This is the next entry in our “Best of” series, in which we venture deep into the vault to replay blog opinion and insight that has withstood the test of time. Today’s post hails from October, 2008. We welcome your feedback.
“I’ve just come to expect that my (public relations) agency can’t write,” was the astonishing admission I heard a few weeks back from a vice president at one of Ottawa’s larger technology companies who called us to see if we’d be interested in participating in an agency review process.
(I’ve promised not to name him (or her) for reasons that will be obvious as you read the rest of this post.)
I could hardly believe my ears. But yes, he said, it had long been his experience that the PR practitioners he had been dealing with from a range of different agencies and across a number of companies just weren’t very good writers, and so it fell to him to write most of the materials used in his campaigns. One of the key reasons he was approaching inmedia, he told me, was our very strong reputation in the marketplace as superb writers, a reputation he said was confirmed when he read our blog and web site.
I chalked this one up to what I assumed was just an unfortunate experience on the part of one technology marketing executive until I relayed the story to a colleague last week, a CEO at another technology company here in Ottawa and an insightful marketer in his own right. I was again utterly gobsmacked when he said he didn’t view writing as a core requirement in the PR function, that the ability to pitch the story was far more important.
“And what do you do,” I asked him, “When the pitch is initially well received and the next words out of the reporter or editor’s mouth are, ‘Sounds good, send me something about it.’?”
Here’s the thing. To work at inmedia and, I believe, to be an effective media relations practitioner anywhere, you must be able to write at an expert level and you must be able to effectively pitch what you’ve written. There is no hierarchy between these two fundamental skills. Lack one, and you’re out of the game.
And here’s why.
To believe, as these two otherwise successful technology marketers clearly do, that writing is either not terribly important or that your PR function, whether internal or an agency, can be permitted to be lousy writers, is to completely beggar the entire communications process.
In the first instance, despite all the wonderful new communications tools at our disposal, most journalists still want to see something in cold, hard black and white, even if it is delivered electronically. And even if they don’t ask for it, it’s just gotta be in your best interests to give them well-written material so they have the complete story, with all the relevant facts and accurate spellings of company, product and people’s names to which they can refer. This is just so basic I’m staggered it needs stating.
Second, how in the heck does a PR practitioner demonstrate her or his understanding of the story without writing about it? Yes, a properly written document proves the communicator can — gasp! — communicate. That is, the words run together in some sort of comprehensible order, everything is spelled correctly and the commas and periods are in the right places. But it still won’t be any good unless the person writing it actually has a thorough grasp of the subject matter.
Effective writing is not a case of cutting and pasting bits and pieces from other documents to make a different document and it needs to be more than a merely technically accurate use of words, grammar and punctuation. Effective writing is the process of distilling what has been learned — from other documents, certainly, but also, and critically, from interviews with a range of subject-matter experts — into a new piece of work. It not only communicates the story to all who read it, it also demonstrates understanding.
Bottom line: If your agency can’t write about it well, they almost certainly can’t pitch it well. And even worse, they probably don’t even understand it well.
So, did we get the business? Well, that’s another story that I cover here: The Ottawa inferiority complex theorem strikes again.