O6/22/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are four recent noteworthy communications stories.

Washington Post Opens Online Opinion Pages to Sponsored Content by William Launder, on the Washington Post’s website, June 12.

In this article, Launder points out that the Washington Post is now accepting branded content from trade groups, lobbying firms and companies as responses to the paper’s editorials. This action by the Post further widens the opportunities for marketers and others to deliver their specific messages to targeted audiences without relying on traditional advertising or earned media coverage. Several other publications also are moving into sponsored content in their printed editions as well as on their websites.

Social Stories: How to Use Storytelling on Twitter by Shanna Mallon on Spin Sucks, June 17.

Mallon writes, “The limitations of Twitter are no excuse for not putting storytelling to work, especially when you consider the ways others are turning it into a powerful tool.” She offers a few helpful tips on sharing your company’s narrative or your personal story on Twitter, even within its limit of 140 character per tweet.

What Is Brand Journalism? Get the Answer in Fewer than 3 Minutes on Ragan’s PR Daily website, June 18.

In this short video, Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications, and Jim Ylisela, head of Ragan Consulting, provide a clear definition of the term brand journalism and explain the idea of “a company as a media outlet.” While neither the term nor the idea is new, PR people just being introduced to them will find this discussion valuable.

Avoid Social Media Slipups the Dunkin’ Donuts Way by Dave Johnson on CBSNews.com, June 19.

Johnson writes that when confronted by an angry customer wielding a smartphone with video rolling, a Dunkin’ Donuts salesperson handled the situation appropriately, perhaps avoiding a viral video that would be damaging to the company. He says the salesperson acted “calm, cool and polite through the entire TV ordeal,” and in the end the customer came off looking like the villain. Johnson provides lessons other companies can learn from the situation.

Structuring a Piece of Writing

shutterstock_130726859Recently, I was on a conference call explaining to friends why I had suggested the changes I’d made to the article we were working on together, why I had moved some things around, re-written a few sections, and completely removed whole paragraphs.

I found myself talking about structure, about the overall structure of this article as if it were a building, using words like balance, flow, and parallel. And by the silence on the other end of the phone, I could tell my friends had no idea what I was talking about.

To be honest they are all pretty good writers; although, writing is just what they must do occasionally, not what they want to do or care much about. Sometimes they just have to communicate something in writing. So they attack it. They see a piece of writing as a container to be filled with many ideas—some coherent, some half thought through, and some still mostly jumbled.

They don’t approach it as a piece of writing having a visible and understandable form built on a set of rules and guiding principles aimed toward clarity and reader understanding. So my discussion of structure was rather useless. That’s why I seldom go there.

While it’s unusual for me to have a discussion about the structure of a piece of writing, it’s downright rare for the mainstream media to write about this subject. They may mention grammar or say a writer uses sentences that are too long (whatever that is) or too confusing.  But they almost never mention the structure of a whole piece of writing.

I’ve recently come across a few articles that, at least briefly, mention structure. Most recently was a Fast Company article on Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. Just before that was a New York Times piece on writer Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And before that was John McPhee’s long piece in The New Yorker about the structure of some of his many books and magazine pieces.

For two reasons, McPhee’s article stands out from the other two and from almost all others I’ve read: First, it is printed in The New Yorker, a magazine noted for its coverage of intellectual topics, not the tactics of writing. Second, the article doesn’t mention structure as an afterthought in a paragraph or two as the other articles do; instead the entire piece is about structure, so much so, in fact, that the word is used in the article’s title: “Structure: Beyond the Picnic-Table Crisis.”

McPhee’s article is about how he chose the structure for several pieces he has written over the years. Some structures were (strictly or variously) chronological, particularly for pieces like “Travels in Georgia.” Others, such as the one about his trip in an eighteen-wheeler from a truck stop in Georgia to Tacoma, Washington, worked better with thematic structures, structures that spiraled out from the center starting point. Whatever structure he chose, he did so after much thought and long preparation as he worked out the best way to tell his story so it would be clear to his reader.

McPhee says in the article that structure has preoccupied him in every project he has undertaken since his high school English teacher first taught him about structure in the late 1940s. And he has “hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching.” Driving home the importance of structure, he tells his students, “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in a way that causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”

It seems clear that the friends I was talking to about structure on my recent conference call had not learned McPhee’s important message, nor have many other people who think of themselves as PR or business writers or who, as part of their jobs, must occasionally turn out an article or blog post.

Photo: Shutterstock/Foxtrot101

05/11/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are eight recent communications stories of note.

The 10 Best Words the Internet Has Given English by Tom Chatfield, in the Guardian, April 17.

In this article, Chatfield, a self-described etymology addict, looks at the history of ten words that are gaining new life and, in some instances, new meanings on the Internet.

The New Look of Public Relations by Stuart Elliott, in The New York Times, April 28, discusses PR firm FleishmanHillard’s rebranding as an integrated marketing communications agency. The New Look of Public Relations—A Dissenting View by Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, in his 6 A.M. blog, May 8, looks at his firm’s approach to preparing for the future.

The PR business is in flux. And agencies everywhere are trying to determine their future role in the overall marketing space and in controlling their clients’ paid, earned, owned, and shared media mix. The best way for them to brand, or rebrand, themselves for this challenge is up for grabs, as these two articles show.

Solving Equation of a Hit Script, With Data by Brooks Barnes, in The New York Times, May 5.

Barnes writes that a former statistics professor thinks he can improve screenplays by comparing “the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success.” Vinny Bruzzese is not a writer. Instead, he’s interested in using data, which he gathers from focus groups and interviews with moviegoers, to suggest script changes. One screenwriter calls Bruzzese’s approach “my worse nightmare.”

Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old ‘Ultraconserved Words’ by David Brown in The Washington Post, May 6.

Some words are coined and then disappear in a matter of years. Even the strongest usually last only about 9,000 years before becoming extinct. But linguists have discovered a few words that have been around for 150 centuries, and they’re wondering why.

Grammar Rules Everyone Should Follow by Thomas Jones in the Guardian, May 9.

Jones says that although these “rules” are really conventions not rules, they’re worth following “in the right kinds of discourse” because they make writing clearer and more elegant. He is correct in eight of his suggestions, but I think he’s wrong about the use of who and whom.

Trying to Be Hip and Edgy, Ads Become Offensive by Stuart Elliott and Tanzina Vega, in The New York Times, May 10.

The authors say that advertising agencies and their clients may be trying too hard to reach millennials and “to create ads that will be noticed and break through the clutter.” The result: They are creating more and more offensive ads, leading to public outrage as well as embarrassment (and worse) for Madison Avenue and the brands being promoted.

The 30 Most Influential Bloggers in Public Relations on The CyberAlert Blog.

Today, there are more than 180 million blogs published worldwide on the Internet. Most have only a handful of followers, and their comments leave little or no trail. But a few bloggers are extremely influential, with thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of followers who can’t wait for their next post.

CyberAlert, a media monitoring service, has identified the 30 most influential bloggers who write about public relations and social media. PR and corporate communications professionals might want to take a look at what these bloggers have to say.

Learning to Communicate Clearly—from Alan Alda

shutterstock_121137493Who would have thought that actor Alan Alda would have anything to say about unclear language, especially anything that we in PR and business communications might want to consider.

We all know that jargon is specialized language associated with a particular industry or group and that when used with our peers, it sounds meaningful. But how many of us notice the jargon we use routinely in our external communications? More important, how many know or care that more often than not, jargon creates a wall between us and our outside listeners and readers who can’t understand the words we use.

Alda knows. And he is concerned about the miscommunication that results when scientists use unclear language. He’s so concerned, in fact, that now as a visiting professor, he teaches a course at Stony Brook University’s newly named Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His goal is to help science students become better communicators, to teach them to speak clearly.

In his course, “He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience,” according to a recent Sunday Morning TV show, “so instead of speaking with what we might call gibberish (‘I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stakeholders’), we get this: ‘I study ways oceans are used.’”

On Sunday Morning, Alda gives an example of clear communication that he claims saved his life when he was on a Chilean mountain top and would have died from a strangled intestine without proper treatment. The doctor, according to Alda, said “in the clearest possible way, ‘Something’s gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’  I said, ‘That’s Great. Do it.’”

That’s the kind of direct, clear language Alda hopes to teach his students and the kind of language he would like to see other scientists adopt.

All of us in PR and corporate communications could learn from this approach, whether we’re giving a speech to shareholders, writing a white paper as a marketing piece, or tweeting about a new business product or service.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sam72

A Quote from William Zinsser

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

This quote comes from William Zinsser’s 1976 book “On Writing Well” and is mentioned in this week’s New York Times article on Zinsser who, besides having written this now-classic guide to writing, has been a teacher of writing for decades. At 90, he still teaches even though he is blind and has to listen to, rather than read, what his students have written. The quote underscores Zinsser’s call for cutting excessive words and eliminating jargon in an attempt to write simply and clearly.