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One of the great paradoxes residing at the heart of public relations is that we have language – this potentially beautiful, malleable resource that can be laser-like in its accuracy – as arguably our most important tool. Yet we often have to either dumb down our use of it – so crackers/bogans et al can understand what the hell we are talking about – or use it in a mealy-mouthed, vacuous manner full of spin and spuriousness to satisfy the corporate egos that pay our mortgages.
Bottom line: dilemma!
Another bottom line: challenge!
The language I use is English. I wish it wasn’t the only one I had at my disposal, but from a communication perspective, at least I have one. And it’s a good one. I’m no Shakespeare (actually, I’m not a big Shakespeare fan anyway. Give me Dostoevsky, Dickens and Faulkner any day), but it is a beguiling language possesses incredible power.
Rock’n’roll leading to PR
I found my way into public relations through writing, through the use of the English language. It’s how many find their way into the field especially, I guess, older entrants. I am one of those, not entering PR until I was in my mid-thirties. There’s a fuller story on my journey into PR but, essentially, I was a rock’n’roll writer looking to apply my skills in a business environment.
In rock’n’roll I loved taking the Mickey. I loved going berserk with language, stretching and breaking boundaries all over the place. I loved using long sentences, big adjectives. And lots of them. Verbosity and strange punctuation. What the hell. Let’s have some fun here. And if you can’t be a rebel (even if it’s in your own mind) in rock’n’roll, where can you be one?
My initial interest in, and writing on, music went hand-in-hand with the emergence of punk. And as a music writer it was entirely appropriate that I treated language like the artists I covered ignited, subverted and scoffed at the language of rock’n’roll.
It was the NME school of writers – Barney Hoskyns, Paul Morley, Ian Penman, Richard Cook – where I studied. And the writers like Faulkner , Tom Wolfe and Hunter S that influenced them. Pity poor Donald Robertson (then editor of Oz underground music bible Roadrunner, now corp comms practitioner like myself) who had to suffer my verbal diarrhoea
Bands that rule my roost/roots back then included The Stranglers, Television and The Birthday Party.
It was loads of fun. And, I tell you what, it was also great ‘physical’ exercise to build up some writing chops.
Extreme is good for PR writing chops
There should be more of taking it to the edge approach. You get to push the boundaries of your talent and, at the very least, build up a vocabulary.
If you can’t write well, I honestly don’t know what the hell you are doing in PR. Which is not the same as being intelligent enough to recognise you aren’t that crash hot and will work at getting more proficient.
I have come across many young PR practitioners who write like they are scared of their own shadow. No balls. Testosterone free. Personality vacuum.
I’d prefer to edit outrageousness and ambition back into a corporate line than have to put some blood into anaemic copy with no ideas and no soul.
The PR paradox
Getting back to this point. Of course, we are taught to customise our communication to the needs and wants of our stakeholders. And their comprehension capabilities. Often this will mean stupidity. Or English as a second language. Or the vapid needs of contemporary media that are only satisfied by the sound bite, thus necessitating complex information to be packaged into sweet, nutrition-free morsels.
Yes, this sounds vain and it sounds condescending. But it’s true, n’est-ce pas?
The answer? Somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it can’t be achieved immediately, but it can be achieved over a period of time.
For instance, I have a couple of engineering industry clients. And whilst the words and explanations I use have to be fairly prosaic, I try to capture the inherent beauty of the projects I write about in a lucid manner that reflects the grand engineering achievements. I don’t feel like I’m writing down. I feel like I am ticking the boxes of effective communication, customised to target audience needs, as well as taking full advantage of the English language.
Another approach is to live two lives. One is working for the man, pumping out the anodyne, soporific copy demanded by corporate corporate spinmeisters, whilst another is having your own real writing life:
- Your own blog
- Facebook can do it if you want to
- Have a secret life, such as myself, as I continue to write about rock’n’roll, roots, country and jazz for supreme street mag Drum Media (see the Emmylou Harris and Los Lobos reviews on pages 67 and 69).
Writing is PR’s number one skill. So it needs to be practiced. And in my view you are better off starting ‘out there’ then reining it back in. Hence the need to sharpen the sword by taking ‘penmanship’ to the limit.
But more important than that, despite Tolstoy (another favourite – yes, alright, I like the Russians! I’m in good company, I like Robert Dessaix, too.) evidently saying that he only liked writing when he was finished, there is great joy and satisfaction in writing something beautiful, something that captures the essence of its topic.
And don’t be fooled or undersold or blinded by a thought that says it’s only washing powder; it’s only a widget; it’s only a motorway. There is beauty all around us. And we can capture these items’ essences with insightful, gorgeously weighted writing.
It will lift us up, it will lift our stakeholders up and, guess what, it may even lift up the black, cancerous semi-souls of those corporate underworld figures who pay our wages.
Do you think that PR professionals are writing as well as they should be? How have you become the writer you are today? What are some examples of PR professionals simultaneously utilising the beauty and power of language in a manner that communicates clearly on behalf of their corporate paymasters?
PS: In a few weeks I am going to be launching a free e-report featuring the views of some of the world’s smartest PR professionals (and bloggers!) on this blog. Stay tuned for further news.
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