We've all been writing from an early age, starting with thick pencils and writing tablets that later gave way to word processors and computers. But as technology has made the mechanical process of writing much easier, something entirely different has happened to writing itself.
Most people view writing as something that's useful, but not exactly vital unless you're going into a career where it will be on regular display. As a result, we've become a society where the value of writing has been eclipsed by many other things, with an emphasis being put on skills that have the highest perceived market value. Good writing has also given way to time pressures and products like the BlackBerry, which has given birth to a modified version of the English language that's pecked out on keyboards worldwide every day.
At first glance, there might seem to be nothing wrong with all this. After all, we are supposed to be prepared for as many potential jobs as we can, right? Many people also feel that with technology changing at a rapid pace, it's all they can do to keep pace with new developments; there just can't be time to practice and/or pay attention to “ancient” skills like writing.
Yet in many ways, the lack of writing skills is on display every day and in a bad way. In public relations, this often takes the form of bad marketing collateral filled with buzzwords that stand in the way of truly describing what a client actually does. During the “dot-com boom,” we had a million and one companies with “mission-critical solutions” promising to save the world of business; sadly, however, most of them have since died. This is not to say that if their material had been better written they'd still be here today, but there is a good chance that more editors and reporters would have been able to tell just what the heck they purported to do.
All too often in public relations, we focus on our role as messenger, but not on the message. As someone who had a decade-long career as a journalist before going into PR, I can't tell you much fun it was to go through press releases trying to sort that out. Unfortunately for both the PR firm and their client, most of the time, when a journalist is confronted with a situation like this, they'll just give up. Think about it this way: If you had 100 people soliciting your attention with a pitch or marketing material every day, even if you gave them all five minutes, that would eat up darn near your entire work day. So while PR pros sometimes get aggravated at journalists and there's an uneasy push/pull relationship, I wonder how many PR pros have ever considered the fact that it was their message that lost the opportunity.
In a client-service environment such as public relations, even the best writer can only do so much; for, at the end of the day, we have to come up with something the client is willing to sign off on, no matter what we might personally think of it. That said, we shouldn't be afraid to give counsel to clients on the best way to present their message if it conflicts with their view. As a matter of fact, that's precisely what they're paying us for.
When you're creating a message for a client, remember the first question a journalist will ask. “Why are you contacting me and why should I care?” It may sound harsh, but that's what it really boils down to. You have to convince people you have something newsworthy; it won't just stand on the opinion of the PR firm or their client. In the process of doing that, be bold and avoid using buzzwords. Instead, clearly articulate who your client is, what your story is, and what makes that story compelling. Realize, too, that not every story idea you'll be able to go out with will be earth shattering. However, that doesn't mean you can't make it interesting.
In short, sell, but don't oversell. If it's a product or service, explain what makes it new and/or different and don't try to make it into something it's not. If you're working with a professional services provider, such as an attorney or accountant, clearly present a new development in the reporter's field of interest and go into detail as to why this will have a newsworthy impact on the beat the reporter covers. Reporters are almost all overworked, and they love nothing more than getting tipped off to a development that will have a big impact on an industry they follow.
Obviously, you probably won't get a major hit every time, but over time, you'll likely find the strategy works. If strategies like this were adopted more broadly, over time it might even be possible for the PR industry to get people to realize that PR involves far more than the celebrity publicity-type fluff that they see on TV news and entertainment shows. Better still, campaigns based on pitches and marketing material that are absent fluff and have plenty of value-added information, such as clear descriptions and relevant statistics, will get much better results for the client. With any luck, this will accomplish a goal that's thus far been rather elusive for the industry: improving client-retention rates.