By Jeanine Black – Director of marketing and PR services
As I started to write this blog post, I thought back to my own experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as an intern and then a young professional. I’ve always been a good writer, but as a journalism student and an intern at newspapers and TV stations, I honed my skills; I learned to write effectively, concisely and I learned what journalists want – thanks to some tough, but very supportive professors, employers and mentors.
After I graduated from UW with a journalism degree in news editorial and broadcast, I had a taste of broadcasting and quickly realized I didn’t want to be on camera after all. I decided to explore public relations. After a couple of post-graduate PR classes at Kent State University, I was on my way – my skills and experience transferred beautifully.
Here’s my point – At Kent State and at UW, public relations is closely related to journalism (in fact, it is in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW and is now in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State). Why? Because writing is the cornerstone of both PR and journalism. I was lucky enough to have that journalism training to help me develop my PR writing skills. Many people don’t get that experience; however, it doesn’t change the importance of writing in PR and marketing communications. If you’re a college student, graduate or young professional looking to break into this industry, you have to be a good writer and an effective writer. Period.
And no, “doing” social media doesn’t cut it. Yes, you need to be concise for social media; you need to make your point in as few words as possible – I get that and that is good practice. But I’m talking content development and communications, which is what you post on social media – articles, blogs, columns, feature stories, website copy, speeches and news releases. And on the marcom side (which often co-exists with PR), you have brochures, sell sheets, annual reports, advertising and so much more. As I and my colleagues work more and more with young folks coming into the industry, we can’t stress enough how much you need writing skills beyond Snapchat and Twitter.
Here are three tips that, if used, will help you hone those skills to make you a solid PR pro with a versatile set of skills and experiences.
- Know your industry and audience. This cannot be stressed enough. To be an effective writer and storyteller, you have to first step into your client’s shoes and use their voice. You are speaking for them, not for yourself. Then, even more importantly, you have to write for your audience. What terms do they use? How do they speak? How do they receive information? You need to turn your client’s story into a story that will resonate with this audience. You can’t do this if you don’t know anything about what you’re writing and who you’re writing for. Do your homework. Talk to your client/colleagues, talk to their clients, their audience. Get to know their situations and why they do what they do. This will help you find your voice. As a side note, this goes for social media, too. You may enjoy Snapchat, but if your audience is using Facebook, then you need to learn how to communicate effectively for Facebook. After all, that’s where your audience is, and they need to be the ones who get your client’s message.
- Learn something with each draft. It’s a fact of life – you’re going to get edited. Your first, second, third drafts are going to come back with the proverbial red lines. It happens to all of us – rookies and veterans. In fact, if one of my first drafts comes back to me with no edits, then I’m pretty sure the other person really didn’t read it – so, I have someone else look at it. From someone who edits a lot of copy, I don’t mind editing as long as I see you’re learning from my edits – I’m trying to show you how to do it better next time. Don’t take it personally; learn from it and I guarantee your writing will improve.
- Proofread and proofread again. Aside from being an effective writer, you have to be a correct writer – correct grammar, punctuation and spelling are absolutely essential. And no typos. So proofread your work. Set it down and then go back to it and proofread it again. Once you’re satisfied with your draft, send it along to someone else. Don’t ever consider your first draft your final draft. Like the last point, we editors are happy to help you find the things you missed (we all make mistakes…) and show you what you did wrong. But then make sure you don’t do it again. To that point, do not ever let a draft go to the client, the media, the publication without someone else reading it. And if you’re writing for the media, use AP Style. In fact, it’s a good rule to use some kind of style guidelines for all communications – it keeps your copy clean and eliminates ambiguity.
Last, I will leave you with this, because I just like the advice. As an avid reader, I fully agree (and I am diehard AP Style). “The first and most important way to become a better writer is to read. Absorb as much well-written information as you can and emulate it. Don’t discard that AP Stylebook; take some time to review it. At the very least, put it on your desk for easy reference. Put pen to paper and encourage creativity with some writing prompts,” Jamie Izaks, All Points Public Relations in his article “Six Tips for New PR Grads.”
Writing takes time to learn, but you first have to realize its importance to PR. It is the single most effective tactic in communicating and building relationships with our audiences. And then take the time to work on your craft. Talk to folks, have people review your drafts and ask questions. If you don’t understand their comments, then get clarification. Those editing you are here to help. My harshest critics were the ones from whom I learned the most.
Most importantly, be open, listen and learn. If your plan is to become a better writer and you follow writing best practices, trust me – you will only get better.