There has always been a generational tension over the writing quality of public relations professionals. When I was in school, I endured hours of drilling on AP Style and grammar pitfalls from a copy editing professor that I thought was just shy of Attila the Hun in style. He would bemoan the state of writing from our classes as most of us struggled with his examples that we swore we'd never see in the "real world" after graduation.
Today, I hear constant concerns from experienced PR leadership on the need for better writing from less-experienced staff. In many ways, the issue is nothing new. However, there has been a change in expectations with the emergence of technology that increases the number of ways to communicate while decreasing the time spent on each message. Tweets of 140 characters, a 24/7 news cycle with fewer staff covering the news thanks to downsizing, and a wider number of audiences online than ever before are pushing PR writers to adapt to get it all done.
But before you trash that old AP Stylebook (or app on your iPhone) remember that your success depends on your ability to connect with your reader. If you're seeking to secure coverage for your client or company, it's a story that will catch the eye of that producer you're wooing. What makes a good story? A concise, well-written lead that outlines the benefit to the audience and why your idea makes sense isn't a bad place to start.
How can PR pros improve their writing and chances for connecting with an audience?
- Find ways to practice your writing across platforms: Mandatory AP Style in internal emails? Yes indeed, I heard of this one from a good friend. The expectation for their agency is AP at all times. Why? I believe it has to do with the old sports adage of you play how you practice. If you write in shorthand constantly but expect to break out brilliant copy on-demand, you're likely to be a bit rusty.
- Change your perspective: If you want to connect with your audience, put yourself in their shoes. It's great that your company may have a wonderful new product but if the audience has no idea why they might need it you've already lost them. However, if you quickly illustrate how you can help increase the amount of free time they have each weekend you may be on to something. It's the "So what?" factor. What are you doing that makes it relevant to the audience? It's not about you.
- Keep it human: In my opinion, one of the positive aspects of our evolving writing culture is the expectation that every piece of communication should be personalized. Generic pitches addressed to "Dear sir or madam" have never been a good idea but now they are absolute career-limiting moves. A story aimed at a niche blog should not feature the same elements and content that a PR pro is offering to a mainstream news outlet. The days of having any reason for not knowing what a television program, website, or blog really covers are long gone. Spend time doing your homework and make sure that your writing conveys a sense of respect for the work your contact puts into their work. Nobody appreciates feeling like an afterthought.
And, for my copy editing instructor, here is a very public shout out. You were right and quality copy will never go out of style.