Never forget your roots

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By Leo Valiquette

A couple of weeks back, I expressed my firm belief about the portability of strong writing skills between disciplines, with particular reference to journalists who make the career transition into public relations or marketing. Here’s my promised followup on the importance of not forgetting your roots in the newsroom when it comes to writing copy and placing a story.

(DISCLAIMER: Everything I am about to say stems from the assumption that you are great at what you do. And, frankly, most writers are not, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Strong writing remains at the core of effective public relations and marketing activities and this has become even more apparent with the rise of content marketing. From the ubiquitous and often maligned media release, to blog posts ghost-written for CEOs and thought leadership articles placed with leading trade and industry press, the lessons learned as a journalist remain relevant. In addition to my points below, you might also want to read Alex’s post from a couple of months back, 5 tips content marketers should take from journalists.

Positioning vs. self-promoting

I have sat down with dozens of SMEs and branch offices over the years for reasons that were more tactical than strategic. The common circumstance is that a local business has been sold advertising space in a local publication that is intended to be used for some form of profile. The business owner or manager, however, either does not have the time or the aptitude to produce the required content. The easy answer is to just collect whatever marketing collateral is already at hand, from the website “About Us” page (usually out of date) to the brochures (often blatantly self-promotional and lacking depth).

In the absence of a more comprehensive marketing strategy, there is only one approach for a savvy former journalist to take and it begins with one open-ended question:

“If I was a prospective customer and I asked you why I should give you my business instead of going to that other guy down the street, what would you say?”

In other words, who are your customers, what is their pain that you address and what have you learned about your solution and your approach to service that has kept your customers coming back? Your audience doesn’t want to be talked at with grand claims, they want to be convinced that you “get it,” whatever their “it” is, and you know how to make their headaches and nightmares go away.

As a journalist, you are always looking for insight into why something is important, relevant and newsworthy for your readers. You are applying those same considerations here. If you start with this frame of reference, it doesn’t matter if the client business is an insurance brokerage, a database administrator or a staffing firm.

I said last time that you don’t have sources anymore, but …

Your clients do have reference customers. I’ve written ad nauseam on the subject of reference customers and the credibility they provide given that they have ponied up that which speaks louder than words – cash. But don’t overlook the additional value they provide to you as the writer looking for perspective and colour that will help you to tell a more engaging story.

And all of this applies to …

Just about any form of writing you are likely to do in a PR or marketing role that is intended for public consumption. PR, marketing and journalism all claim to be about knowing how to tell the right story that will engage the right audience. But as a former journalist, you are much more accustomed to getting the heart of a story without the rhetoric and bombast that can find its way in to the stereotypical PR and marketing collateral.

This skill is particularly useful in the PR function where you will be expected to pick up the phone and pitch stories to members of your old tribe. Even if The Powers That Be strike from the media release details that you consider to be the guts of the story, or decree that it contain obfuscating verbage that makes you cringe, this is your opportunity to tell the story in the way you know has the best chance of getting a journalist’s attention.

Details, details

You don’t have to be a journalist turned PR practitioner to know that placing bylined articles with target media outlets is a fickle and unpredictable exercise. The wise flack knows it is much better to pitch an abstract and get the green light from an editor before expending the time and effort to craft a masterpiece, only for it to end up homeless. The considerations here are twofold.

First, if you are so lucky as to have an ongoing relationship with a publication as a regular contributor, it certainly helps to see the world of deadlines and such through the eyes of its editor.

Second, the relationship with that editor is likely to be very similar to the one that you, as a former journalist, had back in the newsroom. What you write will be subject to their review, approval and revision. They may also have invaluable feedback to offer that will refine and strengthen your article so that it fits with the overall tone of the publication and has the strongest appeal to the publication’s audience. You get this, your client might not. But it’s also your role to bridge the gap between the two solitudes as dealmaker and mediator and you are uniquely equipped to do so.

If you, like me, have jumped the fences between journalism, PR and marketing, what else have you learned about applying the skill sets of one discipline to the others?

Image: TeleRead

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