Once limited to debutante balls and dining, etiquette has become a topic of interest to journalists who cover everything from travel to technology.The flip side of many of the ongoing debates over whether the US is an increasingly coarse society on a rapid descent toward barbarism is the fact that Americans seem obsessed with determining proper behavior, whether it's at a social event, the office, or the Super Bowl. It's true that etiquette issues have evolved since experts like Emily Post first outlined rules for good manners more than four decades ago. Now, instead of how to act at a debutante ball, most questions address e-mail and cell-phone etiquette. But the big change is that good manners are now seen as far more than the glue that holds society together. "One reason etiquette has become such a popular subject is people are thinking about it less as societal rules and more from a self-help perspective," says Elizabeth Howell, PR director for the Burlington, VT-based Emily Post Institute (EPI). "We're a self-help nation, and this is something else you can use to improve your life." Etiquette impacts everyone Dallas-based publicist Cooper Smith works with Joy Weaver, whose etiquette-coaching firm Protocol Enterprises teaches businessmen everything from which fork to use with what course at a formal dinner to how to dress for various events. Smith says that though most of his media outreach on behalf of Weaver has been aimed at TV lifestyle programs, he's also had some success with business and management writers. "One thing Joy stresses is that etiquette may be the only thing that sets you apart from a competitor," he says. "It might be the only advantage you have." What is surprising about the continued media interest in etiquette is that outside of the syndicated Miss Manners column and monthly pieces by Howell's organization in Good Housekeeping, Parenting, and on The Wedding Channel, you'd be hard-pressed to find dedicated etiquette reporters or columns. Instead, etiquette-related issues are being covered by numerous beats, including technology, education, business, and travel. "You're not just talking about writing notes or tea parties," says Manya Chait, VP with Schwartz Communications. "There are now new rules for cell-phone etiquette and business etiquette." While etiquette has in the past involved elaborate guidelines, the key to pitching the media with today's manners-themed stories is to keep it simple. "It's best to tie to one particular bad behavior," says Sarah Peterson, account director with Minneapolis-based Karwoski & Courage Public Relations, which did some cell-phone etiquette campaigns for local TV on behalf of Sprint PCS. Always include tips Thomas Ciesielka of Chicago's TC Public Relations advises the inclusion of a tips list with etiquette-related pitches. Ciesielka, who represented Andrea Nierenberg and her book Nonstop Networking: How to Improve Your Life, Luck, and Career, says, "The releases for Andrea were all designed as 'Here's the problem, here's a quick list of solutions.'" Smith agrees. "We almost always include a tips list," he says. The etiquette angle will often end up as the sidebar or supplemental information to a bigger story." Ann Stowe, a Bay Area SVP for Porter Novelli, suggests that one reason etiquette issues continue to resonate with the media is that each new communication technology - whether it's e-mail, video-conferencing or camera-equipped cell phones - requires establishing a new set of rules for proper usage. She adds that tech writers are surprisingly eager to step away from the "speeds and feeds" story to talk about the etiquette involved in using a new device, "especially as different technologies become more mainstream and begin expanding across different demographics." Lynda O'Connor, EVP with O'Connor Communications, also recommends looking at every breaking news story, especially those involving celebrities, for a possible etiquette angle. O'Connor's husband Jim is the author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book On How To Curb Your Cursing, and she says, "Every time there's an incident like Janet Jackson, or a corporate scandal, or some other high-profile breach of etiquette, there's an opportunity to pitch a story." O'Connor adds that there are often many seasonal etiquette stories, saying, "We were on 249 TV stations during the holidays talking about stopping swearing as a New Year's resolution." EPI's Howell finally notes you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking of etiquette primarily as a woman's issue. She points out that Peter Post, great grandson of Emily Post, recently did more than 500 interviews for his recent book Essential Manners for Men. The book even made The New York Times' Bestseller List for three weeks. ----- Pitching... etiquette and manners Don't limit etiquette-related pitches to parenting and lifestyle journalists. Everyone from legal to education reporters is now showing interest in the subject, especially if it can be positioned as a sidebar to a larger story. Remember that every new communication device needs its own rules, so pitch not just what it does, but also the polite way to use it. Etiquette is news consumers can use, so keep it simple and include a tips list.