January 21, 20201 Comment

Five Social Media Mistakes I’ve Quit Making

Just like that, 2020 is underway. Writers and content strategists like me have cycled through our year-end round-ups and predictions for the new year. My crystal ball is pretty hazy these days, but my hindsight vision scores a perfect 20/20 (haha).

The new year marks my 12th year using social media personally and professionally. Yes, times have changed. Platforms have faded (I miss you, Posterous, Periscope and del.icio.us!). Old platforms have evolved into places for image and video-sharing.

When I think back on the text-heavy, mini-blog posts of 2009 and reflect on the state of social today (hello TikTok), I realize that I've learned a few lessons about how best to use these platforms that seem here to stay (in one form or another). Here are five lessons I've learned:

  1. No one reads long posts: As a writer, it's hard to swallow that people don't carefully read every one of my sentences. Concision and clarity are key. Think of that old Strunk & White maxim: Omit needless words.
  2. Being funny online is harder than it looks: Comedy writers often work in pairs and this is because what sounds funny in your head doesn't always get a laugh from your audience. Every time I try to write something funny for Twitter, I run it by someone else to see if it gets a laugh first. If they wince, I skip it.
  3. Follows for following and likes for likes are still a big part of some Twitter and FB user groups (I'm looking at you, #writingcommunity) but in general, these "follow trains" and other techniques are being scrutinized by Twitter. They also don't yield truly meaningful connections, at least for me.
  4. Face it, video is the future online: I've resisted fully diving into video because I think scanning text is faster than watching someone talk, but I'm definitely in the minority. More and more people tune to videos for all sorts of content and why not? Video loads fast and people are getting better and better at producing good-looking content.
  5. Paid posts are the name of the game on Facebook and Twitter: Algorithm changes mean that paying to get your posts seen by your followers is the norm these days. Budget accordingly. Don't try to get by on organic reach alone. You'll find yourself chasing memes instead of crafting the messages you really want to get out.

How about you? What have you quit doing on social media?

September 25, 2013No Comments

Public relations as aikido

In martial arts, aikido stands out for its emphasis on leveraging opposing forces, not just for defense but also to protect the attacker from harm. Its practice demands flexibility, a calm mind, endurance and compassion. It is the opposite of a stand your ground and shoot someone mentality - it is a defense that allows both parties to walk away unharmed and fight (hopefully non-violently) another day.

On any given day, businesses and organizations can find themselves under fire for poor customer service, production mistakes or a thousand other errors. Public relations is not about covering these mistakes up or running from them - it is about responding to them and building off of them. Like in aikido, you must be calm as you summon the strength to deflect the attack.

Remember that old maxim any PR is good PR? You can make it true. Having people talk about your brand or your organization, even negatively, is at least an invitation to a discussion. You can take that energy and respond to it positively, by listening to the concerns and, even if it is a rant, finding the kernel of truth that can help you improve your communications or your business. That last part is where compassion comes in -- it takes compassion to really listen.

Public relations should be a dialogue, not a spin cycle where practitioners try to outwit one another with gotcha games and word play. Thinking about PR as a form of aikido means that we are doing our jobs by staying in the moment, by really listening and understanding all sides of the debate, and building long-lasting relationships.

March 21, 2012No Comments

Question, Experiment and Innovation Will Follow

My Twitter feed this week has been full of reports of new social media tools for marketing and PR pros, like Pinterest and Highlight. Along with requisite hype comes the cynicism. Are these new tools just another bright shiny thing that will be hot for a few weeks, only to be eclipsed by the next next thing?

Personally, I think I'm getting a bad case of novelty fatigue. On the worst days, I wonder if I'll spend the rest of my PR career playing catch-up to whatever the new tools of communication are, lurching from the new thing to the new new thing with no time to gain expertise or insight.

But if I want be an innovator myself, I need to adjust that attitude. Relentlessly trying new things is at the heart of innovation. At least, that is what INSEAD Leadership Professor Hal Gregerson concluded at the end of an eight-year study of the world’s most innovative companies. He and his co-authors (Jeffrey Dyer, UCLA and Clayton Christensen, Harvard) published their findings in July 2011 in their book Innovator’s DNA, which spells out five skills of innovators. One is experimenting – relentlessly trying new things, taking things apart and trying out new ideas. Another is associational thinking, drawing connections among questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields. Observing and networking help to gain new perspectives, while questioning allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities.

The authors say that anyone can innovate if they practice these five skills, or habits. At the center of each one is the idea of being open to new ideas. So I'm trying to brush off the novelty fatigue and experiment, question, observe, network and employ associational thinking. Check out the Innovator's DNA web site to learn more about how to create a fertile field for innovation to bloom.

March 13, 2012No Comments

“We Are a Good Company” is Not an Effective News Release Headline

If you're writing a news release or blog posting or newsletter article, it's easy and very tempting to make yourself or your organization the star of the show. And it's the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to get a journalist, blogger or, in these days of direct-to-consumer publishing, your potential customer to read it.

I once sat in a meeting with a bunch of business executives who wanted positive publicity on their recent organizational restructuring. "Great idea!" the PR people said. But how can we demonstrate the improvements? Had they reduced headcount or cut costs? Had they streamlined departments in an innovative way?

"We can't talk about that," they said. "We don't want to put any numbers out there. We don't want anyone to think what we were doing before was bad."

"Then how can we show that the restructuring was positive?" we asked. It would be the first question a journalist would ask.

"Just say that it was," they answered.

So despite our misgivings, we wrote the release making them the star -- the headline was something like "Productivity Further Enhanced at XYZ Corp." It included several quotes from management trumpeting a list of restructuring actions taken with no real context or insight into what had been in place before. And guess what? It generated absolutely no news coverage and probably drew no readers. Why? Because we didn't give the reader a reason to care.

The first rule of public relations writing is to focus on your audience first. Who do you want to read it? What do you want them to remember? Why should they care? 

Key to remember is that just because we -- or our bosses or clients -- think we have an important story, doesn't mean that the rest of the world does. The PR pro has to take a step back and look at the story with an outsider's perspective. And sometimes that means telling a client or a boss that there isn't a story there. It's a hard message to deliver, particularly to successful business owners or executives who live and breathe their work. But doing so will help you set realistic expectations for your efforts.

And save the fluffy "We are a good company" stories for the employee newsletter.




March 8, 2012No Comments

Pocket Guide to the Public Relations Professional

The public relations industry is vast and complex, employing some 60,000 people and bringing in a fee income of nearly $9 billion in 2010, according to The Holmes Report 2011 Global Rankings.

It's also perceived as a little, well, fluffy. Usually the first budget to be cut in a crunch, public relations deparments suffer more of an image problem than, say, finance or legal. Now, I've worked in public relations for more than two decades, and have worked with some incredibly smart, strategic professionals who earn their salary every day. But the image of PR as a somewhat soft gig persists. I had a job at a PR agency in the mid-90s where I attended cocktail receptions two out of five nights a week. My parents and friends had the entirely understandable impression that all I did was go to parties. This was at least partly true. It was also true that it was a high-stress job. We were expected to be on call 24/7, often worked 60-hour weeks and lived in fear of a client calling to say "why wasn't I in the LA Times today?" No wonder we were guzzling white wine at those cocktail parties designed to showcase clients.

As an industry, public relations is more open to generalists than most. At the entry-level, what you studied in school is often less important than whether or not you are an articulate writer and speaker.

However as I progressed through six different PR jobs and lots of networking, I noticed that the PR person as a genus has several distinct species, some marked by innate traits, others by their environments. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I note five of them here. 

1. The Politician.

Hand extended for a shake while he's still two feet away, the Politician is what most people think of when they think of public relations. He's got great eye contact, remembers your name (or at least he read your nametag without you catching him). He's friendly, warm and engaging when you can catch him, but he can be hard to track down. What You Hire Him For: his contact list. Tagline: "Let me connect you with..." Favorite PR tool: lunch. Hates: sitting at his desk.

2. The Extrovert.

The Extrovert takes her natural affinity for other people and leverages it into a fulltime career in public relations.  She can work the room almost as well as the Politician, though she lacks his ruthlessness. She loves to talk and share ideas, so publicity and social media are natural extensions of herself. What You HIre Her For: her enthusiasm and energy. Tagline: "We've got a great event/product/cause coming up..." Favorite PR tool: social media. Hates: writing.

3. The Cynic.

The Cynic has little tolerance for hypocrisy, but he's also more than willing to help you craft a message that puts you in the best light if he believes in you, your organization or cause. Many journalists-turned-PR-people fall into this category, assuaging fears of "selling out" by working in the public interest. Best asset: an inside track to the mind of a journalist. Tagline: "Here's how this will play out." Favorite PR tool: written opinion piece in print media. Hates: talking points.

4. The EMT.

Search warrants served at the office? SEC on the phone? Dial 911 in your PR crisis and you get the EMT. Usually working for a PR agency that specializes in crisis management, she is the on-call professional ready to do media training at midnight and draft your apology statement. Best asset: decisiveness. Tagline: "What you're going to do is..." Favorite PR tool: the exclusive interview on a friendly news outlet. Hates: saying no comment.

5. The Conscience.

He believes in corporate citizenship and sees it as his job to not only listen to his organization's customers or stakeholders, but also to be their advocates. The Conscience is the subject of many PR "best practices" case studies, for urging companies to do the right thing despite financial or legal risks. Best asset: deep understanding of public perception. Tagline: "I don't care what Legal says..." Favorite PR tool: grants and sponsorships to worthy causes. Hates: obfuscation.

These five species are only a handful of the many that populate this large and growing industry. Can you think of any more? Let me know!

January 16, 2012No Comments

Crazy unusable stock photos

In my job as a publications manager, I spend a fair amount of time looking for stock photos to use in brochures, reports, web sites and presentations. It's not always the most creative endeavor -- usually I'm just looking for a fresh take on people in business attire talking, someone using a computer, etc. This kind of thing:


So when a co-worker sent me a link to this list of wildly useless stock photos, I was instantly entertained.What on earth were these photographers/designers thinking? My personal favorite is the mischievous looking dog with a donut on his head. 


What could its intended purpose be? Dog obedience brochure ("look, my dog is still in his stay even with a luscious donut on his head!") or worse, an ad for deep fried breakfast treats ("Fido knows that Dunkin' Donuts has the freshest donuts in town!")? 

Enjoy this abridged collection of my favorites, and check out the links if you want more.


BuzzFeed: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/60-completely-unusable-stock-photos

Awkward Stock Photos: http://awkwardstockphotos.com/

November 14, 20112 Comments

Book Review: Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte

Nancy Duarte doesn’t hate Powerpoint. She just hates what some of us do with it. Her book, Resonate, is designed to break us out of “read along with me” mentality prevalent in many informational and factual presentations today. You know the kind – each slide has a title and three or more bullets that the presenter dutiful reads out loud while we sit in our seats reading silently. Or checking email, playing Angry Birds or looking up sports scores.

It's hard to really capture and hold the attention of a group, and pretty much impossible if your Powerpoint could double as a detailed written report. Duarte wants to help each of us be the best speaker we can be. And that means shaking us out of our heads and into the world of big ideas, and she’s gathered ideas, tips, quotes and examples from presenters as diverse as a marketer, an entrepreneur, a motivator, an activist, a preacher, a politician, a conductor and an artist to show us how. The opening chapter motivates the reader to do better presentations, and Duarte creates a compelling argument for building and developing speeches that resonate with people. You can make a difference. You can change the world.

She delves deep into story structure theory, ambitiously tying classic screenplay structure and Jungian psychology into how speeches should be structured. Some of this felt like a big stretch. I once worked at a public relations agency that promoted networking among professionals like lawyers and architects. Carl, the owner of the agency, would say that the goal for most people when speaking publicly was simply to get through the speech without being embarrassed. I think he was right. And I must say that it makes me giggle to think about some of those professionals, who simply don’t want to be embarrassed, to embrace Duarte’s principles.

 Me:             Jim, for your speech on the legal intricacies of back-dated stock options, remember, you are not the hero. The audience is the hero. In Star Wars-speak, you as the presenter are Yoda. Your audience is Luke Skywalker.

Jim:            What?

Well, on second thought, maybe that advice does work even though it seems a little silly to think about yourself as Yoda at an industry conference. But the reality is that most presentations could benefit from the presenter thinking more about the audience and less about his or her performance.

And I’m not sure that Duarte herself would argue that every presentation can change the world. She concedes that some speeches and presentations are really reports and documents anyway. If that is what your boss wants, then deliver it. But know that it is not necessarily a persuasive presentation.

The motif woven throughout the book is that the use of contrast is what stimulates dramatic tension and attracts listeners. Duarte writes about three distinct types of contrast that can be inserted into a presentation: content, emotion and delivery. Content contrast is when the speaker compares what is to what could be. Emotional contrast is switching between analytical and emotional content. And delivery contrast is alternating between traditional, behind-the-podium and reading-the-slides communication and non-traditional delivery like polling the audience, using humor and minimizing slide use.

The second half of the book is strongest, as Duarte gets down to the brass tacks of pulling the presentation together. She rips back the curtain on how the great communicators illustrate their points by “panning for gold” among the dirt and detritus of personal experience, news stories, fiction and movies, and other industries or professions. And she makes the point clearly not only is this a lot of work (she talks about the weeks spent crafting words and visuals), but that it also makes the speaker vulnerable.

Resonate is a book for those who are serious about increasing their skills of persuasion and willing to put in the time and energy (and let’s be honest, the potential for embarrassment) to approaching a presentation as an opportunity to change minds. It is not a book for how to present all sides of an argument in an academic or government environment or a book on how many words each bullet should contain. But it is a tool that I will bring down from the bookshelf again and again. Particularly when I am looking to write or deliver a speech that persuades listeners to a certain point of view.


Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences

Nancy Duarte

John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010: 250 pages, $29.95


January 31, 2011No Comments

How to write a media advisory easy as pie

Whether you’re promoting a pie-eating contest, a press conference on the courthouse steps or a perfume product launch, a media advisory is a great tool for inviting the media, particularly television and radio. I think of media advisories as shorthand press releases – a means for delivering the who, what, where, when and how in a stripped-down format that a reporter can grab on her way out the door and get all the information she needs to cover the story once she is on location.



Typically less than one page long, the media advisory includes contact information, a headline, description of the event including the date and time, a listing of who is involved, the address (include cross streets if you can), and a detailed schedule.  Each of these should be broken into separate sections of your document, like so:



The headline should be a catchy sentence that captures the essence of your event and conveys a sense of urgency.  Highlight celebrities if you’ve got them, or compelling visuals like a children's blueberry pie eating contest or hot air balloons taking off.



Describe the event in one or two sentences here.



List the VIPs who have been invited and/or are confirmed to attend. This can mean your corporate CEO, the mayor, the local weathercaster or a skateboarding cat. This is also a nice place to make sure to give kudos to anyone you want to pay special attention to.



Date and time. Include a detailed schedule if you can do it in a few lines, so that reporters, who are often crunched for time, can easily tell when the pie-eating contest starts.  For example: 


9 to 9:30 a.m. CONTESTANT CHECK-IN




If there is coffee and, er, pie available for reporters, say so. Don’t be shy. A good PR person is not afraid to use free food as a selling point.



This is where to put the location details. Include the place name, street address, cross streets, landmarks and parking information here. If you have special parking for the media but not for the public, make that very clear here.


Still got space on the page? Then use it to describe the visuals if it is not obvious from the headline and description. Or include a sentence or two about why your company is sponsoring the event. Close with your organization’s boilerplate info, and distribute to assignment desks.


December 30, 2010No Comments

Writing a news release that works

Despite widespread reports of its demise at the hands of social media, the news release is not just alive, but relevant. Its basic format continues to be an important way to distribute content to both online and traditional media.


The same principles that scored publicity for “Mad Men” still work today -- a good news hook, attention-getting headline and well-written copy. What has changed are the distribution channels. Ten years ago, PR people aimed for a front-page story in the print media, which would have then fed the next day’s local television and radio news. Today, a good PR person may still target traditional media but would be foolish not to include online media, bloggers, Twitterers with Klout, and curators of interesting content.


The good news is that traditional and new media want the same thing -- content that is tightly written, timely and topical. Below are some tips for writing a professional news release with universal appeal.


Create an eye-grabbing, descriptive headline. “Vehicle Thieves Rarely Take a Holiday” is a clear and concise headline from a release issued on December 28 by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. What is it about? A report that found the highest number of vehicle thefts on New Year’s Eve and Halloween.


Write using the inverted pyramid format. Fill your first paragraph -- also called the lead -- with the story basics. You want to spark the reader's curiosity with either the conclusion or the “who-what-where-when-why” up front, and work in the supporting information and background in subsequent paragraphs.


Back in the days when newspaper layouts were pasted together by hand instead of laid out on a computer, an editor looking to shorten an article would just cut from the column end, where the least important information was placed. The inverted pyramid format is still valuable in online media, because if someone only reads the first paragraph and doesn’t either scroll down or click through, they still get the gist of the story. Notice how this release about healthy holiday tips summarizes its main point in the first sentence, and then works in all the relevant details in the second.

Enjoy the season's meals without the guilt this year. The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) is continuing to help you make healthy choices this holiday season with 15 easy-to-follow tips, crafted by NFCR spokesperson Chef Charles Phillips of Nashville's 1808 Grille.


Include a quote from your organization’s spokesperson. Quotes often appear in the second or third paragraph of a news release, and are a great way to insert points-of-view, claims or opinions. 

"Electronic waste is a very serious environmental issue, both because of toxic materials it contains and because of the lack of options for safe disposal of this equipment," said Lower East Side Ecology Center executive director Christine Datz-Romero. "That's why we make sure that the recyclers we work with guarantee that all of the material we collect is safely recycled in the United States, instead of being exported to the developing world or incinerated stateside."

Include your organization’s background at the end. In PR, we call this the boilerplate, or a sentence or paragraph that describes an organization and is included at the end of all news releases. Include a link to your website for more information.

Since 1999, Red Gate Software has produced ingeniously simple tools for over 500,000 Microsoft technology professionals worldwide. We currently specialize in MS SQL Server, Oracle, .NET and email archiving tools.

Include contact information. In case the reporter or writer has questions, news releases usually include in the header the name, office phone number, cell phone number and email of the organization’s PR person or most appropriate subject matter expert.