PR risks losing an important tool as readers rely more on images and less on words to relay information, says Malcolm Galfe
As any computer user knows, the written word has taken a giant leap
backwards. After 50,000 years of evolving writing skills, we are
reverting to pointing at pictures. By replacing words with icons,
computers are taking us back to the era of cave painting.
A generation is growing up with much less need for words to achieve what
it wants. To paint a picture or play a game, kids can simply point to
theÿ20image of a palette or pack of cards on a computer screen.
The new hieroglyphics are a boon when learning the latest software. They
are also another stage in a drift towards image-based information that
is eroding PR’s role in the communications business.
PR can, of course, use visual methods itself, but they are not its
strongest suit. The trend away from text will inevitably drive business
into areas, such as advertising which has vastly more experience in
handling visual images.
Newspapers face a similar challenge from visual media such as TV. In a
market that is less and less willing to read, the press has responded by
adding more images. This has not, however, proved a complete answer to
Many now agree that good journalism is a paper’s best defence against
visual media. This back-to-basics policy capitalises on the superiority
of words in expressing abstract or complex ideas.
It is an approach that can also help PR to fend off rivals with greater
visual strengths. We need to write to suit an audience that would rather
look at pictures. Words must be made to work harder in conveying ideas.
Ironically, the same PCs that increase the public’s appetite for visual
information can improve text-based communication. Writing style analysis
programs help make the written word more effective, allowing it to
compete with visual techniques. Despite this, style analysers are
usually shunned in PR, both for training and as an everyday check on
Analysers can be used with copy ranging from press releases to technical
reports. They are especially effective with PR material since elegance
and individuality, which cannot be measured, are less vital that simply
getting the message across.
Research has also revealed other key factors in the way people
assimilate ideas from text. Length and structure of sentences, and the
size, type and mix of words, are all vital in making a message easier to
absorb. These factors can all be measured to give text a ‘readability’
As a bonus, this scientific approach can help resolve any debates about
an individual’s writing style. When the quality of their work can be
measured, even new executives can stand up to clients with strong views
on writing style.
Perhaps the worst threat to text-based communication is the convoluted
writing sometimes advocated by senior managers in disciplines outside
PR. The result is material with low readability that makes it hard for
readers to get the information they want.
Text remains the best way to convey complex ideas, but it cannot do this
if poor readability makes people skip to the next picture. The PR
industry excels in handling sophisticated messages and has good reason
ensure its most valuable tool is used to best effect. Perhaps it is time
every PR department used style analysis software, and every PR course
taught students how to apply it.
Malcolm Galfe is a director of Optimum Public Relations