On the value of plain speaking

Of the many terms that can be used to describe someone who works in public relations — some flattering, others less so — the one I like best is "communications professional."

Of the many terms that can be used to describe someone who works in public relations — some flattering, others less so — the one I like best is “communications professional.” It sounds nice. I like that it's a little vague; you might hear it and think I'm a linguistics professor at Columbia University. Maybe I operate the radio aboard a nuclear submarine. Maybe I live in a region of Africa you've never heard of, where I teach English to local schoolchildren (and learn about myself in the process). Who knows? When a conversation moves to the inevitable “Is that like advertising?” it usually dies shortly thereafter.

Let's face it: “public relations” is a lousy and misleading career title, given how rarely we actually relate, on a personal level, to a real, live member of the public. (I've done so only eight or nine times in my career, each time with a furious civilian demanding payback from whatever corporate behemoth I happened to represent.) “Public relations” connotes flackery or sleight of mouth. Communications professional sounds nice and has the added value of more accurately describing what we do. We communicate. We identify audiences, craft messages, then train our clients to deliver them (or we deliver them by proxy). And we get paid for it. Professional. Nice.

As communications professionals, we owe it to ourselves to speak plainly. A former client of mine used to tear through our press releases with a blood-red pen, slashing the adjectives and the buzzwords. A press release, he said, should be written in as dry and straightforward a manner as possible, to permit reporters to drop the text directly into their article. References to revolutionary, customer-focused solutions featuring deep functionality? Gone, gone and gone. To wit:

A) Company A, a world leader in customer focus, today announced the availability of B, a feature-rich C that promises to revolutionize the world of D.

B) Company A has created B to accomplish C.

Which sentence wins?*

It's true that press release development more often leads to a Frankenstein's monster than to The Sun Also Rises. Creative control tends to vanish in the race to earn approvals and meet deadlines — no question. It's also true, however, that releases tend to echo their first draft; if that draft is laden with “revolutionary solutions,” those words will live on like cockroaches. Strike them at the outset. Adjectives are flab. No one ever complained that a press release (or an e-mail message or a recommendation) made its point too swiftly.

We talk about media relations as a changing landscape – a world in flux. All true (and always true). What hasn't changed, though, is that a simple message, delivered directly, will find its mark.

* Sentence B

Devon Nagle is an account director at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide

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