Wordsmith at work
Posted by Tom Gable
The PR University program on August 30 featured Jon Greer, training director of PRU, moderator; Jonathan Kranz, author of “Writing Copy for Dummies”; Don Bates, APR, PRSA Fellow, former journalist, agency CEO and currently professor at New York University; and yours truly, Tom Gable, APR, PRSA Fellow, CEO of Gable PR.
Greer set the stage by outlining the six steps to being a better writer and then led the panel through ideas PR professionals could use in using the tips in their practices:
One – Be an internal reporter
Two – Organize your material
Three – Start writing
Four – Continue adding useful information
Five – Review and revise
Six – Work with an editor
Greer asked the participants about what would be their biggest hurdles to becoming a better writer. Bates said each writer needs to be a strategic thinker – content needs to make something happen and build a bigger story. Gable said each story needs to be viewed as a building block in creating a bigger image and reputation for the long term, so facts and details are important. Kranz said the best writers go beyond just presenting information; they look for compelling core messages and themes that can resonate with the right audiences.
Kranz stressed the power of telling good stories, with a beginning, middle and an end. Is it about how your service works, your products and your people, how you solve problems, how your business began, how you overcame issues, what major customers are happy and anything related to trends that help you rise above the competition?
Desire, Danger and Drama
He framed each story as having three parts: desire, where someone wants something and there is a motivating element; danger, where there are obstacles, problems, risks and challenges; and drama, where the hero comes in with a magic sword to solve things.
For a company story, Gable said to start by looking at what exists (market, technology, service, industry trend, etc.), what are the problems that need to be solved, how do you differentiate the new approaches or discoveries, what will the team do to make it happen and what will ultimately be changed? Journalists are looking for cause-and-effect, plus anticipated results. If you can demonstrate what the company has done to evoke change, and tell it in a compelling way, you’re going to drive positive media relations. Also, look for what doesn’t exist. Is there a new story hook, trend or oversight your client can speak to?
Always be Collecting
Greer said to “always be collecting information.” This includes competitive information and industry trends as well. Sometimes outside stories can stimulate new ideas for promoting your own company in new ways and further differentiating against the competition.
Kranz counseled against having false drama. Journalists will see through it, he said. The panel stressed the importance of authentic counsel. Bates said to create a catalog of stories that can be rolled out over time. His approach has been to interview key executives at the companies he has worked for. At Gable PR, teams use internal audits to delve into the heart and soul of a company. The team develops questions to be asked individually and confidentially of key client connections to delve into vision, mission, challenges, opportunities, history of the company, culture and anecdotes that can be used to demonstrate the successes of the company and its people. The process often finds stories that haven’t been told before.
The panel discussed how to work with difficult executives. In some cases, an executive will envision a story that really has no news value anywhere. PR firms and internal staffs need to provide authentic counsel. In some cases, they have to keep from falling on their own swords and be diplomatic. The panel suggested trying positive approaches such as saying “maybe there are other ideas we can use to build on this.”
Whenever in doubt, Gable said to drive clarity by asking two questions: “So what? Who cares?”
Bates said PR news copy should contain no jargon or hyperbole. Train your clients to think about action verbs and means of differentiating the company and its products with real facts. Gable said research with major media shows that the fact-based approach to public relations can be a clear differentiator and help build trust with the media.
Organize your material: what rises to the top, what’s important, what’s less important, what’s unimportant, do you have all the information you need? Greer said that most people will only read the lead paragraph so keep it short and simple.
Kranz said to consider the formats being written for – article, web, sidebar, feature, breaking news – and think about word count. What is the most important copy to include? What will get cut?
The panel urged writers to have copy reviewed by people not familiar with the client. Gable said his firm reviews copy internally and often works with freelancers who are former journalist to provide outside opinions.
The panel recommended setting aside complex stories for 24 hours. Kranz said to sleep on it, then read it aloud. Beyond words, he said get a feel for the rhythm. Does the copy flow?
Seven-Point Litmus Test
In closing, Gable shared the Gable PR seven-point litmus test for evaluating potential news stories or other messages:
1. Is it really newsworthy or of interest to anyone other than the company, the CEO’s family and a few of their friends?
2. How big is the impact: company, community, region, market niche or category, industry, technology or science breakthrough, nation, hemisphere, humanity?
3. Has the same or similar story already been told? (Quick research will answer the question.)
4. Can the premise be supported by valid data, third party sources, case histories and ongoing proof of principle?
5. Does the company have credible “gurus,” who can bring the story to life and become valuable and trusted resources for the media?
6. Can the company be further differentiated by its people, technology, culture and personality? Or if you lined up the tag lines, boilerplates, key words and descriptive clauses for the top competitors in the space would they all look and sound alike?
7. Can the story be summarized in a compelling headline, Tweet or one or two-sentence sound bite or elevator pitch?
This quick test can help focus your efforts to create a smart, compelling and interesting story or other communication that breaks through the clutter, connects with your targets and supports the long-term image and reputation of your client or organization. Failing the test can also be used as evidence to convince the client or boss to go in a new direction or risk alienating the media and beyond.
In summary, the panel agreed that strategic public relations programs supported by strong PR writing can make a difference in how an organization builds its reputation for the long term, or doesn’t.