|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Effective PR writing focuses on the audience, not the words|
|© 2014; 2021 Michael Turney||Return to
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|Practicing Public Relations
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"People are not persuaded by what we say,
but rather by what they understand us to mean."
-- Chinese restaurant fortune cookie
Clear, crisp, and vivid writing is imperative for anyone who hopes to succeed in public relations. Year after year, and survey after survey, those who hire entry and mid-level public relations professionals cite "strong writing skills" as one of the most important traits they seek in hiring public relations practitioners, all of whom are expected to consistently produce punchy, powerful prose that resonates with their target audiences and achieves desired results.
They aren't, however, expected to produce great literature. In fact, some of the best public relations writing has few, if any, true literary qualities. It may not even be grammatically correct. Nor stylish. Nor sophisticated. It may not be entertaining, and it certainly need not be self-expressive.
Successful public relations writing centers on goal-seeking, not wordsmithing.
Public relations writing is not done for its own sake, or for the gratification of the writer, or as an art form. Nor is it intended for all readers. Instead, it's meant to be purposeful writing that will trigger a specific, desired reaction from a specific target audience so the relationship between that target audience and the person or organization that initiated the public relations effort will be enhanced. From a public relations perspective, anything else is wasted effort. Regardless of how beautiful a piece of writing is, or how many literary awards it wins, it is NOT considered successful public relations writing unless it positively affects the client's relationship with its intended target audience.
This is not, however, meant to suggest that great works of literature cannot serve a public relations purpose. They can do it, and not just in theory. Below are just a few of them that have done so. But, note that they were all written as novels and were successful as novels before they ever came to have any public relations value.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin has long been regarded as great literature. It was a best seller in its day. It also became a rallying cry for the abolition movement during the 1850s and, even today, remains a guide and a source of context for understanding many racial stereotypes.
- Taken together, Horatio Alger's several score of young adult novels about impoverished boys who rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class or better security and comfort defined the "rags-to-riches" narrative that shaped the American Gilded Age and is still influential today.
- George Orwell's Animal Farm and, even more so, 1984 were powerful anti-communist propaganda as well as great literature.
- John Hershey's Hiroshima was cited and widely distributed by those who opposed the spread of nuclear weapons.
- Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff came along at just the right time to prop up the image of astronauts and NASA when the U.S. moon program was shutting down and before the success of the shuttle program.
- And, whether you accept the author's central premise or not, Michael Crichton's State of Fear offers a frightening glimpse of the dangers inherent in politicizing science.
In addition to such novels, some notable speeches have also been acknowledged as both great literature and effective public relations. John Kennedy's inaugural address and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech most readily come to mind. Jesus Christ's "Sermon on the Mount" is also sometimes placed in this category. And, there are many others. Some were first delivered decades or centuries ago; others were more recent. But, none of them were written simply to be public relations pieces.
In addition to not being great literature, successful public relations writing need not be lengthy.
Some of the best and most effective examples of public relations writing -- best because they actually moved people to take action -- are slogans such as:
- "Give me liberty or give me death."
- "Go west, young man."
- "Fifty-four, forty or fight."
- "Remember the Maine."
- "Keep calm and carry on."
- "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
- "Hell no, we won't go!"
- "Be all that you can be."
- "You're in good hands with Allstate."
- "Me too."
What's most critical in writing for public relations purposes is to reach your target audiences and to resonate with them.
While literary quality may be nice to have, it isn't essential. Nor is length. -- The best PR pros and most teachers will tell you: "Brevity is best." -- Next in importance are simplicity and clarity, with sentence structure and syntax being matters of secondary consideration. Even grammar may be a matter of secondary importance. -- Sometimes using faulty grammar, or slang, or even vulgarity can give your message an impact you couldn't get in any other way. -- Sometimes, you may even get away with being politically incorrect as long as your target audience receives, understands, and responds to your message in ways your client approves of.
And, yes, there is often a fine line, or maybe some overlap, between effective public relations writing and effective advertising copy writing.
Now, take another look at that fortune cookie observation quoted at the beginning of this article.
If you're not fully attuned to your audience, it won't matter how well you write or how much time you spend crafting and polishing it. But, if you know and understand your audience, you'll be able to focus your writing so it resonates with their values, beliefs, interests, and aspirations. That will put you on the right track to successful public relations writing and to enhancing you and your organization's relationship with that audience.
So, if you have only a limited amount of time to complete a public relations writing project, remember to spend enough time/energy in thoroughly understanding your target audience before you start writing, even if it means ending up with a less-than-polished final product. A heart-felt and well targeted document, even if it's sub-par in literary quality, is often more effective in garnering support than a better-written and more literary one that's not on target with the audience.
Further more, when you connect with an audience on an emotional and gut level, they're not only more likely to keep reading what you've written, they're more likely to believe it and to overlook or forgive any flaws in your less-than-literary-quality writing efforts.
Public relations is not about writing press releases or writing speeches ... or any of dozens of other message construction tasks.
Public relations is about helping people solve problems.
Robert Dillenschneider, PRSA Annual Conference (Cincinnati; 1989)
|Table of contents||Additional reading on
Preparation and Education for Public Relations
Writing for public relations
|Practicing Public Relations|