Each channel requires a set of skills that are very difficult to find in any one person.
How many times have you shut down for the day only to uncover a window still open? The halcyon days of writing a release a week are long gone.
My background as a journalist in print, radio and TV has served me well. I learned to write to visuals. I compare my current PR assignments to various news outlets. A press release is like a newspaper article, a bit dense, full of facts and details. It gives the most complete story and it, too, is dying. Facebook, while yesterday’s news with millennials, is tabloid-like.
It’s all about the photo and a catchy headline. Remember this famous one from the New York Post: “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar.” That would get a ton of “likes” with the right photo. Instagramis mobile and has all of the same eye-candy appeal as Facebook minus the links and ads.
There’s not much writing involved, and like Page Six of the Post, it’s all about the picture. Twitter reminds me of all-news radio or skywriting in a gale-force wind. Who thought 140 characters could be so difficult to compose.
But it’s not the writing that seems to matter. It’s the tagging and linking that triggers shares, followers, retweets, etc. Soon, journalism schools will dedicate entire classes on writing hashtags.
Writing is still valued at Marriott International. We now have four ex-journalists and a twenty-something college graduate who majored in journalism.
We give writing tests to job applicants. On any given day, Marriott’s corporate channels average a half million views. We turn the bills of our caps around at dizzying speeds, switching screens like a channel-surfing hotel guest. Let me be your concierge and offer some directions:
▶ Write a full press release. I know I said they are dying, but I can’t shake an old habit. Writing a full press release, even with its obligatory SEO words, lays the foundation. From that, all things hang off—Facebook posts, tweets, blogs. Each paragraph can contain content for future posts creating a “running” story that will catch the attention of more people.
▶ Cross-purpose the headline. Don’t let a good headline go to waste. Use it on the release, Facebook, Twitter, blogs. It helps brand the story, creating consistent messaging. And don’t be afraid to reverse engineer a headline starting with a tweet. When Marriott officially acquired Protea Hotels in South Africa, we tweeted “Done Deal.” That made its way into every headline.
▶ Don’t be boring. I’ve found that once a young person walks into corporate headquarters, they cease to be young and fun and become old and serious.
I’ve told many 20-somethings that the only way Marriott is going to appeal to 20-somethings is if you communicate like a 20-something. Don’t go “corporate.”
▶ Think like a journalist. Beware of serving up promotional gobbledygook. Now that we communicate directly to our customers, we don’t want them to change the channel.
▶ Hire a twenty-something mentor. Have you seen the way they live tweet? We once measured keyboarding in words-per-minute. Is there a speed-of-thumb Twitter measurement, like 140 characters-per-second, including two hashtags?
Writing is creating. Writers combine whatever wit or skill they have into a product that did not exist minutes before. It’s all in the head and as, H.L. Mencken said, “infallibly oozing out of the nub of the pen.” While we now live in a picture world, the right word can be worth a thousand pictures.
Jay Hamilton is head of Marriott International’s digital and social corporate communications department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @JayHamilton.
This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.