Lost in the various trade journal hysterics about the rise of public relations and our unique ability to play lead dog in the social media explosion is the simultaneous decline in the quality of the average PR practitioner's writing.
Poor writing has been the subject of numerous articles and surveys over the years. It's been blamed on everything from an underfunded primary and secondary education system to the inherent informality in blogging, texting and Tweeting. I'd agree that both have contributed to the mediocre copy many senior corporate and agency executives review nowadays. I'd also add that the word 'copy' itself is part of the problem.
As the traditional lines separating advertising, direct mail, sales promotion, digital and PR have blurred, I've noticed an alarming increase in the use of superlatives and hyperbole once reserved solely for the copy in a full-page print ad.
PR and journalism graduates from the very best schools have somehow forgotten that our press materials need to be written in an objective, factual manner. Instead, I routinely hear industry leaders lament the plethora of poor prose from juniors. They shake their heads and speak of receiving press releases and opinion pieces with endless, run-on sentences that include adjectives ranging from “thrilling” and “remarkable” to “game-changing” and “awe-inspiring.”
It's fine for the advertising and marcom types to use such hype. But, as I wrote in a recent blog ('A Wigotsky in every agency'), the generation of PR editors that included Victor Wigotsky of H&K and John Artopeous of Burson, wouldn't have permitted such an atrocity.
Today's industry leaders are not only allowing poor writing to take hold, we're enabling it. Heck, PR Week actually asked two professionals to debate whether good writing EVEN MATTERED anymore. If our leading trades aren't endorsing the need for a “back to basics, just the facts, ma'am” approach to PR writing, what hope do we have?
It's our responsibility to counsel clients on what is, and isn't, newsworthy. It's also our responsibility to write a release, a bylined article or other communications piece in a classic, objective journalistic style.
The more our product looks and reads like advertising copy, the more likely an organization is to cede control of its overall marketing communications to a digital or direct marketing shop. And, trust me, there's nothing thrilling or remarkable about that possibility. That said, it will be an awe-inspiring, NEGATIVE game-changer if our industry leaders and journalists don't step up and address the issue more seriously. Oh, and there was no hyperbole in that last paragraph. Just facts.
Well put (and written, for that matter). Quick anecdote: a long time ago, I toiled for a great boss named Howard Geltzer. I came to Howard with a press release problem I’d been having with a Japanese executive at Sony. The client insisted I use the words epoch-making in describing a new Trinitron TV. I pushed back, but the client insisted. I knew any journalist worth his salt would laugh out loud at such a suggestion and asked Howard for advice. Without any hesitation, he picked up the phone, dialed the client and said, ‘Hideo, do you know what’s happened in the last epoch? Everything from the discovery of America, the American Revolution, the invention of the plane and automobile, two world wars and man walking on the moon. Do you really want to embarrass Sony by suggesting a TV belongs on that list? I didn’t think so. Thanks Hideo.’ Great, great lesson in client management (and writing).
I think everyone involved in professional writing in our industry–including copywriters like me–need to step up to the plate. When I’m writing copy, I ask myself where it will appear and for whom it is being written. That’s because I am occasionally writing press releases, and they need to be crafted more objectively (as you note) than brochure copy. The marketing communications field has gotten very comfortable with playing fast and loose with words. Sometimes that is warranted for effect. But other times it’s wise to consult a style manual (I use Chicago) to make sure you’re writing is grammatically and stylistically correct. I’m becoming more and more of a stickler in this regard; I figure if I am wanting to be viewed as a craftsman then I have to focus on quality.