By Lauren Edwards
I don’t think it’s sour grapes to say that journalists were under-appreciated in the 2000s as blogs and online publications began taking off.
The hype at the time was that everybody could be a publisher. And it was true. Wannabe writers quickly attracted audiences and sponsors. Corporations expanded their websites and started blogs. Demand became insatiable for quick content to feed a shorter news cycle.
PR people had long been ghostwriting at that point, but the new oversupply of so-called publishers has also given rise to a greater appetite for even more contributed articles, even if written to a lower standard than before.
Now, some 10+ years later, you’d be hard pressed to find even a single unsullied optimist who still thinks letting anybody put anything on the internet was a great idea.
But politics and trolls aside, let’s talk about PR and marketing — and the rise of contributed articles. This is something we can influence for the better – today, in fact — starting this very minute, with our own hands and our own teams.
If you want to make sure your content is read and shared, not just published, you might want to rethink who does your ghostwriting and how you let them operate. Journalists did know a thing or two, people now realize.
Discipline and techniques from old-school journalism are suddenly looking lustrous again. Your PR ghostwriter might know those practices — or might not. How will you know? They might be able to pitch an article, write it and get it published. But then what? Who’s reading it and passing it along? Anyone?
Long story long, I’m trying to get you to think more deeply about who should write for you. It doesn’t need to be an ex-journalist, but you might want to consider choosing a full-time writer — not always a PR pro who wears many hats.
- A teammate with good grammar who got A’s on college essays isn’t ready for prime-time corporate publishing. There’s a big difference between success in school and success in business and journalism.
- Writers need direct access to sources. Emailed questionnaires and human go-betweens don’t work.
- PR people might be great writers, but how can you tell?
- Speedy completion of top-quality assignments takes a virtuoso.
As contributed articles began turning up as a regular expectation in PR, marketing and even technical job descriptions, gradually, as the hard grind of writing beat people down, I began hearing things like:
- “[Groan], this is so time-consuming. Let’s have the intern do it.”
- “My team strings together facts. They don’t know how to tell a story.”
- “Our technical people make too many changes. They want articles to sound like research papers. They don’t know how to reach outside audiences.”
- “My boss wants me to be creative, but he/she edits my work back to the old way.”
- “Our team completes assignments with a checklist mentality. They don’t think critically or in advance about the audience’s needs.”
- “We see a lot of unsupported assertions. Can you spread the word that arguments need to be backed up by evidence, examples and anecdotes?”
Now that frustration has caught up with everyone, I hope more companies will now be open to suggestions.
No. 1 — Published v. read and shared
Know the difference between a full-time writer and a team member who likes to write.
The full-time writer will bring standards, expertise and talent for prioritizing the psychology of the reader. Their work will be read and shared, not just published.
Some readers might be dumb, but B2B software professionals and other technology innovators are not. If they don’t find value, they’ll click away to something else.
Getting published nowadays is the easy part. But keeping eyes on the page, building and maintaining credibility, and stirring people to share – those are still hard.
No. 2 — Grant direct access to sources — When your writer asks for direct access to a source of information, find a way to make it happen.
Don’t let a go-between “play telephone” between the two or rely on an emailed questionnaire.
Your writer needs to turn on a dime while listening — revising questions on the spot, following up here, redirecting there, deep-diving when intuition beckons, and otherwise responding with irreplaceably human curiosity.
This is how color, action, insights and other storytelling details emerge.
No. 3 — PR people may be awesome, too – A minority of PR people are super-excellent writers on par with journalists.
Oddly, the most talented are the ones who show up for writing training. By contrast, those most in need of help find reasons to stay away, even when their participation is supposedly mandatory.
This might be one of the ways you can tell the difference in your own teammates, even if you aren’t trained to assess journalistic writing yourself.
The ones who jump at the chance for training may be your best writers.
If they are non-native English speakers who have worked in the U.S. in PR roles for a number of years, that speaks even more highly of them. Don’t let the foreign-born part fool you. This may indicate extreme talent, not imperfection.
PR people who become superb writers often are helped by their relational skills. They tune into their audiences’ needs and hold conflicting viewpoints in their head at once, serving both well. This is an essential trait in a top-quality writer.
A PR person’s continual interactions with journalists can also help.
That said, most PR writers are just OK, not great. If they get the right training and you grant them direct access to sources, you should be fine. But when you can, if you have the choice, go for the full-time writer for the best results and more shares.
4. Fast v. slow – Your full-time writers can probably produce top quality in about half the time as your sometimes-writers.
In part, this is because they aren’t continually interrupted by their real jobs.
But it’s also because there’s an efficiency of thought that comes from regularly writing in a journalistic style.
Your full-time writer knows the right ingredients, when they are missing, the right process, and when to slow down to go fast overall. He/she is a virtuoso at this timing thing, whereas your sometimes writer might be thrown off by what feels like an inconsistent experience and then leave major holes without realizing it.
The rise in bad content shouldn’t be an invitation to join in. I hope you’ll take these suggestions to choose the right people to get the best results for your company.
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Lauren Edwards is a former reporter for the Associated Press. She has been creating, customizing and delivering workshops for technology PR teams since 2000. She also coaches engineers to reach wider audiences while staying true to their convictions. Current clients include NASA Ames, AppDynamics, New Relic, Upwork, Roku, Intel, and Highwire PR.
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