Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winnie the Pooh Communications

This week brings an extremely short post. Take a few moments — make that a single moment — to check out this brief post at B.L. Ochman's What's Next blog.

Ms Ochman's "favorite thing a PR person ever told her", it turns out, is a simply awful example of what happens when we have someone either insufficiently educated or woefully incautious communicate on our behalf.

(Note that I'm affording the benefit of the doubt here, assuming that no truly professional communicator would make such an error, so the message must surely have been sent by someone in the modern version of what used to be called the typing pool.)

As she so succinctly reports, she received a PR pitch concerning a topic she simply does not cover — there's the first mistake — and then, when she pointed out this error, she received the gloriously amusing second error — a return eMail from the PR rep saying,

"I apologize for the incontinence and will make the changes in our media list."

For those of you who might miss the headline reference, Winnie the Pooh is referred to as "the bear of very little brain." I'm personally relieved that I do not know the identity of the individual whose incontinence is now being discussed widely across the internet.

Thanks for participating —

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why is PR writing so atrocious?

I've just read a terrific post by Mark Ragan at the Ragan Report by the title above. Briefly, Ragan decries the dependence on a simplistic "template" for writing news releases that has — for a whole array of reasons — become the norm. The original article (dated Nov 24 08) is compelling enough, but the 50+ comments it has attracted so far add breadth, depth and texture to the issue.

Ragan and the discussion he triggered are right, of course, that news releases are seldom news and for the most part atrociously presented. The writers either know too little about the true objective of public relations, too little about what publications want, too little about their clients, and too little about how to balance all those elements. PR agencies are too dependent on the income provided by each client to educate those clients when they demand news releases with no news value or jammed with jargon and corporate narcissism. They assign junior writers to crank out releases because they have stopped realizing the potential power of a truly well thought-out and well crafted release and so have come to think of this is as an appropriate task for agency newbies. Even on the rare occasion when someone more closely involved with the account (and with more experience and understanding of the targeted media), the results may be equally flat as "just get it done" seems more important than "do it well."

Like many of those who commented on the Ragan post, I too was at one time an editor, which has always colored my approach to news releases. It's even why I don't call them "press releases" — which to me smacks of the old-line publicist cum snake oil salesman; besides, when we call them "news releases" I believe we're more likely to remember that the point is "news" — if it's not news, it shouldn't become a release at all.

Yes, I've had to wrestle the issue with many a client, but with a reminder of the big-picture goals and emphasis on the pure waste of resources that a vacuous release represents, I usually get my point across. The conversation usually ends with the client and me discovering something with actual newsworthiness that we can write and pitch in a way that will actually mean something to the client's audience and, therefore, to the editors who will receive it. They, after all, want to provide information to their readers that means something.

So why don't we always do that? Why don't we stop and think before we write and distribute a "template" release that says nothing better than —

name of company, the leading solutions provider for the name of industry announces the appointment, purchase of, merger, etc of name of another company, the leading provider of name of product or service

I doubt many of us communication professionals came into the business to create junk. Let's pledge today to get back to writing news releases that mean something to the audience. Let's find genuinely interesting information, present it in a reader-friendly way, and stop spamming editors with junk.

Ultimately we'll enjoy better relationships with those editors — and that will get our clients more ink (and better ink) now and in the future.

Thanks for participating.

Jan Thomas
The Communication Heretic