Three Biggest Style Mistakes in PR Writing

I’ve written and edited hundreds of press releases, blog posts and other media materials throughout my career. And I’ve coached writing students on the basics of newswriting. There are three errors in applying Associated Press style that I see the most in writing.

Using Commas in a Series

If the series is simple, then lose the comma before the last element. More complex series which include phrases have a whole different approach. My favorite example to illustrate this point:

The flag is red, white and blue.


Titles can get tricky, especially when you must describe military, courtesy and legislative titles. That’s when you keep the Associated Press Stylebook on your desk. But, for the simple act of identifying someone for a piece of journalistic writing, it’s clear. A Title used BEFORE a name in a sentence is capitalized. AFTER a name, lowercase.  Here’s the simplest example ever.

President Obama signed the bill into law.

Barack Obama, president of the United States, signed the bill into law.

Months of the Year

Little months are always written out in press material. If there are 5 or less letters in its name, the month is never abbreviated. It helps that it’s most of the spring and summer months.

This means: March, April, May, June and July are written out, while the remainder of the months are presented this way:  Jan., Feb., Aug., and etc.

Next time you are working on a piece for a client, take a moment to proofread one more time with these three mistakes in mind. Bet you’ll find at least one!

Read More About Style Here

It’s Time to Evolve Media Training

Media Briefing at Our Lady of the Lake University

Media briefing after a devastating fire at Our Lady of the Lake University. Photo courtesy of OLLU.

In the early days of my public relations career, it was an accepted fact that you should train the key people in your organization who may be called upon to speak to the media.

In some organizations, this “training opportunity” was geared to one or a few key executives. In larger organizations, it was often many more, drawing on the philosophy that subject matter experts should be used whenever possible.

There were three reasons to this approach:

  • Rewiring the executive’s brain to think on his feet during a live television interview
  • Educating them on media agenda and news flow
  • Developing key messages for your executive to share during interviews

We all know that approach is a crap shoot.

Some execs are great on camera, some are terrified of it and others should be.  It’s easy for any spokesperson to get off track, be distracted by the technology, or be so loaded down with facts, figures and messages that he or she loses their way in an interview.

During my years on the public relations team at SeaWorld, we minimized the liabilities of individual spokespersons with a rich and varied group from which we could draw when opportunities arose. In this case, more is better and during particularly busy times – like the birth of an animal or the opening of a new exhibit – we could offer news media more variety with more spokespersons.

This thinking was completely geared to traditional media and involved a very linear process of preparation that went something like this:

  1. News media calls.

    Elected Official giving a Press Conference

    Easter Press Conference with Ruth Jones McLendon on Minority Cancer Awareness Month. Photo courtesy of Write Counsel.

  2. PR person negotiates details of date, location, time, spokesperson.
  3. Spokesperson is prepared.
  4. News media arrives.
  5. Interview/live shot/taping occurs.
  6. News media departs.
  7. Interview runs.
  8. Opportunity is evaluated.

Now that the news cycle is round-the-clock and everyone is a publisher, it’s time to change the approach and the process.

If organizational communications are to succeed in the next 10 years, every person in the organization needs to understand the “why” of the organization AND be able to communicate it.  While media training will still serve an organization well when preparing for 60 Minutes or CNN, each organization has opportunities EVERY DAY in which to tell its message, online and IRL – in real life — in the community.

This means organizations need to invest in developing media literacy skills for its employees. Preparing them to respond and empowering employees to tell the organization’s story will go farther in advancing the organization’s identity than traditional media training achieves today.

Does your organization empower your employees to represent online or in real life? Tell us what strategies are working for you.

The Future of Health Care is Bright!

I am NOT talking about “Obamacare” or anything related to recent issues in health care. I am talking about students from HOSA, the Health Occupation Students of America.  They are our future health care providers and my recent experience with them made me so relieved for the future of health care in our country.

Recently, I was asked to be a judge at the state of Texas HOSA Leadership Conference. This conference, held in San Antonio last week, included thousands of students from across the state, competing in many areas of health care debate and service, including prepared and extemporaneous speaking, extemporaneous writing, biomedical debate, skills testing and service projects, to name a few.

The category I participated in was public service announcements.  Students had to create a 30 second PSA around the theme “Clean Out Your Medicine Cabinet.” In teams of 3-6, they had to conceptualize, research, plan, shoot, edit and show a PSA around this theme. They were required to do target audience research, defend their cinematic approach to the problem AND they had 4 minutes to present it me and my co-judge, Monica Faulkenbery, APR, the assistant communications director for the Northside Independent School District.

Over a four hour period, we watched, listened to and scored 26 student teams from around the state.

Their work was amazing.

These students used sophisticated video techniques, including stop motion, white boards, jump action and Claymation.  That’s right, Claymation.  One group even used visuals crafted from a complex grid of color-coded sticky notes and, with stop motion camera work created animated visuals. Others used sepia frames or black and white to enhance the drama of their piece.

That’s not even the best part.

The best part is that they thoroughly understood their subject matter and why it’s important to clean out your medicine cabinets.  Here’s why:

  • Accidental overdoses by young people or old people
  • Medicines are dangerous when they lose their shelf life

They also explained, comically and in great detail, how to safely dispose of medicines.

By the 5th presentation, I put a date on my electronic calendar for cleaning out my own medicine cabinet.

What was most impressive to me about this event?

Their professional demeanor. They thanked us for taking the time to judge the event. Each team had clear definition of roles and responsibilities in their presentation. And, with the exception of two college teams, they are all in high school.

If this is the next generation of health care professionals, we will all benefit from their obvious dedication to health and well-being.

The future of health care is bright and it has nothing to do with politics.

How to Put Your SWOT Analysis to Work for You

A SWOT Chart created from orange and yellow post-it notes

It's Time to Reflect on your SWOT Analysis

A SWOT Analysis, often used by businesses in strategic planning, is a great way to determine your next career step.  By now, you’ve created a SWOT Analysis with your “trusted advisors,” so  it’s time to look at it and analyze your results.

Reflect on Results

Put all the Strengths | Weaknesses | Opportunities |Threats together into one chart.  How does it look?  Did more than one person identify a similar trait?  Perhaps those observations should be weighted more heavily.  Are your results contradictory? This could mean that each of your trusted advisors knows you a little differently.

Take some time to reflect on your results –usually a couple of weeks.  Pull the chart out frequently and think about what it might be telling you. Now you’re ready for the next step.

Ask More Questions

Go back to your trusted advisors and ask additional questions or get clarification, if needed.  If your results already make sense, then go to the next step.

Consider Your Plan

Where you go next is up to you….and taking a new step is never easy. Your results might indicate you need further professional development or education. Or it might indicate that a sideways move or industry change is right for you.  Perhaps your results indicate that you are right where you need to be and change is farther off on the horizon.  Either way, it’s time to start sketching out some plans.

Get Help

No matter where you are, get some help!  If books are your thing and you are ready to jump into the job market, What Color is Your Parachute? Is a perennial favorite and is updated annually.

Join a discussion group on LinkedIn to see what’s happening in your professional area or in your city.

You might consider a career coach.  They are different than a job placement service and can help you further explore your future possibilities and plug you into networking opportunities you might not otherwise hear about.  My career coach was instrumental in helping me decide when the time was right to start my own public relations practice.

Implement Change

One step at a time. If you have made it through all these steps, then it’s time to map out your next move.  And those trusted advisors who helped you with the SWOT Analysis? They can help keep you on track as you chart your course to the next step in your career.

Related Posts: Don’t Be Surprised by This Year’s Annual Review.

Related Posts: Thinking about a Career Change? Think SWOT.

Thinking about a Career Change? Think SWOT.

Fly swatter laying in the grass

Not Swat, but SWOT!

No doubt you’ve made some resolutions about your career after your annual review.  If it’s time to evaluate your career path, why not start with a SWOT?

A SWOT Analysis is an acronym for a business analysis in which you evaluate Strengths –Weaknesses –Opportunities – Threats.  The concept is often credited to Albert Humphrey, who piloted a project at Stanford University in the 1960s with Fortune 500 companies to manage change.  However, according to a U.K.-based website called Marketing Teacher, the concept may have been introduced as early as the 1950s and have an entirely different author.

Traditionally, Strengths and Weaknesses refer to a company’s position or an internal analysis. Threats and Opportunities refer to market conditions or external factors.  The analysis is often done in chart form, with one square for each category.  It is considered a first step in a company planning its future.

This process is completely adaptable for personal professional growth.  That is, with some trusted professional friends.  Here’s how.

Start by thinking of your support network.  Who do you turn to when you have a professional dilemma or need to seek counsel on an ethical matter?  Who has watched and supported your career?  Think above and below where you sit on the career ladder.  Anyone who has mentored you would be good, but so might those you have mentored or have worked alongside.

Use only your most trusted professional friends and then ask them privately to share what they believe to be 2-3 items in each category.  You will obviously want to preface the request with some language to talk about how you are evaluating your career and considering future changes.  You might even supply a chart or use an online form builder like Wufoo  to put together your responses.

Once you have gathered your responses, read each one and take some time to evaluate them. It may be helpful to put them into one chart and see if some items appear more than once. Do you see trends in your career?

When I was considering a career change some time ago, I used this strategy to consider my options.  I asked four professionals for feedback.  While many of their observations were not a complete surprise, it is very beneficial to see how others see YOU.  There were some pleasant surprises. Two participants saw a future opportunity for me in a college classroom, a step I have since taken. Another pointed out that my current position was a threat to my future health, something I knew but was choosing to ignore at the time.

I didn’t use every piece of information I received right away, but over time, I have returned to these evaluations for guidance and direction.   Whether you are considering a career change, or need strategies for growth in your current position, a SWOT Analysis offers an outside-in look.

Next week, how to put the SWOT Analysis results to work for you.

Related Posts: Don’t Be Surprised by This Year’s Annual Review.

Related Posts: How to Put Your SWOT Analysis to Work for You.

Don’t Be Surprised by This Year’s Annual Review

You know it’s coming because it happens every year at this time.  Annual performance reviews are a ritual that we love to hate. Here’s why:  we are rarely prepared for them, they are often poorly written or vague, and we are not always convinced they are a true measure of our performance. Not to mention that we are rarely prepared to ask for a raise!

I ought to know – I went through more than a decade of reviews as a corporate communicator and know first-hand that PR pros are rarely prepared to promote themselves.

Why not take a new approach this year so you won’t have that “deer in the headlights” look when the boss calls you in for this corporate ritual?

Here’s a checklist to get the most out of your performance appraisal.

First take stock of your accomplishments for the year.  Have you met the objectives set by your employer?  If something is lacking or missed the mark,  what happened and why?  Be prepared to explain.

Were you missing important components like people resources, budget allocations or a timeline for planning?  How did that contribute to or hinder your efforts? Is there a way to pick up where you left off next year?

Is there a key program or campaign that was successful? Reflect on that and plan to highlight it in your review conference.

Now take a minute and write up an executive summary for your accomplishments that can be included in the discussion and added to your comment section of the document. It’s the section you always forget to utilize — but not anymore!

Based on what you wrote for your executive summary, would you give you a salary increase?  How much? While a 10-15% raise in this economy is very desirable, be honest with yourself.  How did the company do this year? Is a 5% bump a more viable increase?

Be prepared for a range of options.  Some companies have fixed ranges, while others have a “pot of money” to divide among those who have earned it.  Others will award a token cost of living adjustment.

Before the conference, set some goals for yourself, your team or your organization for the coming year.  By having an idea of where you want to go, you may even beat the boss to the punch.

By assessing your successes and challenges over the year, putting them in an executive summary, and creating goals for next year, you will be ready for your appraisal conference.

Let me know if it worked for you by leaving a comment.