‘My PR agency can’t write’

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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.

By Francis Moran

“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.


  • Kelly Rusk

    September 27, 2011 2:23 pm

    As a former in-house tech startup PR person (among many other roles of course) turned agency person, I am compelled to play the devil’s advocate here Francis because unfortunately–and it seems far more predominate in the tech sector– “good writing” is a relative term.

    For context: I know I am an excellent writer–I excelled in journalistic writing at PR school, have had releases published verbatim and received numerous compliments directly from journalists when pitching, etc.

    I can also tell you at least a handful of tech executives have told me I don’t know how to write a news release.

    In the eyes of many tech executives a good news release starts something like this:

    “Company XYZ is the award-winning leading innovator in the field with a best-of-breed interactive solutions and a world-class renowned CEO on the cutting edge of whatever.”

    Every once in a while there is a nugget of real news buried in one of these releases so a journalist will cover the story and the tech exec who signed off on it will consider him/herself an accomplished writer.

    What’s worse is good PR people–especially junior ones–will start to do this because they are aiming to make the boss/client happy, even though he/she knows it’s not the best.

    I don’t mean to insinuate this is the situation you were in or anything of the sort.

  • Kelly Rusk

    September 27, 2011 2:25 pm

    (Hit send prematurely)

    My point is I do agree it’s the most important and definitely under appreciated, both in agencies and client side alike.

  • Francis Moran

    September 27, 2011 2:54 pm

    I understand where you’re coming from, Kelly.

    We recently had the very frustrating experience where the CTO refused to accept any of our written material and insisted on completely — and badly — re-writing it. For the first time ever in our 13-year history, we had outlets refuse contributed articles whose publication we had pitched and negotiated. We’re not that company’s agency any more.

    The two executives that were the subject of this post, though, were not in that situation. It was the long-standing experience of the first, a seasoned marketer I respect, that agencies could not write and the honest opinion of the second, a good friend who I also respect, that they didn’t really need to be able to. Both were, in my view, victims of extended exposure to poor agencies — the likes of which you and I have NEVER worked for, Kelly — that peddle other skills, like “relationships,” over the fundamentals.

    Thanks for weighing in.

  • Never expect mission-perfect prose in the first cut | Francis Moran & AssociatesFrancis Moran & Associates

    September 24, 2013 11:34 am

    [...] disorder. On one hand, a great writer can command a substantial premium. On the other hand, many people view it as a cheap commodity, and pay accordingly, only to complain about how they can’t find a decent writer to do a decent [...]

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