Archive for the ‘corporate communications’ Category

Forced to choose between being a follower or a leader, I would reluctantly choose to be a leader. But I would far rather be neither, because I perform poorly in both roles.

The trouble I have with being a follower is that I am not a passive person. I am quick to express my opinion, and ideas come quickly to me. But under all but the most enlightened management, these are not traits that are appreciated. Consequently, as a follower I either have to suppress my thoughts or risk antagonizing those who are supposed to be in charge of them.

This situation leads to repression, which either slips out in the form of sly and generally unwelcome remarks, or over-compensation, in which I try so hard to conform that I end up applying to myself some of the wonderfully inventive eighteen century terms for describing underlings, such as toady or lick-spittle. Probably no one else would think those words apply, since I don’t give management insincere compliments or anything like that, but the point is that this is an uncomfortable self-image to have.

Even worse, having managed in my time, I’m always second-guessing those further up the ladder, and thinking – no, knowing – that I could do better. I keep thinking that, if I were left to manage matters, everything would go more smoothly. Telling myself that this belief is probably a delusion does nothing to keep me from holding it.

Like most people, I can deal with being a follower if I get my exercise and rest, and keep up my other interests. But it’s an inherently unstable situation, and sooner or later I crack from the strain.

Being in charge is preferable because of the greater autonomy. I enjoy setting priorities, and being responsible for decisions.

All the same, as a leader I’m only slightly more at ease than when I’m a follower. If nothing else, knowing how I chafe as a follower, I’m constantly wondering I’m affecting those around me, and what they think of me.

It doesn’t help, either, that I don’t believe in leadership or hierarchies. My observations and personal experience has convinced me that, for all the emphasis on leadership you hear from management gurus, no one – including me – has any clear idea of what leadership is about.

What worries me is that I will start to confuse myself with the role – that, instead of thinking in terms of tactics or strategies, I will start to use my position as a justification of expressing my ego. I worry that I will get used to having people obey me, and actually get to like the power. If I’m not careful, I may start pressuring myself into actions that the leadership role logically demands, but which I would be reluctant to do in my personal life. The chance of losing myself in the role is always all too likely.

Even trying to be an egalitarian leader is only a palliative. Priding myself on an open door policy, talking about how I am against the cult of leadership, claiming that someone can replace you in a couple of years – all these things, I worry, will only hide the rot that is slowly setting in.

Nor, I suspect, that worrying about such things do anything except make me even less of an effective leader. In the end, I find being a leader only slightly more endurable than being a follower.

Given a completely open choice, I would far rather work in a group that pools its efforts, and hammers out tactics and strategies in discussion. But this is largely a fantasy born of reading stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood, and I’ve rarely and only briefly ever found such a situation.

Instead, I prefer the role of consultant or freelancer, in which I negotiate an exchange of services as something like an equal, and I’m less likely to twist myself out of shape. Being a freelancer isn’t always easy, but it’s the role that comes far nearer to preserving my self-respect than being either a follower or a leader.

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What skills do English graduates bring to the job market? More than you might think – and far more than all the jokes about their unemployability would have you believe. In fact, many of the skills developed by English markets while reading novels and poems make them ideal for senior positions.

To start with, English majors may be comfortable with reading. I don’t mean simply that they can read; I mean that they can read with some ease. Many read as instinctively as they hear. It has become a reflex in them to read whatever words are put in front of them.

Moreover, because they are comfortable with reading and have practiced it, they can read more quickly than most people.

These may seem like minor skills, but when you consider the number of reports, emails, memos, and other documents that the average manager has to plow through every week, they mean increased efficiency; I’ve known at least one politician who found that the worst parts of being an elected official was reading the weekly paper work.

Even more importantly, English majors may have learned not only to be comfortable with reading, but to have gained some skill in it.

If you look at the comments beneath almost any article published online, one of the first things that will probably strike you is how few people can read a comment in context. More often, people take things out of context, and come up with the most fantastical over-simplifications, exaggerations, and misreadings.

Nor, naturally enough, can the average person summarize accurately. In fact, most of the critical skills that English majors learn when producing essays are beyond the average person. After all, you can hardly analyze or compare accurately when you haven’t read accurately. These skills are especially important if you need to keep abreast of legal matters, but they matter almost as much when you are writing marketing copy, producing a white paper on technology, or writing a business plan or competitive analysis.

Finally, like most Art students, whose grading is based largely on essays, English majors have probably learned to research – to find sources, absorb them quickly, and evaluate them both on their own and in comparison to other sources. In other words, they have learned to process information, and reach conclusions that are logically based upon that information. This ability is continually useful in daily business, and, on the Internet it can be invaluable. After all, what is the Internet, if not a giant library waiting for an expert to use it?

Of course, not every English graduate possesses these skills. Because the subject matter of English Departments is subjective, students can coast through them more easily than they can in other Departments. Even in English graduate school, you can find students who don’t read unless they have to, and whose essays have more to do with striking a pose than actual analysis.

But, having been a product manager and a director of communications, I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve looked down at the task that I’m doing and realized that what I learned taking an English degree has helped me breeze through it.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, English major do graduate with employable skills – in fact, ones that will help them if they ever become managers or team leaders among the creatives. The only problem is, they don’t realize everything they’ve learned, so they don’t express it.

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Every day, thousands of news releases are emailed. And, every day, thousands of news releases are deleted unread or only partially unread — all because their writers don’t bother to make their news sound important.

Let me explain. Not counting duplicates, I receive several hundred news releases a week. However, I only read about 30-40. I can discard most of them because their distributors haven’t bothered to target their work, and the releases have nothing to do with free software or GNU/Linux. But I also discard many of the rest without reading beyond the first paragraph because they fail to make me care about their news. If the PR people can’t focus enough to make their news interesting, why should I waste more than a minimal amount of time reading their releases?

That may sound harsh. Yet, without ruthless tactics, I would hardly have time to do anything except read releases. Nor did I (or would I) ask for most of the releases I receive.

Besides, I am hardly alone. If anything, I probably receive fewer releases than many computer journalists. A public relations writer who doesn’t know this reality is ignorant about one of the basics facts of their trade. So, really, it is only common sense that they should do what they can to emphasize the relevance of their news, especially when the task is fairly simple.

I always say that, to write successful PR, you need to assume that your everyone in your audience has an attention deficit disorder. They see so many releases that they’re easily bored. A PR writer’s job is to break through that lack of attention so that journalists will read the details and be roused to do a story based on the news.

The best way to attract attention would be to write a custom release for every long term connection. However, that’s hardly practical (although targeting your release is, despite the modern PR writer’s fondness for spamming techniques). But. with a little effort a writer can craft a release that keeps recipients reading.

If you want to attract interest in a release, the place to start is with the head – which should also probably be the subject line if you send the release in an email. Far from being the after-thought that many PR writers seem to make it, the head should be a pithy summary of the news and why it matters. It should not be – as so many PR writers make it – something as bland as “News release from MyPR.”

In fact, it should not just be a bare statement of fact, no matter how specific. For instance, instead of “Jack Parker becomes company CTO” try “Company refocuses on core values by appointing Jack Parker CTO.” The first head sounds irrelevant, while the second explains how the news might affect the company.

A head is usually less than a dozen words, but if you’ve struggled with them the way you should, you won’t need a sub-head. Many long-time writers will actually tell you not to bother with a sub-head, because it’s usually just one more chance to lose the reader. However, if your news is especially complex, those few more words might help keep readers’ attention.

However, most of the time, you’ll want to get directly into the lede. Like the opening of a short story, your first sentence should be the hook you use to catch readers’ attention. You can use the rest of the first paragraph to expand on the gist of what you have to say, but if readers flounder on the first sentence, many of them won’t read beyond the rest of the paragraph, let alone the release.

One thing you do not do is throw away the first sentence with long sentences and cliches. Yes, you want the lede to summarize your news and its importance. But it won’t fill this goal if it’s a compound-complex sentence, and even the most sympathetic reader has trouble following through its entire ten line.

Nor do you want to lose interest by describing your client as a “world leader” in its field or by using any other cliche that the reader has heard thousands of times before. Cliches lose readers’ attention, accomplishing the exact opposite of what you should be trying to do.

Once past the head and the lede, you can relax a bit. However, keep the release short for all but the most monumental news, and put a few quotes in to break up the bald recital of facts. But remember that the quotes should be people talking like people, not like an animated dictionary. Like a cliche, lame prose is just going to lose the reader.

Don’t worry, either, about giving a company bio until the end. Anything more than a clause half a dozen words long will only complicate your basic message unnecessarily. The only reason that anyone will want more about the company is because they are going ahead with a story based on your release. Providing a corporate bio is a courtesy you do journalists, not something that will help you drum up interest in your story.

The idea that a news release should explain why the information it carries is important sounds obvious. Apparently, though, the idea has never occurred to the majority of people working in public relations. Perhaps they are so busy writing a release that pleases their boss or client that they don’t stop to think that they are being paid to offer their expertise as well as please. Or, perhaps, they think the importance of their news is self-evident; the fact that their company has a new point release of a product has kept everyone in the office working overtime for weeks, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world be concerned?

I suspect, though, that many PR writers simply find mass mailouts easier than taking the time to craft a release that journalists will read. Spam, after all, is easy, and effective writing hard. But it is only by effective writing that the composers of news releases can even hope to have their efforts read. Otherwise, they may as well not even bother.

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Spam techniques have now become standard in public relations. I’ve come to this realization over the last couple of years as I’ve watched the dozens of emails from communication managers that arrive daily in my mailbox. Probably, the senders don’t think of what they are doing as spamming. Very likely, some even imagine that they are doing their jobs efficiently. Yet they might as well be spammers, for all the effectiveness they have. An increasing majority seem to think they’ve done their job if they’ve sent their news to every remotely possible recipient.

This attitude frequently has ludicrous results. For instance, you might think that one look at the free software sites for which I write would tell PR hacks what the sites are interested in: Free and open source software, and the GNU/Linux operating system especially. Yet out of an average of maybe sixty news releases that I receive daily, at least two-thirds of them on any given day are likely to contain news about the Windows or Mac platforms or proprietary software – often both. Either the PR people don’t know enough about technology to know that the editors don’t want this news, or they don’t care.

Even more surprisingly, some releases aren’t about computer technology at all. Probably the senders are working from a general list of news outlets, and haven’t bothered to figure out which ones might want their news.

Then, just to make matters worse, they don’t just send the initial release. Some of them send exactly the same release the next day. Others send “just a note to see if you got my news yesterday.” A few repeat the process several times with every release.

Some, having picked up the idea that they should target a name, address their news directly to a person who works for the site. The only trouble is, they never bother updating their contact lists. I know at least one site that regularly gets email addressed to people who haven’t worked there for several years – sometimes in addition to the general ones sent to the editors’ mailing list.

All in all, it’s getting so bad that my little finger is getting repetitive stress injuries from hitting the delete key so many times in a day.

Admittedly, the sender don’t conceal their names or use malware to send email from other people’s computers, but, if what they’re doing isn’t spamming, the difference is hard to distinguish.

In particular — and what really should concern the senders – the results they get are the same as those from spam. Before long, their emails are added to everyone’s spam filters, so if they ever do have news the site can use, nobody is every going to read it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some writers and editors resist using information from certain PR agencies or people, simply because they’ve become so annoyed by them.

Yet when someone – usually out of cynicism or a wicked sense of amusement – lets the senders know that they’re wasting their time, most of them don’t change their behavior. They’ll apologize, express their gratitude for the correction – and then, at the very next opportunity, do exactly the same thing. I sometimes wonder whether the effectiveness of PR these days is being judged by the number of outlets it’s sent to.

When a news release is sent out, the ideal situation is that the news is used. The company gets the publicity it wants, and the news outlet gets the material it needs. But, when spamming techniques are used, nobody wins. The PR hack gets unofficially blacklisted, the company fails to get its publicity, and the journalists get angry and look for copy elsewhere. And why? Because too many PR hacks are too lazy or ignorant to do their jobs properly.

Needless to say, not every communications manager uses spam techniques. I know several who carefully target their news releases, and work hard to make sure that everyone on both ends of a release wins. These are the real pros of communications, and I am always grateful for their competence – if only because of its increasing rarity.

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