Thursday, May 20

Producing Better Writers: Public Relations Or Advertising?

When Andrew Fowler followed my integrated communication post by asking whether advertising could replace public relations, it opened a related sub discussion worth some attention.

Does Advertising Or Public Relations Have Better Storytelling Skills?

Fowler set the stage by offering up that he thought "people in advertising are better at telling interesting stories." Ike Pigott was the first to question the idea, offering "[people in advertising] don’t have better storytelling skills, and are often much poorer writers. Often." And then David Meerman Scott added "brand journalism is a much better way to do what PR used to do so well."

There are plenty of other great comments too, folks like Jeremy Toeman, Brian Cross, Jerry Ketel, and others. I especially appreciated the comment by Bob Geller that tends to be closest to my view, which is that both are important but different.

When it comes to writing, or even creativity, we might as well be asking ourselves whether fiction writers are better than non-fiction writers or whether poets are better than journalists. They are difficult to compare because they tend to be different.

Some writers are good at one thing. Some writers are good at other things. And only a handful can dance in any medium.

However, with the exception of the handful, there are noticeable differences in education, experience, and skill sets. And so, as an instructor who also works within all disciplines, let's take an admittedly generalized look at some writers within the communication field.

Advertising. Copywriters (and some designers who think they can write) are generally creative in a divergent sort of way, well-skilled in short-format conversational writing, storytelling, and alliteration.

When the copy and content is good, these writers accomplish the impossible by convincing people to become aware of or even purchase a product even though those people know that is precisely what the writer is trying to do. How cool is that? Sometimes their work is even adopted into pop culture.

Of course, not many have heard of the Associated Press Stylebook. They're often certain they'll come up with something more interesting than any client might provide in an interview. And they tend to tune out long-format assignments.

Public Relations. Public relations writers, specifically those with a journalism background, are especially good at making the most boring content sound interesting. The best of them subscribe to the notion that there are no boring stories, just boring storytellers.

When they write someone else's story, they become as a passionate as the people they write about while writing within the tightest constraints, usually sacrificing their own style in favor of a publication, corporate voice, or audience. They can also find enough facts to bend almost anything in their direction.

Of course, ask most of them to write advertising collateral and they'll struggle with the space limitations. Many offer up cornball cliches and pages and pages of dribble so dry that it will lull you to sleep before you can get past the first paragraph. In some cases, you don't have to read further than that anyway. And, of course, public relations tends to be a safe haven for many who cannot write at all.

Social Media. Social media writers, if we call them that, stand out on their own. They can have conversations with anybody about anything and have done better than self-teach themselves in the art of delivering exactly what people want to hear.

It doesn't matter much whether they have a preference for video, social networks, or blogs. All that seems to matter is that they bring a passion to the table that sometimes eclipses the craft, attracting thousands of people for no other reason than to wonder what happens next. Clearly there is an advantage in sharing some things that traditional media have known forever as if it never existed before they arrived online.

If there is a downside, it might very well be the speed in which the content is delivered with typos and grammatical mistakes that must make their high school teachers and any college professors blush. One wonders what might happen if they didn't rely on tricks and tactics so much.

Journalists. Given journalists tend to become authors more than any other discipline, it's hard to refute their abilities as writers. Even those who turn in their press passes and migrate into public relations have better skill sets and an understanding that those editorial deadlines are very real to reporters.

One of the unique aspects of better journalists is their uncanny ability to find the right story, research it objectively, and keep it fresh enough for people to feel compelled to add it to their daily doses of elective reading. Sure, there are those who point out that 80 percent of the publications are filled with refreshed news releases, but most of us only read the remaining 20 percent anyway. You know which ones are written by solid journalists because the lead line took as long to write as the article.

Now, if only more would take the time to engage their audiences beyond serving up content. Sure, there is more engagement than a few years ago, but most still prefer to work in relative isolation, stopping just long enough to gather some facts. Otherwise, the entire process, especially those who practice it for years, can slowly kill off any creativity.

Integrated Communication Promises To Challenge All Of Them.

There seems to be little doubt that integrated communication has arrived. And with it, those writers mentioned above, along with several dozen others who specialize in niche disciplines or a specific medium, are challenged two-fold.

First, they have to admit that their brand of writing might not always be the best fit, especially when we conclude that the Internet is home to every medium not just "their" medium. Second, all of them need to make a better effort to understand writing skills beyond their core skill sets.

The bottom line? It seems simple enough to me. Most aren't nearly as good as they think they are. Even fewer will ever concede the point. And from my perspective, the best of the best tend to be those who don't think much of what they write because within a week, they're certain they could have written it better.

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