Wednesday, January 11

Educating: And The Future Of Public Relations

While every class of Writing for Public Relations students is different, there is an unsettling trend that has accelerated in recent years. Students, some of whom are working professionals, are more inclined to feel that they haven't received enough direction before receiving their first news release writing assignment.

Before their first news release assignment (but not their first assignment), they are given instruction on identifying news leads and better writing in general; base information to be included in the release (who, what, when, where, why); format instruction, including a two-page example featuring a closely related topic; an organizational website to source additional information (as well as additional hints at where to find background information); and general instruction on usage of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Last year, for better than half the class, I was told this wasn't enough information. 

The last client who asked me to write a news release gave me a general topic. "I want a new release about 'blank.'" That was it. And looking back 20 some years ago, the first client who asked me to write a news release said exactly the same thing. Most of the time, however, I'm not even given a topic.

It wasn't any different as a journalist, I recall. I received my first assignment from a heavily circulated entertainment magazine because I happened to be at a press conference. The editor of the magazine was sitting at my table and after we started talking, he said "write something about this mess ... 700 words. It's due Tuesday." So I did.

Early freelance assignments were even more challenging. You had to send a pitch letter, which means you were solely responsible for every stitch of the article, from concept to the finished piece (which ought to match the general tone of the magazine). But that's what you did. Many writers still do.

It's worth mentioning because it demonstrates the contrast between the need of the field and the expectation of students in the educational system. The need is problem solving. The expectation is direction for the directionless.

Standardized testing is an incredible waste of time because it measures short-term memory.

As America rushes toward standardized testing, Asia is moving away from standardized testing. They are moving away from it for the same reason Finland is emerging as one of the most educated countries in the world despite children waiting until they are 7 years old to enter school. Standardized testing isn't an adequate measure of knowledge and, more importantly, it isn't a measure of applied knowledge.

Instead of testing the child in a clever ruse to find potential, they assume all children have potential. Instead of asking children to memorize facts for multiple guess tests, they are intent on finding out what it takes to educate each child because they do not believe socio-economic-ethic differences and the ability to be educated are inherently linked. And most important, they want to teach students how to think as opposed to what to think.

I want to teach public relations and communication students to think too. And every year, they are resisting it with greater vigor. (One of my colleagues even told me that he had a student ask whether or not some material was going to be on a test because if not, he'd better move on instead of wasting time.)

The entire field of public relations and communicaton can be summed up as problem solving.

While it could be said of any field, I am starting to believe that the next wave of students who consider communication as a viable field will struggle compared to those who entered the field ten years ago. Not all of them, mind you. But a large enough percentage to turn the field inside out as these students are more reliant on rote memorization and tip sheets than ever before.

And, along with those tip sheets comes something else. When the crisis communication steps or the sentence-by-sentence boilerplate release shell doesn't produce results (because all crisis is different and journalists aren't keen on boilerplate releases), they don't have to take personal responsibility.

After all, it's not their fault. Either they will be perplexed because the tip sheet failed, not them. Or they will be affable because the boilerplate shell failed, not them. Or maybe it was the instructor or blogging tipster who failed, not them. Or maybe it was the vendor who failed them, despite relying on the same tips.

How to write a news release is too simple for many to grasp, because the simplicity is complex.

If you want to write a news release that wins, all you have to do is find the news value (with an emphasis on what is unique if the announcement is commonplace). Write in such a way that it is easy for journalists to put their own spin on it. Make it sound fresh without the hype, because if the news release sounds boring then the news you have is probably boring (or maybe it's your writing). Make sure you consider the audience beyond the journalists and the brand too. And send it to the right journalists (those who have an interest in whatever you are pitching).

That is all there is to it. Five steps that I'll reframe next week to make it more palatable. But don't let those steps mislead you. If you are going to do it right, these will be some of the most challenging steps you could ever hope to follow.

And therein lies why so many public relations professionals are struggling. They want to be told what the news is, told what words to use, told how to write, told what journalists want, told what people will respond to, and told where the list with the right journalists is located.

But that's not public relations. It's regurgitation. It's the by-product of 12 years of standardized multiplication tests. And it's starting to impact every field from web design to technological innovation. Unless, of course, we can reverse the instruction and inspire people to become problem solvers again.
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