“Nobody is totally worthless. They can always be used as a bad example.” (Or PR in a post-Scaramucci world)

One of Dad’s favorite sayings when I would grouse about someone or something was, “Nobody is totally worthless. They can always be used as a bad example.” That always rang true for me when it came to how I worked as a reporter, a teacher and a media adviser. In many cases, I’d actually form policies based on how someone had done something and how I DIDN’T want to be that person or how I hated the way the person did something.

In examining the Anthony Scaramucci era (a funny term, given that I have fruit in my fridge that outlasted his tenure at the White House), PR expert Aaron Cohen provided some interesting tips on how to “Mooch from ‘the Mooch'” in terms of learning the ins and outs of public relations. It’s worth the read. A few thoughts on a few of his key points:

2. Build solid relationships with reporters.

Notice that I didn’t say “trusted” relationships. Those don’t exist.

It’s fine to play hardball as Scaramucci did, as it can show you’re passionate about looking after the interest of your client or boss. However, bullying or intimidating journalists isn’t going to get you the big coverage you promised.

Remember, even in the age of click wars and fake news, the finest living journalists (the ones you must influence) still report with the highest degree of integrity. Members of the media put their publication’s credibility—and their own—on the front lines every day. Words matter, but so do facts.

This is perhaps the core of all good relationships between news reporters and PR practitioners. I’ll disagree with the “trusted” issue a little bit, in that you can earn trust or destroy trust based on doing or not doing some of the things he notes below (bullying gets you nowhere, while sticking to facts and providing truthful information earns you credibility). However, at the core of the relationship is a professionalism in which it’s clear that you’re not going to be friends, but you don’t have to be enemies, either. It’s a truism that professionals on both sides of the PR/News relationship know and understand. Read Cohen’s take on the “Reporters will quote you” takeaway as well, and you get the idea of how these relationships work. If you want to vent about your day or your coworkers, a reporter should not be a last resort, but no resort at all.

5. Use a nickname for personal branding .

Don’t be afraid of using a catchy nickname as part of your own personal branding strategy. Nicknames to consider for yourself include, “The Bomb,” “The Bird,” “The Dude” and “The Sauce.”

This is the only point with which I’d REALLY disagree.

First, nicknames aren’t always what you’d hoped they’d be. My Dad used to work with a guy who earned the nickname “Shrimpy” when he was about 5 years old. It stuck. You don’t want to be in your 70s and hear someone yelling “Hey Shrimpy!” to get your attention at the grocery store.

Second, they don’t always convey respect. I doubt that a single member of the press corps referred to Scaramucci as “The Mooch” with anything but mockery.

Third, you earn the fungus on your shower shoes and you earn a nickname over time. Don’t give yourself a nickname. It’s the kind of thing that just screams, “I’m way cooler than you think I am.” Most people will disagree with you on that.

Hang on to this list and consider Cohen’s points as you move deeper into the field. It’s a pretty good way to learn something from a bad example.

 

 

 

Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.

“Picked up some Hookers!” (or why knowing your audience matters)

Hooker-Headers-Heart-511x412

A guy I know who works on classic cars made a social media post a while back that told everyone who follows him that he “picked up some Hookers” over the weekend.

Not one person shamed him online or forwarded the information to the guy’s wife. A lot of people responded with comments like “happy for you” or “so excited,” mainly because his audience was other car nerds.

Hookers, in car parlance, are exhaust headers named for their inventor, Gary Hooker, who constructed his first set of these back in the early 1960s. Headers like these provide your engine with more power because they help move the exhaust gas out of the engine more quickly.

In a more general context, it could appear that this guy was bragging about purchasing the services of prostitutes. In a car context, he was just making the engine more powerful.

And that is why understanding your audience matters.

News writers often cover topics that fall into “beats” when they work for general-interest publications like local newspapers or news magazines. Bloggers often have specific niches as do magazine writers for publications on health or hobbies. Public relations professionals have internal publics, who share an intimate understanding of how an organization works, and external publics, who often lack the detailed knowledge of a company or group. In each case, the writer has to understand what the readers know and don’t know as to best fine-tune the material and clarify the vocabulary.

Too often, we forget that people don’t know everything we know as writers, and thus we lapse into jargon, lingo and “alphabet soup” that can alienate the audience. Here are a couple thoughts to help you refine your writing as you work to reach your readers:

    • Who is reading this? Don’t assume that you know your audience or that the audience is as informed as you are. Go check it out. Web analytics, market research and other similar data can help you figure out who is most frequently reading your work. This can help you determine if mostly local folks who know what “The Dean Dome” is or if the audience contains mostly out of state people who need the formal name (the Dean E. Smith Center) and some information about location and purpose.
    • At what level are they reading this? A student once wrote an incredibly good piece for one of my writing classes on the issues surrounding raw milk. As I read it, I felt like I learned a ton and I suggested she get it published, probably in a local agricultural publication. The student, who grew up on a farm and had frequently read the publication, smiled at me like a parent smiles at an innocent child. “Um… This is really way too overly simplified for farmers…,” she explained.
      For me, a non-farmer, she was writing at exactly the right level: Assume I’m somewhat educated but have spent no time on a farm. For farmers, this would have read like a “See Dick and Jane” book. Know how much your audience knows, how much background the readers will need and how slowly you need to walk into a topic to avoid losing anyone.
    • Avoid alphabet soup for the most part. If your writing looks more like an eye chart than it does a story, you probably have a few too many abbreviations or acronyms in there. Some of these letter-based terms make sense within niche markets. If a business journal notes that a CPA for a B2B marketer uses GAAP, this will likely make sense to readers who know that CPA means “certified public accountant,” B2B means “business to business” and GAAP means “generally accepted accounting practices. However, for most of us, it looks like we would either need to spin the wheel again or buy a vowel. AP suggests using generic terms like “the organization” instead of using an abbreviation or acronym that would be confusing to readers.


(Case in point from “Good Morning, Vietnam.”)

  • Help people out. In traditional media, it never hurts to include a brief definition or some context clues for audience members who might need a little help on an unfamiliar topic. If you’re working on the web, a link or two might make the difference between informed and lost readers. Always give people a chance to figure out what you’re telling them.

At the core of all storytelling is language and shared understanding. For health aficionados, adjusting your carbs might lead to weight loss, while car folks know adjusting your carb will help your engine run better. Somewhere in between, the rest of the world resides, so it’s on us as writers to make sure we make our message clear.

Press Releases: Tell me a story and make me care

Public relations practitioners and students are at the top of the list when it comes to the reasons I wrote Dynamics of Media Writing. I had dozens of PR students in my classes each year who asked, “Why do I need to know any of this stuff? I’m going into PR!” The answer I had came from a buddy of mine, who ran the PR sequence at Ball State for years: “Teach them to write. That’s all they do in the field. Whether they know it or not, they need to learn to write.” That’s the core of the book: Learn the writing core and then apply it to your specific field.

Rob Wynne, a PR professional from California, hits on that aspect as well when it comes to PR writing, but he extends it to include one of the most important aspects of media writing: Tell me a story and make me care.

Headline. Opening sentence. Body. (What’s the story, why does it matter?) Contact information.

These are the ingredients of a successful press release. Professionals and entrepreneurs should know how to write to create one. Shockingly, many of them don’t. They are formulaic, by nature, but so are poetry, tweets, columns and other written communications. Everyone has constraints.

In his piece at Forbes’ website, he provides a great walk-through for anyone wanting to write a press release. It takes that formulaic set of elements and shows how to make it work and also how to “season” your writing without lapsing into hyperbole. Give it a read when you hit Chapter 11.