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Keeping Up with Changes to the AP Stylebook

The writing “Bible” for public relations is the AP stylebook. Anytime a PR professional (or anyone writing for media publication for that matter) is unsure of what to do, such as whether to capitalize an executive’s title in a press release, a quick glance at the print or online version will provide the correct answer. (For the record, the answer is “no” as this blog post points out.)

This reliance on the AP stylebook can lead one to think that its rules are all set in stone. But one would be wrong, as the post, “10 Recent AP Stylebook Changes and Reminders You Should Know About,” from Cision points out.

Whether you are debating whether the correct spelling for a particular type of wine is syrah or shiraz, wondering whether someone who uses the emergency department a lot should be labeled a frequent flyer or frequent flier (the former is correct), or how to use a number in a headline (use numerals for all, even though in the body you write out one through nine and then go to numerals from 10 on), the AP stylebook has the answers. And it’s continually being adjusted, so don’t assume!

To make sure you’re on top of your AP stylebook game, be sure to check out the full post here.

6 Common Pitching Errors to Avoid

6 Common Pitching Errors to Avoid

Pitching stories is one of the essential skills of a PR professional. Yet it is surprising how many PR people neglect the basics of how to pitch what to whom. In most cases, a little thought and preparation can help PR pros avoid these kinds of mistakes. Yet they continue to be made on a regular basis, as any working journalist or editor can attest. Here are some common pitching errors and how to prevent them.

  1. Doesn’t know the publication. When a busy editor gets a pitch from a PR person who doesn’t know his or her publication, it’s an immediate turnoff. The pitch might be for a consumer story when it’s a business or trade publication, or the story might concern a sector of the industry other than the one that the magazine or website covers. In either case, the editor is unlikely to consider the pitch and will probably delete future emails from that publicist. To prevent this error, all you have to do is read sample articles in the publication or just glance at its home page.
  2. Doesn’t know the publication’s editorial policies. Even among trade publications, there is a wide range of different policies on how guest columns and news stories should be written. Some publications will not allow any mention of a client’s name or products. Others actively solicit promotional pieces (usually in exchange for ads), and there are variations in between those poles. The publications that take a strict stance against product promotion are more desirable for thought leadership, but some clients may want placement in publications that allow a mention of how their products helped their customers. The important thing is to know a publication’s editorial policies before pitching its editors. Usually, those policies are on its website. A PR firm should also ensure its writers follow these rules; if not, the publication may reject the piece.
  3. Doesn’t understand the publication’s slant. Depending on its audience, a publication might be looking for very specific kinds of stories and opinion pieces that cater to its readers’ interests. For example, a publication for CISOs will be receptive to pieces that focus narrowly on security but not on topics of general interest to CIOs, even though CIOs are also concerned about security. The editor will also look for trendy topics in that field, such as blockchain’s potential use in security. But if the publication has covered something frequently in the recent past, such as how to foil ransomware attacks, it may not be interested in that. To prepare for this possibility, do a keyword search in the publication’s archives or on Google.
  4. Doesn’t keep up with changes in direction. Some publications change their editorial direction, either because of a change in leadership or in response to market forces. Publicists should not assume that because a publication accepted certain kinds of pitches in the past, they will in the future. Keep up with what’s happening with key publications by reading them regularly, and also take note of personnel changes. When a new editor or journalist joins the publication, introduce yourself and ask what kinds of stories that person is looking for.
  5. Doesn’t pitch stories in a timely way. In the competitive field of journalism, timing is extremely important. If you pitch a news-related story too late, it will be rejected because no one is interested in that topic anymore. If a client has an important news story, it’s always a good idea to give key editors the news just ahead of its release on an embargoed basis. But don’t provide the release to just one editor, or the others will feel slighted and will remember that the next time you pitch them.
  6. Fails to present the pitch concisely and intelligibly. Any PR professional should know how to write a good pitch, but it is surprising how many emailed pitches fail that test. In some cases, they go on interminably before getting to the point. Other pitches are so poorly written that they’re difficult to understand. You should always remember that editors’ time is limited and that they may have to read hundreds of emails each day. Just as in a published article, a catchy headline and a cogent lead will go a long way toward getting an editor’s or journalist’s attention.

None of these mistakes are difficult to correct. With a fairly minimal effort, publicists can learn what publications want and how to deliver it. By doing so, they can vastly increase their chances of having their pitches accepted and of placing articles in sought-after publications.

PR Pros: Beware of Busywork Masquerading as “Essential Skills”

PR Pros: Beware of Busywork Masquerading as “Essential Skills”

Some hard truths on the PR skills we really should be developing—for our clients and our own professional development.

A well-known public relations trade site recently ran a “listicle” of so-called essential PR skills for our modern technology-driven era. Included in the list were graphic design, analytics, and even some light HTML coding.

My first reaction was moderate panic. Analytics, I totally get. But today’s PR professionals should now be expected to design collateral, tweak the coding for HTML email blasts and websites, in addition to establish a media presence, build brand awareness and help generate leads for our clients?

Well, being the people-pleasing, “I can take that on!” person so many of us in PR are, I was on the verge of heading over to Coursera when, thankfully, a second reaction kicked in: revolt.

Here’s the reality. Most of us, whether we work in an agency or in-house, already spend way too much time pecking away at keyboards on any number of non-creative tasks, much of it on the administrative end of managing public relations. Add to this an interminable stream of emails to write and respond to, and collectively, these tasks suck up more of our work week than we’d ever want to admit.

Meanwhile, on the in-house side, marketing and PR are increasingly a “catchall” destination for other departments that want to pretty up a presentation, proofread a legal document, properly format a PDF, mail merge an email, and other “this should just take a few minutes” requests that create a lot of job creep and regularly push pressing marketing and PR projects to the back burners.

People, God HELP us if we add coding and graphic design to our never-ending “I can do that!” lists. And heaven help our clients, whether in-house or on the agency side. As we continue to get mired down in busywork, fresh ideas for PR and marketing either won’t get thought of, or will lose their potential in poorly executed campaigns.

Besides, the world is full of poorly designed marketing collateral and glitchy apps. Perhaps because we’re getting what we pay for? Let’s pay for highly skilled professionals who specialize in the high skilled work of graphic design and coding. Not pass it on to a PR or marketing professional who can do just enough to get the job done, but not very creatively.

That way, we can stay focused on continuously improving the following marketing and PR skills.

#1: More persuasively make the case for bold creativity. It’s the only kind of messaging that breaks through, yet it remains difficult to convince clients—even sometimes our own account teams—to take a risk with provocative messaging and concepts. This is something learned over time and with practice, but here are a few pointers: have examples at the ready of successful campaigns that used unusual or daring messaging; bring the client in on the creative process; and—particularly for B2b PR and marketing–don’t be afraid to challenge the conventional thinking that B2b buyers are a conservative market who just want the facts.  These people respond to humor and provocative messaging just like the rest of us humans.

It also helps to foster creativity among your team or—even better—as a company value. Check out this collection of tips from an article I once wrote about inspiring creativity in the attractions and entertainment industries–where regularly unleashing the “wow factor” is a mandate.

#2: Out-argue the lawyers. While legal expertise is needed in many companies, it is often applied to marketing and PR projects with massive overkill. Time after time I’ve seen press releases, bylines, reports, and other copy utterly diluted of any potential impact after a single legal marketing review.

I’m also convinced it was the lawyers at United who advised the CEO to refer to a bloodied, brutalized passenger being dragged off the plane as being “re-accommodated.” No self-respecting PR pro would have greenlighted this horrendous understatement. They also would have predicted that any financial settlement would be a fraction of the billions of dollars in market value lost in the wake of such a dreadful response. A hard lesson learned for United, but one PR departments everywhere can have on hand to bring up in any future debates with legal.

#3: Client relations. Investing in PR isn’t cheap, whether working with an agency or hiring an in-house team. Company leaders are often nervous about what to expect and how they will measure results. Often this is driven by anxiety over a business objective they are directly responsible for achieving. And all clients are different—with their own working and communication styles, and criteria for success. We must be able to put ourselves in many different pairs of shoes.

I can’t overstate how important regular communication with clients is to achieve this state of empathetic nirvana. It is the only way to keep a pulse on our clients’ current concerns and long term needs, both of which good PR people should always have a read on. Busywork can suck us away from these needed conversations. Don’t let it.

#4: Setting the stage for a story. I have blatantly ripped this off from a Wired article about one of the most powerful PR pros in Silicon Valley—whose chief skill is not coding or graphic design. It is, as the article noted, creating a memorable scene for a story. So think. The next time we’re pitching, what is the perfect analogy or metaphor to help explain our angle? If a meeting with a journalist will be in-person, what might be a memorable location that underscores what we want to convey?

Again, mired down in busywork takes away the needed time to conceptualize and create such settings. Which costs us dearly in unforgettable media coverage.

#5: Write better headlines. It doesn’t have to be clickbait, but the opposite end of the spectrum is just as obnoxious–those plodding, painful headlines that make use of tired corporates-peak like “ensure” and “leverage” and “enhance.” Shooting for brevity can help alleviate these tendencies, so keep press release titles to 10 words or less, email subject lines to 4 words or less.

#6: Figure out what makes buyers tick. And when. We must insist on having the time to create (or the money to hire someone to create) buyer personas and buyer journeys, to conduct customer interviews, and whatever it takes to know our clients’ target customer audiences inside and out. It is the difference in good versus scant PR results. And so here I will freely admit that yes, basic analytics is an essential skill, unless you have a department that does this for you. Many of us don’t, alas.

#7: Demand generation. We all know by now that most buyers of big ticket items have made up their minds on who they’re buying from before they reach out to a vendor. So it remains critical to get the right information to them at the right time. Demand generation, content marketing, whatever you want to call it – we do need to understand the basics, even if we hire outside firms to put together the logistics for our demand generation/content marketing programs.

#8: Measure results. PR continues to be difficult to link to sales, but there are metrics we should follow and get versed in that help us better connect the dots. Really partner with your client on this, or if you work in-house, with your marketing analytics people. One of my clients has built a special analytics dashboard that shows website traffic by customizable time frames, and where the traffic comes from. I’m able to easily correlate press release and published bylines with spikes in traffic, plus show traffic increase comparisons year over year or month-by-month.

If you don’t have all of the above skills down cold, don’t panic—neither do most of us. But getting rid of unproductive goals will make sure we have more time to become experts in these and other skills that matter most.