Fellow freelance PR Lianne Robinson makes it brief.
I saw this tweet from Tom Knowles a few weeks ago, And it stayed with me. I see this type of thing all the time. Paragraphs beyond paragraphs of long clunky words with no clear explanation as to what it is they are trying to say.You can spend what seems like an age watching a company description going around the various the heads and powers that be of a company. I know this as I’ve worked in-house too. Everyone wants to add their own point of view, something that makes them feel that they played a part in the creation of the copy. But in doing so, adding a long word here and a bit of jargon there, we can completely lose all sense of what we’re trying to say.
When you work for a company you can get so immersed in it and the technicalities around how it works that to come up with a simple sentence to describe what it does exactly can be the hardest thing. We see this a lot in PR too. When I ask a company for 800-1000 word article on a chosen subject its easy. When I ask for a two-sentence reactive comment, it seems to take all day. And it’s the same for me too. For some reason writing less always takes more.
Let’s take the example above with Tom Knowles. Tom is the property reporter at The Times so we can assume that this is a property company (if the PR has got the pitch right!) but what they actually do is anyone’s guess.
Tom’s a busy man. He needs to sift through hundreds if not thousands of emails every day looking for the best news stories all while writing insightful copy for tomorrow’s paper under tight deadlines. He doesn’t have time to read 800 word emails. Tom needs to understand clearly from the outset why this company is great and unique and why it is that he should be speaking to them.
Think about how you read a news article or blog. If you read the first 100 words and you’re either a) not interested or b) you can’t see where it is going, then you are going to switch off and move on to something else. It’s the same with PR pitches. You’ve got to be succinct right from the start and make it very clear why your client is so interesting.
I’ve often questioned if my pitches to journalists can at times be too simplistic. I go back through them trying to add in fancy adjectives and make things sound perhaps more revolutionary than they actually are. What my clients are paying me to do is make sure that the journalist understands why they are so great and why I think it will make a good story. Translating this 800 word description in to two or three easily digestible sentences that get the journalist interested and want to find out more.
So next time you’re thinking about your ‘story’ find the three things that you think make it unique and interesting and express these points high up in your pitch. If you can capture the journalist’s attention in the first two sentences, then that’s half the battle won. If you’re not entirely sure what these key messages are, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and start the process again.
You don’t need to give the journalist a life story about the company and the 30-year career of the chairman
Keep it brief. If the journalist is interested in the story that you are pitching then they will come back to you with questions. Keep it clear, to the point and highlight why it’s interesting in a couple of short sentences. Keep it simple.
Are you stiing comfortably? Then I’ll tell you how I fell into PR
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a very bored admin manager who worked for a software development company. She found her job excessively dull, and so would spend much of the day quietly sitting at her computer, writing short stories. For some six months, she (barely) managed to perform her admin duties while working tirelessly on her craft, and soon enough her stories started to get the literary recognition she so desperately craved.
But then one day, the CEO – an entirely overly motivated individual, in her opinion, whom she’d successfully managed to avoid in the main – summoned her to his office. Her heart sunk when she saw upon his desk a sheaf of printouts, not of the latest tedious project timelines, but varying drafts of her stories and poems.
She braced herself to be fired: what cared she? She would live in an attic, make a career move out of being miserable and thin, wear fingerless gloves and die a fine and beautiful death of consumption.
“These are rather good,” he said evenly.
Momentarily thrown off balance but determined to remain on the offensive, she replied, “Well if you can’t give me enough to do, I have to get through the terminable day somehow.”
“My fault entirely,” he concurred with a half-smile.
She glared at him balefully. Was he just passing time waiting for the HR lackey to come in and do his dirty work for him?
Apparently not. “So I was wondering if I might prevail upon you to apply your talents to writing a few stories about the company, our solutions and how we help our customers grow and so forth…”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she interrupted, immediately seeing a flaw in his plan. “They’d be so boring: who would want to read those?”
“Ah, yes,” he replied with a mere smidge of a vindictive twinkle in his eye. “But it would be your job to make them interesting, tell a good story, engage the reader and what not. Then, maybe, you might talk to a journalist or two, see if you could interest them in writing their own stories about us…”
She looked at him aghast. Why, just the thought of it made her feel queasy. “PR! You want me to do PR??” How very dare he? ”I shan’t do it, I shan’t! You can’t make me!” she wailed.
“Well, no need to agree the brief right now. Why don’t you have the rest of the afternoon off to think about it?”
She grabbed her papers from his desk and stalked with great dignity from his office, not trusting herself to speak.
And so it was that after a sodden gin review of her overdraft facility, our heroine reluctantly conceded that just possibly there were worse things one could do for a living than telling corporate stories.
She’d just do it for a few months before she went and found herself a proper job or, at least had saved enough for a deposit on an attic and a pair of fingerless gloves…
And so, best beloveds, thanks to the thankless intervention of a remarkable CEO, I began my twenty year, hugely enjoyable and vastly rewarding career in PR.
Funny that now, ‘PR is all about telling stories.’ I thought it always was…
On how being kind can be good for your career. Really! Recently I was asked how I got started as a freelancer. “Oh it was Karma really,” I replied. And this greasy sort sidled up.“Who’s Karma?” He said. “Are they hiring?”
Come to think about it, maybe ‘they’ were:See, it all started when I was agency side… Once a year I would host a day for visiting US students. It started off as a favour for a client, but we loved engaging with the students, so sunny and bright and we became a regular stop on the US tour. And this lone kind act, helped counter-balance those days when I used to lock myself in the office bathroom and recite, “I’m not paid to be popular,” before marching back out there to rain on someone’s parade.
A few years passed, then one day in 2010 the US tour organisers asked me if I knew of a senior comms consultant that could head up a London internship programme for media post grads for The USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.And I thought, that could be me that could…And within a week of resigning I was jetting off to LA
So that became my first freelance contract, going to LA and working with the sunniest people on the planet. We are on our fourth contract now and it’s one of the most satisfying projects I have. But it doesn’t stop there…As a result of that work, I gained a great understanding of the whole PR landscape, not just my bit. I also experienced first-hand how incredibly difficult it was to secure internships in our sector. So I volunteered my services with the Taylor Bennett Organisation to share what I had learned with our home grown talent, helping the trainees prepare for their first roles in PR. I have been working with TBF for the last three years now, and I love it. I stay in touch with many of the trainees and it’s a huge buzz watching them develop and succeed in their careers…
And it didn’t stop there, either. Chuffed to announce The Comms Crowd has just taken on our very first freelance junior. A TBF alum! You can only imagine what a difference she has made to the team, and by all accounts she’s pretty happy to be working with us too, being able to execute agency-calibre work but with the freedom of the freelance lifestyle.
But wait! There’s more! Courtesy of a recommendation from another TBF alum we have a new client, which is great of course, but this client happens to be the UK’s foremost skilled volunteer and charity matchmaker and itself is a massive force for good. In the UK alone GWYGA has enabled professionals working in IT, Finance, Marketing and HR to donate £12 million worth of their time to some 3,000 charities around the world.
And now we are helping out with the PR around that, spreading the word, which has to be a very good thing right?Thank you Karma, a pleasure doing business with you.
Tips for entering Tech Awards
Last week, BJSS, a CommsCrowd client, won the TechWorld Award for Best Public Sector project. It’s a genuinely cool project, re-engineering a very big data warehouse, bringing it in house, fully automating it and helping the NHS to save on human resource and money – both scarce commodities in the public sector these days.
|if you had to guess which one of us was not an
award-winning software engineer, who would you pick?
The awards themselves were also impressive, in a transparently objective kind of way, projects were free to enter, award ceremony free to attend and they even gave an award to a company that couldn’t make it – in all my days I’ve never seen that before – fair play.
So I am very pleased for my client, it’s a huge validation of the great work they are doing and I’m pretty pleased for us too. I didn’t write the award-winning software but I did have a hand in writing the award-winning entry.
Here’s some tips for drafting those perfect 1,000 words:
- Get buy in – you can’t do these on your own, work as close as you can with the client ping pong the entry back and forth until it’s perfect.
- Allow enough time – we think it takes about a day and a half on average to draft and edit a standard 1.000 word award entry and that’s assuming you already know the story.
- Start early – it at least three weeks before – get information from source, ie the people that worked on the project.
- Answer the question – every award has a bias so be sure to answer the questions exactly as asked.
- Word count – keep it tight and don’t waffle.
- Before and after stats demonstrating ROI – without these don’t bother to enter.
- Have a heart – think of the poor judges and how many submission they have to read, do make an effort to tell a darn good yarn, keep the narrative sparkly and fluid.
Post Script: other award winning entries include:
- 15/04/2013 Caplin wins Best Web Implemntation at the Sell Side Technology Awards
- 02/12/2013 BJSS wins Best Big Data Project at the Tech Success Awards.
- 15/04/2014 Caplin wins Best Web Development Platform at the Sell Side Technology Awards.
- 14/06/2014 BJSS wins Best Information Technology at the Best Business Awards
- 14/07/2014 BJSS ranked fourth for International Growth in Sunday Times Tech Track 200
- 15/07/2014 Caplin wins Best Trading Technology Vendor at the FX Week Awards
|Gonna need a bigger banner|
Because B2B commercial copy is for intelligent business consumption, it’s tempting to make it sound grand, but this inevitably makes consumption so much more painful.
Here’s my top tips for edible copy:
- Who are you writing for? Write for one person. Assess their motivation for reading your copy. Will it enlighten, inform, entertain, motivate them to act? Think what’s in it for them. Assess the time they have to read it, their knowledge level.
- Get the knowledge: Sounds obvious, but you need to know/understand at least as much as your reader. If you don’t have the knowledge go and get it. Research it, ask questions, find an expert, get them to draft it if necessary.
- Get it all out: If you find yourself staring at a blank screen then just write anything and everything down to do with what you are trying to say, from this you can create structure, and extract key facts.
- Ask questions which can provide the structure: Ask yourself some basic questions like, Who, Why, When, Where, What and answer them in bullet format. Leave the questions as subheads for now. Arrange the questions into a structure that will form the basis of your logical/persuasive argument.
- Does it serve your purpose as well as theirs? Your copy must add value to the reader but does it also support your company messages, make sure your copy always underlines a key value proposition. If it doesn’t why are you writing it?
- So what? Then read it through, anything missing? Ask yourself, ‘Why do I care?’, ‘So what?’ and, ‘What’s so exciting about that?’ If you’re bored by your own copy, imagine how everyone else feels. (At this stage this might be the longest your copy gets, from here on in we are cutting it back).
- Show not tell: De fluff: Use objective observation and facts to show. Not subjective adjectives and opinion to tell. You are not penning a love letter, but presenting the facts in a compelling fashion. Imagine the building is on fire and you cannot leave the office until you have shouted the story from the window. This exercise will ensure you only use the words you need, to say what has to be said and no more. When it comes to strong copy, a couple of carefully crafted sentences are more effective than a whole paragraph of jumbled thoughts.
- Every time you review it, cut it: Aim to reduce word count every time you review the copy (3- 5 times) with decent breaks in between sessions to allow the creative brain to mull over the project, find the right phrase, the most perfect word.
- Don’t force it: Could you sneak your copy into conversation, would it sound natural, or would people think you had gone crazy/swallowed a dictionary/been indoctrinated by brand Y. Be kind to your reader, make your copy easy to read!
- Read final draft out loud: Now print off the copy and read it out loud. This really helps spot the ‘silly’ mistakes that your eyes haven’t seen but your tongue will trip over. It will also help you with punctuation.
You can download these tips in a handy pdf if you like to keep on your desk and front of mind.
Sam Howard lives to regret and for that at least she is grateful…
In its latest initiative to bridge the diversity gap, the CIPR is to go into secondary schools to explain what a career in PR entails. On the back of my work with The Taylor Bennett Foundation, and USC Annenberg, I’ll be looking to lend a hand. Odd how things turn out – given that my first ever careers’ talk was possibly a tad off message…
Admittedly the weekend before the gig, it did occur to me that possibly the standard company creds deck, designed to impress your most hard bitten city type, didn’t have quite the right content nor tone for a ten year old from an underprivileged, wildly diverse school in Neasden. But either I built a deck from scratch which would take a couple of days and I would never use it again, or I could just make it up as I went along, after all, what would they know? My talk was scheduled for Thursday.Although not entirely sure of my proffesion, my son’s primary school knew I rushed around a lot, shouted into my phone, and muttered darkly about jet lag. And so the headmistress made inquiries as to what it was that was so important, I had yet to attend a single cake sale. On discovering it was comms, she offered me a slot on careers’ week, saying it would, ‘make a nice change’. I love public speaking me, so penciled it in without a thought.
On Monday, Elliot was, buzzin’. A midwife had kept them enthralled with heart-warming tales of delivering babies, saving lives and what not. “How super!” I said, though this midwife person sounded like bit of a show off to me.On Tuesday, when I picked him up, he was equally full of it. The local policemen had visited with his dog, Blaze, who by all accounts was a magnificent beastie. “Hasn’t he got better things to do?” I miffed, as Elliot noted I was doing 35 in a 30 and that technically he should make a citizen’s arrest right there and then.
On Wednesday, a bloody bastard fireman rocked up.
“Perhaps I should bring in my awards,” I wondered out loud.
“He parked his fire engine in the playground,” said Elli cheerfully, “Let us climb all over it.”
“That’s cheating!” I howled in dismay.
My boy looked at me levelly. “Yep. You’re really up against it now Mum.”
Now, I know at this point, I could have built a deck that talked earnestly about reputation management and CSR. But people, my back was against the wall here and besides my kid was in the audience. That night I dug deep for inspiration and the shiny new deck, was unlike any other deck I have ever built before or after, and ready in the early hours of Thursday morning.
And so it was that I sashayed into that classroom dressed for a full on six-way City pitch. I cast a disdainful eye over my charges.
“So, I hear you’ve met a mid-wife, a policemen and a fireman already. Was it just great hearing about how all those clever, kind and brave people have dedicated their lives to helping others?” And they chorused that it was, it really really was.
“Well I can tell you now,” I said fixing them with a steely gaze.
“I don’t do anything like that at all.” An attentive hush seeped through the room.
“What I do, is a very, very TERRIBLE thing.” There was a collective intake of breath.
“You see,” I said archly as I span neatly on my highest heels and began to pace the room. “I work for the dark side.”
I had them.
“What I do is make MONEY – by helping other people make MONEY. Lots AND lots of it.” The headmistress actually seemed to be sliding down the wall, but the kids, they were on the edge of their seats…An adrenalin-fueled hour later, sharing a celebratory MacDonald’s with the boy, he passed his judgment.
“I liked the bit when you talked about trainers and celebrity endorsement and brand advocacy. Like, who knew there was no such thing as free will.” And he munched on his onion rings reflectively.Looking at me with a sly pride he pronounced, “You did good mum, you did good.”
Though strangely I was never invited back…
Sam Howard pays homage to the Olympians and the Wordsmiths.
|Thanks for the warm up. Now meet the Superhumans.
If writing strap lines was an Olympic sport,
that’s your gold medal winner right there
So clearly, clearly it’s not ‘disabled’ it’s ‘differently-abled’. A term that’s been around for years, but now looks set to be embraced wholesale after the last two awe-filled, outrageously beautiful, amazingly uplifting weeks, which have left us feeling spiritually renewed and oh so proud.
So what to do now with the defunct phrase ‘disabled’? It works ok if you throw ‘temporarily’ in front of it. Like, you fall off your skis and break a load of bones – you are temporarily disabled. Cos you’re probably just going to sit it out and sulk about a bit while you can’t do anything, until such time as you can.
Another way it could be applied is to those of us that are just useless at sport. At 6ft I”, all shoulders, arms legs and feet – you’d think I’d be good at something, anything. But as my sporty father could testify, from the earliest age I’ve been quite rubbish at everything. Whip smart in my classes I’d get my comeuppance in PE, three times weekly. Instead of letting my sporty dad coach/cajole me into doing anything involving developing physical skills, I preferred to stay indoors writing angsty poems and drawing very thin, dead-looking people. I have remained steadfastly crap at sports, as now my sporty son can testify.
I take some comfort in the belief that I’m not the only one, and I’d very much like to think that maybe it was a sportily-challenged person like myself, sitting in Channel 4’s superb in-house agency 4Creative, that came up with the concept and the words, Thanks for the warm up. Now meet the Superhumans. For those are mighty fine words, that provided the spark that lit the touch paper for the Paralympic flame to burn so very brightly.
A Paralympian, a differently-abled person, a Games Maker, a sports-incompetent, a creative – there’s room enough for all of us to contribute, to make a difference and to make it better.
Sam Howard wonders do we really need tech PRs?
A recent survey by Careers Cast suggested that the life of a PR was second only to being a pilot in terms of stress.
“It’s not rocket science!” blasted journos all over twitter.
Very true, but PR can be a trite fraught on occasion. To illustrate my point lets imagine a world where there were no PRs, because everyone in The World of Tech was just so good at connecting and communicating…
Once upon a time, there was an incredibly enthusiastic and irrepressible young journalist, to him the glass was always half full, not that he was much of a drinker, mind! One day he had to catch a bus into the village to buy more type writer ribbon. He planned to use this time on the bus to fact and spell check his work before submitting it to his editor. “You are such a perfectionist!” The wise, old gentleman would kindly chide him, whenever he handed in his copy just a little late.
In the next village there lived the most charming and charismatic inventor you could ever hope to meet. She also had to catch the bus to visit the local ironmonger, who she had commissioned to make some more phalangees, a critical component in her latest invention.
Well, it must have been fate, for on that day, these two jovial people just happened to sit next to each other. Both of them being out-going types, in possession of exceptional social skills, they soon fell into a happy rapport. In no time at all the earnest inventor was telling the curious journalist all about phalangees and their properties in an extraordinarily level of detail. The journalist had all the time in the world to listen to the long list of features that each permutation of phalangees delivered; indeed he was gripped. Having both missed their stops, they were now walking companionably back into the village together and the journalist used his psychic skills to ascertain the unique business benefits that phalangee-based engineering could deliver to his readers.
And so with a great shout of excitement the journalist stopped in the lane and cried, “I believe this to be the singularly most important technological discovery of our time! And even though my beat is actually musical theatre, I’m sure my editor will give me the cover story to tell the world all about it.”
Well, the inventor was somewhat overcome and demurred, “Golly that’s terribly decent of you, but do you think you might wait a while before you write anything as I now realise I’m not quite geared up for discovery just yet?”
The journalist nodded solemnly, and true to his word the story was published quite some time later, once the inventor had taken her suit to the cleaners, decided on her company logo and got the phalangee-based product range to stop blowing up.
Within hours of that one story breaking, everybody was talking about it, and, Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Stephen Fry were all begging to be among the first to beta test it and the company share price shot up and overnight the inventor became a multi-millionaire.
As for the journalist, he was ever after regarded as a technology guru whose wise words would forever be commissioned throughout the land. And they all lived largely ever after…
Yeah, like that happens all the time!
If it did there might be no need for PRs to help companies articulate their offering in a coherent way that delivered compelling copy to the media. But it very rarely does and and making it so is sometimes a thankless task. But the second most stressful career?
OK if it wasn’t for us PRs the wheels of commerce might have to travel a road more pot holed, but no, it’s not rocket science, nor is it like flying a plane, or being a nurse, a fire fighter, a policeman, a prison warder, a teacher, a carer, or even a journalist…All jobs have a level of stress associated with them and in PR I think we might secretly like it, it’s nice to be needed.
Is a badly written press release down to the PR officer as journalists love to think, or all the layers of people it must go through to get sign off?
It’s too depressing to cite examples of dreadful press releases here, but editors still get them daily. This could be because the PRs can’t write, in which case don’t let them on the account until they can. Look at your training programme and your time investment in this, even the most clunky of junior writers can make great progress with some guidance and ground rules. But if you are paying someone to do your PR and it’s obvious they can write, then really I think you should just let them. But sadly that’s often not what happens.There is another reason why editors receive such toe-curling, bland brochure-ware – and it’s more common than you might think – and that’s thanks to all the people that contributed to its creation.
For the uninitiated, here’s a typical sign off cycle in a midsize tech company:
- The PR drafts the press release for a product launch, let’s assume it’s pretty good: it tells a story, makes a point, does it succinctly.
- Then the head of comms reviews it, make more of the key messages, it’s a bit more evangelical, but what can you do?
- Then the head of product reviews it, and adds a load of technical detail that probably no one is ever going to read cos it’s very boring.
- Then the head of sales gives it a quick once over, and just adds ‘world’s leading’ to the company descriptor, cos he’s read press releases before and they always have that.
- Then the head of the division takes forever to review it because he is so very important, and adds some outlandish testosterone-fueled statement that says more about him than it does about the product launch.
- Then the company lawyer reviews it, and she removes anything remotely interesting at all and what’s left is littered with trademark symbols.
- Then, and only then, can the PR send it out – obviously three weeks late and to howls of derision from the very same journalists that she really rather admires and would very much like to impress…
Another of Sam Howard’s pet
In PR you hear a lot about being ‘On Message’. This is very important isn’t it? Being On Message, having your people rehearsed and slick, so they can always be On Message? Oh pulllease.
If a journalist knows what you’re going to say before you open your mouth why would he/she bother to rock up for the interview? I mean seriously, what’s in it for them? If they just want the corporate spiel, they’ll check out your website. If they want to talk to you it’s cos there’s a vague hope that in and around the adaptable-scalable-innovative-flexible monologue you might actually have a view, say something interesting, topical, original, human even, and actually provide some decent copy.
The best view to have, I think, is one that runs contra to the stream. Back in the mid 90s when I laboured over my very first press release, I was super diligent about being fact-based and succinct, (I had been trained well, forever in debt Mr Springett) but I didn’t have the confidence to write the quote for my boss. So instead, I wrote, “Say something contentious here.” And he did, and it worked a treat. Mr Caplin, gotta love him and even if you don’t, he always makes great copy.
On occasion, it’s OK to fess up to that slightly dodgy implementation when your record is normally great, and you can demonstrate you have learned from it. Or to admit the recession might be taking its toll on you too, but you are gonna haul your weary backside out of it, or die trying.
You see the joy of sometimes wondering off message means that when you do get back on it, your audience might actually believe you. And isn’t that quite important? Besides, whoever wants to hear somebody else’s diet is going really really well?
When I work with my PR clients we work hard on looking at where we can first and foremost add some value/originality to the debate. You know not everything that comes out of your mouth is necessarily going to be that great and that’s where your trusted PR comes in – they can tell you what to run with and what not to bother banging on about, because it is irrelevant or just actually not that interesting. Sometimes it is all about the team singing from the same hymn sheet, but other times you just need to know a good tune.