By Don Bates, APR
What’s wrong with PR/PA writing? Why so many complaints? What can be done to change things for the better?
Dougherty Dialectic surveyed PR/PA’s top dogs on writing and the results stress how big the challenge is. Nearly seven in 10 (69%) judged most written business content as boring and laden with jargon and cliché. Nearly 9 in 10 (87.9%) agreed that most content fails to get readers to take specific action based on what’s written.
Last year, as part of my work with Gould Partners, PR/PA agency M&A experts, I surveyed PR/PA agencies nationwide on what they required of new-hire junior account executives. There were three preferred job skills. The clear first was writer (92.59%), second was media pitcher (88.89%), and third was researcher (59.26%).
These views are based largely on the PR/PA function’s role in working with the media, which, as we know, have a suspicious view of what PR/PA practitioners write and why. These views also reflect what media surveys by Cision and other media service companies have shown.
All of this research on writing leads to the inevitable larger question: How, then, as PR/PA practitioners, do we become good writers or better writers if we’re already good?
The answer is elementary, My Dear Watson: By studying more about what good writing entails, and by practice, practice, practice. The practice part is crucial. How else can we or anyone else become good or better at something difficult to do? Think music, sports, juggling, even Pokémon-Go. I said good writing, not great. Great is another matter.
By studying writing, we learn the tools of the trade. We deepen your appreciation of writing forms – e.g., the shape and substance of actionable news releases, pitches, speeches, Op-eds, and more. We pick up tricks for writing each format: for releases, using big picture headlines and leads; for pitches, making sure the story is more than a news release; for speeches, writing to be heard as opposed to read; for Op-eds, supporting your opinion with facts and other credible proof. The list of tools and tricks goes on.
I and other writing instructors and professional PR writing workshop leaders have an endless bag of tricks (aka short cuts) for strengthening writing and making writers better at what they do. These tricks are based on “standards” that have evolved from a long history of experimentation, especially among journalists. Most writing primers will give us the reasons why and show us what’s meant.
Good writing, they universally shout, should be:
- Simple (unadorned language, common sense logic).
- Direct (say what you have to say and little more).
- Credible (believable, what you say is true).
- Factual (5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why).
- Insightful (useful takeaways beyond the conventional).
To simplify matters, I have developed a “New Formulary for Business Writing” with “New Rules” based on the influence of social media, which requires all of the above but with ever increasing emphasis on the following:
- ‘Snackable’ text (tight, incisive, not full meal, but enough).
- Big picture focus (the big news for target audience).
- Big picture lead/lede and headline (attention-getting summary of release’s larger meaning).
- Compact style (little or nothing extraneous).
- Few adjectives, far fewer prepositions (they kill clarity)
- Copywriting impact (e.g., active voice, action verbs, emotional connections).
- Hyperlinked (links to longer documents, press room, other places).
- Actionable (e.g., implicit or explicit request for reader, viewer or listener action).
- Image enhanced (includes graphics, e.g., pix, charts).
- Multi-media disseminated and merchandised (sent to both traditional and social media).
Guidelines abound, but the simplest are best. If we don’t follow what’s recommended or required, our writing will suffer. Think about yourself.
If you really want to write better as a PR/PA practitioner, you need to get in the sweat. Start exercising in earnest. Take a local university writing course. Attend a professional writing workshop. Establish a writing program in your own office.
In sum, do something to put your desire in action. If you don’t, you will only have yourself to blame when the next writing research reports come out. Or when your clients or bosses sit you on a stool in the middle of an empty warehouse, hands tied behind your back, a 100-watt bare bulb blinding your sight, and start asking bad-blood questions. For example, What PR/PA writing quality are we getting for our money, or what kinds of PR/PA writing payoffs that advance our success?
Will you be able to answer without duress? Will you walk away unsullied into the fresh night air, or end up in cement boots heading out to sea in a stealth cigar boat called ‘I told you so’?
For a free copy of the Dougherty study results, go to: http://www.doughertydialectic.com/images/WordCampSurveyResults.pdf
For a free copy of the Gould Partners survey, go to: http://www.gould-partners.com/uploads/2015/07/New-Hire-Junior-AE.pdf
Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, teaches business and PR/PA writing at New York University. He also teaches private and public writing workshops, including his highly acclaimed day-long PRSA-NCC workshop. He has handled PR/PA for international corporations and associations. He owned The Bates Company, an international PR/PA agency, which he sold after 12 years in business. He has also taught at the New School University and Columbia University. He is founding director of the Master’s degree program in strategic public relations at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.