Can PR Tell the Difference Between Write and Wrong?

February 2, 2010 at 8:30 pm 14 comments

Fraser Seitel, author of my favorite acadamia-intended PR textbook, answers the question that many others, especially those working in the media, are wondering: Why Do PR professionals have a hard time writing?

Mark Ragan from Ragan Communications also points out the common practice of  bad writing among PR folks in his article, “Why is PR writing so atrocious?”

But why are so many PR professionals bad writers? Why don’t they take the time to hone their writing skills? Ragan points out the main reasons for bad writing: laziness and ignorance.

Some PR professionals developed these bad habits before they even entered the job market:

“None of the kids hired by the agencies and billed out at $150 an hour have the slightest idea what they’re writing about. They don’t understand the product or the client. They have no background in the industry, and they never learned how to write in college.”

Ragan says a lot of PR pros use a 1-2 punch style to their writing, using the template/ buzzword method to get the job done. However, writing like this typically lacks major punch to their prose.

Template

(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).

Buzzwords

You simply highlight the word with your cursor, hit “enter” and the word is inserted into various spots throughout the release. The column includes all of the old standbys, including our friends “Thought Leadership” (in all caps of course); “connectivity,” “global,” “forward thinking,” “vision,” “strategic,” and “influencers.”

Ragan shows his frustrations with a press release from Ruder Finn, exclaiming, “Of course the template is there in all of its glory, as it is with six out of 10 press releases I came across during my whiskey-aided research.”

CHICAGO, Jan. 7 /PRNewswire/ — Ruder Finn, Inc., a leading independent full-service global communications agency, today announced that it has been appointed global PR agency for Alterian, plc—the leading global enterprise marketing platform provider.

Rants like these from people I admire, such as Seitel and Ragan, serve as a wakeup call to students and professionals alike. Any young PR professional or pre-pro will have an advantage if they have developed their writing skills from the get-go and get relevant writing/ editing experience early on in their career.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Britt  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Great post Mikinzie. As students we don’t get the opportunities to write and hone in on the skills needed. It’s hoped by all of us that in internships we get the chance to draft pieces, in one I wasn’t able to, and then employers, even those that don’t let interns write, are annoyed by the lack of knowledge. Not only is it the job of our schools to continuously teach writing but the places we intern so that when students graduate they have the proper tools.

    Reply
  • 2. Niki Pocock  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Great post! I’ve always said that writing is the foundation of communications, especially PR. Writing should be enjoyed, not simply completed. Kudos to the University of Florida and Prof Foley for kicking my butt in PR /reporting writing classes 🙂

    Reply
  • 3. Rich Pulvino  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Great post, Mikinzie! Writing is the most important technical skill a PR pro can possess. While at school PR, my professors expressed the importance of good grammar and proper spelling, but handed us template formulas when it came to writing pitches, press releases, postition pieces, etc.

    I think press release templates can be great learning tools for students and interns. But, it is vital that as we progress in our careers that we don’t become dependant on the templates we learned. Expand your mind, do the proper research, understand the people (clients and publics) who read what you write, and don’t be affraid to throw in a some creativity (*gasp*!).

    Reply
  • 4. Carri Bugbee  |  February 2, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    It appalls me that clients pay that much for PR people who don’t know what they are doing. If people aspire to become PR “pros” without the benefit of journalistic training, they need to go back and learn those skills somewhere.

    When I was in J-school, our in-class reporting assignments were downgraded half a grade for every spelling, grammar or punctuation mistake — and we used typewriters! (Shhhh…I know, that means I’m really old).

    Anyone can become a decent writer if he or she is willing to work at it. Truth be told, however, some are naturals and some will never be more than passable, no matter how hard they work. They should probably go into advertising instead. 😉

    @CarriBugbee
    Social Profiles: http://www.CarriBugbee.com

    Reply
  • 5. lmnovo  |  February 3, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Awesome post, Mikinzie, and so true! If we don’t take the time to learn how to write properly early on, it will be much harder to adapt later! Thanks for sharing the video and tips!

    Reply
  • 6. Michelle Rafter  |  February 3, 2010 at 11:58 am

    PR people aren’t totally to blame. What about the clients that read releases to make sure all their favorite buzz words and the corporate slogan du jour are included? Any PR rep worth their salt should be educating their client why buzzwords are bad – because writers like me ignore them anyway, and because they just make it harder to parse out the actual news.

    Also, in these days of 140-character tweets, journalists don’t have time to wade through long press releases. So cut to the chase: forget the cutesy intro, forget careful wordcraft, forget the buzz words. Just state the facts and explain why I should care.

    Michelle Rafter
    WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age

    Reply
  • 7. tdhurst  |  February 3, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I wouldn’t trade my two years in community college learning from a reporter turned PoliSci/Journalism professor for anything.

    Having a journalistic background should be a prerequisite for any kind of business writing. ANY.

    Reply
  • 8. Paul Sevensky  |  February 3, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    A great post; I certainly wish more students and pros alike shared your commitment to “Getting It Write.” I can appreciate the observation made previously by Michelle Rafter that clients share some of the blame by insisting on buzzword-laden text that makes readers forage for grains of news.

    Reply
  • 9. jasmollica  |  February 3, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Carri’s comments. The more you work on your writing the better you’ll become. And do yourself a favor… if a free or low cost webinar is offered: TAKE IT.
    PRSA, Cision, etc. offer them all the time and they have come in very handy in either teaching me something new or brushing up on my skills.
    Great post, Mikinzie.

    Reply
  • 10. Swinnett  |  February 3, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I completely agree! I am a PR student at Boise State, as well as a project manager for a Advertising/PR agency in town, and one of the most important pieces of information I have been taught is how important being a good writer is. When I first started studying PR, I did not quite grasp why writing was so important, and I believed that a lot of the PR materials that I read was considered “good writing”. The problem is that most people mistake good writing for something that is in essence “well written”. Good writing is a combination of using proper mechanics as well as being able to get creative with material that may not be the easiest to put into creative terms. In any case, I am glad to see more PR students taking the initiative to become better writers all around, and to enhance the industry that we all work in, study, and love!

    Reply
  • 11. jamiefavreau  |  February 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you for this. I haven’t been watching as many of these videos as I have in the past. I did not study PR in college but I do have a few books on Publicity writing and the Strunk and White Elements of Style. I need to purchase the AP Style Guide.

    Reply
  • 12. Rachel Esterline  |  February 4, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Awesome post.

    Part of the problem is the lack of writing emphasis in college. Sure, we write essays and in PR classes, news release, but I’ve had few classes actually improve my skills.

    As someone who works at an agency, I can see how these kinds of releases can get out. We are always incredibly busy. Another problem can be that clients want their release a certain way. And, of course, they aren’t professional communicators and don’t understand that buzz words can cause eye-rolling in a newsroom.

    I suggest working as a writer for a publication, like a magazine or newsletter. When I was a writer for CMU, I learned how to write features that the audience would want to read. I try to incorporate the audience in the releases I write as well.

    Great post, as always.

    Reply
  • 13. JillPR  |  March 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    This is why when I decided to do freelance communications, I was comfortable specializing in my strong suit: writing! Because that is clearly a HUGE market if all the PR copy I see is any indication.

    You may be good at marketing or even public relations, but that does not mean you’re a good writer. I’m not sure how that flies in our industry. Maybe lack of available certification? Anyway, I wish I could get clients just emailing people with atrocious copy…I’d be a millionaire! Unfortunately I think they would just take offense.

    Reply
  • […] Fraser Seitel, author of my favorite acadamia-intended PR textbook, answers the question that many others, especially those working in the media, are wondering: Why Do PR professionals have a hard time writing? Mark Ragan from Ragan Communications also points out the common practice of  bad writing among PR folks in his article, "Why is PR writing so atrocious?" But why are so many PR professio … Read More […]

    Reply

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