The devil is in the details

It’s amazing how important the written and spoken word is to one’s image and reputation, particularly in the public relations world.

The latest assault by a PR pro on the English language was a whopper. It appeared in a press release issued by Canadian company TextTrust which, get this, sells software to locate spelling mistakes on Web sites! So, in a press release issued by the company about its flagship product offering, guess what happened? The lead sentence contained a brutal typo. Talk about not walking the walk! To his credit, TextTrust PR Manager Pat Brink assumed full responsibility.

But, the damage had been done. TextTrust became something of a water cooler joke. And, Brink’s misdeed got me thinking about his professional image and reputation. If he can’t get the spelling correct in what was probably a critically important press release, can he be trusted with other assignments? Will this faux pas follow Brink as he moves forward in his career? Will Brink be forever known as the TextTrust person you can’t trust?

I know I cringe when I read poorly worded e-mails from our staff. And it definitely impacts my thinking when review time comes around. I also take note of the spelling and grammatical mistakes, as well as the malaprops, made in some of the postings by others on the Repman blog. It’s interesting that some of the more aggressive and opinionated posters are also those with the worst command of the English language. One wonders if the two go hand-in-glove?

Clear, consistent communication is a fundamental prerequisite to success in public relations. Yet, it seems to be less and less prevalent. And, I know I’m not alone in my views. Poor writing and sloppy grammar are becoming the PR norm, not the exception.

17 thoughts on “The devil is in the details

  1. Thanks for the clarification, Geoff. I must have misread the original Bulldog Reporter coverage.

  2. In fairness RepMan, I’ve seen the press release that you’re talking about. The words you listed as misspelled were listed as “top misspelled words” on company websites on the press release. The grammatical error in the first ‘graf? That one was devastating, as you said. You could (and should) have just left it with that, and we’d have gotten the point. But the other “errors” you allude to were clearly listed as intentional the way the release is formatted.

  3. Very interesting discussion, all, and on a topic that makes me realize I have turned into my parents. It seems that much less attention is placed on writing abilities than used to be the case. The perspective seems to be that it’s just not that important. I have worked with many bright, talented young people who couldn’t write well, much less spell and use grammar properly and could have cared less.
    I was fortunate to have worked in a PR agency very early in my career and was taught to utilize the AP stylebook as a guide. Unfortunately, poor grammar is so rampant (and among some of my very ‘well-educated’ clients) that I am often corrected when I am in fact the one who is right. (This happens frequently when utilizing titles.) So even when it’s acknowledged that I’m correct, it’s changed because “it just doesn’t look right.” How’s that for falling down the rabbit hole?

  4. true, lunch. but you made a very important point- that firms are asked to “help out on other collateral development.” they might be asked to help out on those items but the true objective is media and that is how almost all clients will measure success. if they wanted their sales sheets written they could hire a freelance writer. i might not have been well rounded but i was a damn good media guy- and even repman will have to admit that.
    rep- was i a better pitcher on the mound or in the office? 🙂

  5. PR firms are also asked to help out on other collateral development, MSE. It’s not just about press releases and pitches…I guess you weren’t a well-rounded practicioner of the profession?
    In other news, I don’t know how I would feel about writing tests – some people just don’t do well on tests. However, I might begin a writing workshop here at my agency -and have it be more geared to idea generation for clients, fun, and of course, structure and grammar.

  6. I-man: You and your fellow, former P’com employee are wrong. We’re being asked to submit writing samples more and more often as part of the new business discovery process. I think this is a direct result of the writing issue we’ve been debating. It’s not just about results anymore. It’s about a client’s trusting an agency that they have the written wherewithal to properly represent the corporation with the media. Smart corporate communications executives realize that foul-ups like the one described in today’s blog can dramatically impact a company’s image and reputation.

  7. so i was just chatting with a former colleague at pcom and they made an interesting point on this topic. they said that when was the last time a pr firm was asked to submit writing samples from each team member in a new biz pitch? potential clients ask about media hits, creative ideas etc., but not writing samples. so the question is do clients care enough about writing or do they assume that pr folks can write.
    to me, clients are about results- thats why they hire a pr firm. if you ask 100 clients which they would prefer- a perfectly written pitch with perfect grammar and 2 hits or a pitch with a couple of errors and 5 hits, i bet more than 90 choose the latter. might be an interetsing survey question to pose to the pr world.
    if the latter is true, and i think it is, then my comment earlier about communicating is tough to argue with.

  8. rep- i agree with you about the pr field. much like a lawyer not knowing the law, grammar is an essential part of pr. heres the part i found interesting. like stacy said, i have seen mistakes on the blogs written by you, but chalk it up to you typing while doing 10 other things. but by the fact that you also have others read it and mistakes get by, only tells me that the problem is worse than people want to think.
    one idea on how to fix this is maybe institute a writing test for all employees to pass each year. if they don’t, maybe they shouldn’t be a in pr. after all, would u want a doctor that couldn’t pass his boards?

  9. I couldn’t agree more on the profanity issue. I think it also demonstrates a person who doesn’t have the vocabulary to come up with other words to express his/her feelings.

  10. I-man: Grammar, punctuation and spelling may not be important in the medical supplies field, but they’re terribly important in an image-focused sector like public relations. And, Stacy, I’m sure I’ve made more than one mistake in my various blogs. Regardless of the blogosphere’s informality, however, mistakes become important when they’re glaring enough to distract the reader. So, I try to read and re-read my blogs before sending them to an internal team that does the same. Then and only then, do we post a blog. Btw, on a related subject, profanity in my mind, just reinforces the immaturity of the person who uses it.

  11. I have to agree that it’s definitely sad to see how many PR pros–and other professionals, for that matter–have poor grammar skills.
    Jimmy, I also have to point out that those emails, as you suggest, are not always forgotten. In fact, I believe that’s partially what Rep is talking about. Your reputation as a professional is something to be mindful of whether you’re in a face-to-face meeting, responding to a blog or sending someone an email. Poor grammar follows you everywhere.
    Of course, everyone is going to slip once in a while…even Rep (please don’t ask me to go back and find them, but I have seen an error or two on these posts). Those who speak and write well will make a mistake here or there. The bigger reputation issue is when someone is making errors on a consistent basis. I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s detrimental to our profession, in particular.

  12. i am as guilty as the next guy, especially on this blog, but you also need to remember the purpose of a blog. its a online diary- when you put down thoughts they don’t necessarily need proper grammar and spelling. which leads to my next point- the goal of writing, be it on a blog, a release, etc. it to COMMUNICATE a thought, idea, message etc. to a person or group of people. if that thought is communicated and the person understands it, does it really (italicized) matter if the wrong “stationary” was used.
    sure, its not proper english, but language is about the ability to communicate, and if a message is communicated then the objective was met.
    when it comes to spelling mistakes, especially in business communications, that really shouldn’t happen as everyone has spell check and should use it on an important document. but in casual communication, like an IM, blog, etc. does it really matter?

  13. I feel like I just got caught doing something wrong and had to have a face-to-face with my father (they were the worst, right?).
    I know I am fault here. I’m sure I’ve made countless mistakes on this blog and others.
    It seems to me that people do post on blogs and messages boards without employing their best writing skills. The funny part is that the items online will last and last when the email will soon be forgotten by the client and other recipients.