Working for a technology PR agency there are five items I keep on my desk. Well, besides a computer, a diary, pens and notepad – and yes, a ever growing number of tea cups – I keep:
- the Oxford English dictionary
- Roget’s thesaurus
- Wynford Hicks’ English for journalists
- Print outs of George Orwell’s rules of journalism
- Tim Radford’s 25 commandments for journalists.
The more I read this last one, the more I’ve wanted to create the commandments for PRs. I’ve whittled these down to the most important 10 but they are all essential. So in no particular order:
1) You are writing to have the article read (and ideally acted upon). Simply publishing it is not enough.
We may be paid to create articles or announcements but nobody is obliged to read it. It’s only great if you get a piece published in EDN or EE Times if it’s read. We should therefore strive to make it readable, enjoyable and informative to all. This doesn’t mean dumbing it down but it does mean removing all unnecessary jargon and explaining all essential jargon. There are ways to make even the most complex or dry subjects readable.
2) No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.
Credit to Tim Radford for the title of this bullet. A story, particularly one on a technical subject, can be difficult to understand, but this is precisely why people turn to the trade journals. If you try to explain the meaning of life or the minutiae of quantum theory in 1000 words you will struggle. Therefore, pick one thread of a story and focus on this, assume the reader is very intelligent but has no underlying knowledge of this subject.
3) The first sentence is the most important
It doesn’t matter what the subject is, if you have a rubbish first sentence people will turn the page (or click the next story). With that out of the way, the second sentence is then the most important. Next time you read anything, think how far you get before you get bored, then apply this to your own writing. As per rule 1, nobody has to read it.
4) Ask questions, research the topic and be cynical
We’re lucky, we have a lot of great clients who are honest about their technologies’ strengths and weaknesses. We can then work with this and find the best angle to promote it, and advise on the potential holes that a journalist will find. Does it really deliver market leading performance for X, Y and Z? Do people really care about X, Y, Z, or is A, B and C more important?
5) A good piece that’s published is far better than a perfect piece that’s late
There are very few examples of news that will stop the presses. And there are very few feature articles that can’t be replaced by something that is delivered on time. It is far better to have an article published and then say “I wish I’d included X” than say, “it’s a shame it wasn’t published, we’d spent ages to make it perfect”.
6) Identify the key people and focus on them
When I was a journalist I ignored most emails that came in. I had to write a set number of articles in a short amount of time and therefore opened only the ones I felt would help. My goal was to create unique, interesting, informative copy, that was well read and enjoyed. Email that was sent to hundreds of journalists was easy to spot and routinely ignored.
I’m not alone, the BBC Click presenter Spencer Kelly has thousands of emails a day and his subject bar shows roughly three (3) words. If you can’t grab his attention in that space it gets ignored. Beginning a subject with “Press Release: Company name” is probably going to be deleted.
And Wired’s editor in chief, Chris Anderson, has begun blocking “lazy flacks” who can’t be bothered to find out the right person to send an email to, he has even named and shamed in the process. The moral of the story, just because you’re a PR doesn’t mean it’s not spam. For every release figure out who the most important people for that story are and focus on them, making it relevant in each case. A clip in Bicycle Repair Weekly* doesn’t count if you’re selling computer chips – (unless it’s for chips for bike repairs, then it’s a really good title.)
7) The editor is a person
My most hated rule in PR is keep all essential information in the first paragraph. The reason it was created is that sub-editors may cut everything else. To a certain extent, this is true, but this rule has led to the creation of press releases with first paragraphs that fill an entire page. And therefore put anyone off reading.
Instead let me adjust this rule. Make it easy to read, by a person, who is probably bored and looking to distract themselves. Spaces are just as important as words and if you fail to make it easy to read then a journalist will, more often than not, ignore the release before reading it. Simple and easy should not be insults to a PR.
8) Avoid jargon at all costs
George Orwell wrote, “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” The only person you have to impress and influence is the reader, who is probably bright and knowledgable, but has little spare time to read and may not know the subject in depth. Jargon doesn’t impress anyone, it just makes it harder for you to be understood.
And in the case of the PR who called a journalist friend of mine and said “let me run this idea up your flagpole and see if it flies”, it gets you laughed at.
9) Be willing to work with competition
Magazines need to be objective and authoritative. And the simplest way to do that is to bring in expert opinion from the industry. And, sometimes, this means multiple vendors commenting on a subject, either as part of a round table or to comment on a particular part of a story.
Classic feature articles outline a problem, give an example that’s relevant to their readers and then work towards a solution, interviewing experts for each step along the way – see here for a (self promotional) example. Journalists and readers love these stories. If you can come up with an angle that affects their readers, and offer comment from 4 companies – even if only one is your client, and if some rival your client – it will position your client as an expert on the topic and position you as the PR to turn to.
10) There will always be something faster or more powerful, and you are rarely the first
Definitives are rarely definitive. A product that’s the fastest will quickly be bettered. Working in technology means Moore’s law will see to that. And there’s usually an example that proves your new gadget isn’t the first, even if a 30 second trawl through Google suggests otherwise. “Among the first” or “believed to be the a first”, or qualify it using “According to source X, the product breaks the record for”
* Bicycle Repair Weekly may not exist, if it does … sorry
Rob Ashwell, Account Director