Friday, February 26, 2010

weekly writing coach: cut and dried

Searching for new words? Want to find odd or intriguing juxtapositions to make your descriptions more compelling? Looking to write in ways that make people think, or get ideas? Look for a sign...any sign. 

I was staying in New York City this week, and had to walk down a street in its flower district to get to my hotel.  Aside from ogling what was fresh in February, my eye caught the signs on these wholesale shops.  Often, they didn't say "flowers," just "cut" or "dried" -- the two main kinds of floral tributes offered, with the occasional "silk" thrown in.  Walking down one block, I saw cut...dried...cut...dried...cut...dried. Cut and dried -- a term that could apply to these signs, in a sense, and might make a great name for a flower shop.

It made me smile, and reminded me of another moment when two signs gave me the idea for a novel title.  It was a ladder of signs for a shopping center: All the same typeface, one above the other, just words.  In the middle of the stack, my eye caught "Bait and Tackle School of Dance," (really two storefronts next to one another) and I'm still working on the characters that might populate such a place.

Neither set of signs has an immediate application in my writing, but this type of mental exercise keeps the mind and your creativity sharpened.  And signs are a quick, useful tool for unlocking your imagination. After all, they're made to be like your writing: Short, compelling, action-oriented, useful.  What will you notice the next time you're seeing signs?

new embargo blog offers smart lessons

Having directed communications for the journal Science and for the 30-plus journals of the American Chemical Society, I know my embargoes. I've worked with traditional embargoes and made the decision to go embargo-free when electronic publishing moved to the forefront.

These arrangements between scientific organizations and the reporters who cover them usually allow for advance access to research papers from journals or meetings to allow reporters time to consult sources and do a better job covering complex scientific studies.  As a bonus, nearly all the coverage appears simultaneously--no news outlet gets scooped, and it's a sure thing all around. 

Except when it's not. Communicators can be rightly confused by how and when to set embargoes, given that so many exceptions and misinterpretations are made. That's why I'm glad to see a new blog, Embargo Watch, just launched by Reuters Health executive editor Ivan Oransky.  Just five posts in (at this writing), the blog already offers communicators loads of lessons in each post, with real-life case studies you can use to educate yourself or build a case for your policies.  Oransky's also going to poke at some emerging trends he sees, like a tendency toward 24-hour-or-less embargoes, to find out how they're viewed by the issuing organization and reporters alike, so you'll get the inside view from both sides.  So far, he's looked at such issues as:
  • embargoing information that's already widely available online;
  • insulting the embargo-breaking news outlet in your announcement of an embargo lift;
  • embargoing something that's absolutely not news;
  • trying to enforce embargoes with reporters who haven't agreed to abide by them in the first place; and
  • what happens to blacklisted reporters who've broken embargoes and whether it matters to them. 
Meaty stuff, and Oransky's promising more.  He's building on the very good book Embargoed Science by Vince Kiernan, but keeping a finger on the pulse of what's happening right now with embargoes, as currency is the coin of this very confusing realm. Put this one in your RSS reader and share it with colleagues mystified about embargoes--it promises more lessons and a few eye-openers to come.

Related posts:   Tweeting at meetings gets controversial (with one scientific group's new policy on meeting communications)

Embargoes: Scrambled or fried?

Medical writer clarifies disclosure rules for journal authors at meetings

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Romancing February's top 10 tips

February brought me valentines--and here are mine for you, in the form of this month's most-read and most-popular posts and tips:
  1. Stay the same. Don't ever change.  Is that the space you're carving out for yourself in the new communications world? Then you're dancing on the head of a pin.  A provocative and well-received post.
  2. Are you a funny Valentine? Using humor feels risky, especially in social media. This popular post aims to help develop your funny (back) bone and make you more confident in using humor to good effect.
  3. It's engagement time.  Not you and me. It's time to add question-and-answer capability to your online video. Check out these case studies from the White House and two universities using YouTube, UStream and Facebook to engage audiences with some back-and-forth.
  4. Adjectively speaking, you're super-extraordinary:  The weekly writing coach found this version of the Apple iPad press conference, stripping out all words but the adjectives.  It's funny and a good reminder to strip adjectives out of your purple prose.
  5. I heart content strategy, and here's a useful case study for how one trade publisher, Reed Business Information, thinks through its content strategy.  Steal their tips for planning and managing content now.
  6. Will you still love me tomorrow? Depends.  A PR blogger asked whether the old rules still apply for what time of day to pitch reporters, and I've retooled the rules to fit today's deadlines.
  7. Tell me a story.  But make it short.  The weekly writing coach found this NPR contest for writing "Three-Minute Fiction." It's a great exercise in writing short--and you have until February 28 to enter. Quick!
  8. In good relationships, don't fight over the controls.  They don't work so well in social media, as noted in this popular post.
  9. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Before I do, I'm reminded to check the timeliness of your analogies for speeches, media interviews and presentations.
  10. Give some love to the boss.  If you only read all items tagged under "For Communications Directors"--our 10th most popular link on the blog this month--you'll be in great shape to romance or reboot your communications operations. It's a collection of what's most strategic on the blog.  Click on the tag at the bottom of this post.
This month, I also started sharing some of what I'm reading in social media topics, in Get social: What I'm reading.  Let me know if you find that useful, and I'll keep doing it.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Get social: What I've been reading

The flood of news on social media as a tool for communicators keeps me busy, and if you follow me on Twitter or FriendFeed, you'll have seen some of these (or shared them with me).  Here's a roundup of what stands out in my reading inbox of late--a mix of social, local, mobile and more:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

got a position? Consider the lawn chair

Photo by eileenberedo from Flickr
Here in Washington, DC, and perhaps in your company, agency or organization, there are plenty of leaders who've dug themselves so far into their public positions that they may as well put a plastic lawn chair on them to mark them as their own--as residents here have been doing with parking spaces they've labored over in our recent historic snowstorms.  (Actually, any chair will do, parking is so dear right now. I've seen folding chairs, office swivel chairs, dining room chairs, you name it.)

Sure, you want to appear firm, confident, forward-looking and decisive--or your CEO does. Sure, you don't want to give your opponents/critics/skeptics room to pounce and parse your selected stance.  And yes, you want to be strongly associated with this viewpoint.  So what's the problem?

It's the same problem my lawn-chair-wielding neighbors have. Someday soon, perhaps sooner than you think, you may have to move from that position you've dug yourself into.  Someone will move your plastic lawn chair and occupy that space in a better, smarter, faster way--or you may find yourself having dug into and decorated a position you can't defend any longer, no matter how good it felt at one time.  You may, in fact, want to park your principles elsewhere.

It's a prospect worth considering before you make public pronouncements about where you stand (or park).  Too many leaders feel the need to underscore their firm principles with absolutes -- "The day will never come..." or "As God is my witness, we will fight this to the death" -- that are, er, awkward at best to avoid when your posture shifts.  A sound strategy for announcing a major position will include discussion of what will happen when and if there's a change of mind, circumstances, money or other factors that can push you out of that well-dug-out parking space.

And if you get there--when you get there--I'd love it if you'd consider sharing the truth with your key audiences.  "We're committed to the goal, but the funding just isn't there," is good, but even better is "I've had a change of heart, and here's why."  There's no crime in leaving that well-dug-out parking space, you know (although it apparently is illegal to put your plastic chair in it here in the District of Columbia).  Tell us where you'd rather park and why, and maybe we'll follow you there.  Choices like a stoic defense, ignoring the change and hoping others will follow suit, or brushing it off as unimportant all seem so 1970s in this day and age.  Make the change authentic and transparent, and your credibility will soar.

the head of the pin you're dancing on

I just returned from some unofficial and offical meetings with colleagues in one of my national professional groups, one that mixes journalists and communicators united by a single topic. Here's what I found disturbing to watch: Strenuous efforts by my colleagues--who represent a wide variety of communications responsibilities and institutions--to carve themselves a secure place to stand on the head of a pin, and doing it by slamming the rest of the profession.

Most of the furor didn't make much sense, either.  A longtime university public affairs and public relations pro denounced marketers (as in, "I'd QUIT if they asked me to do MARKETING!"), then went around asking people to re-tweet a Twitter post.  Some insisted all they peddle is information or stories that they "tell," and decried "relations" of any kind: public, media, whatever, even as they bragged about their strong relationships and contacts, angled for lecture fees or put out flyers for their books and products.  Others sought to align themselves with journalists, as if that were the gold standard (and when they do much more).  In contrast, the journalists--who know rather acutely that their roles have already changed and will continue to do so--were less strident.  "We're all communicators, aren't we?" observed one, wryly.  "I still think of myself as a journalist, but I do a lot of writing that doesn't fit that category anymore," admitted another. 

Seth Godin's post about the doormat, the jerk and the lizard brain gets to part of what I was observing, especially where he points out that:
Fear is the driver here, it's fear that pushes people in either of these two directions. That's because in between the two extremes lies responsibility and opportunity and the requirement that you actually do work that matters.
Ah, there's the rub. I was seeing the fear of my colleagues that their work might no longer matter.

So--as one who's very happy with the work she's carved out for herself and who doesn't fit into a lot of predetermined labels--let me ask my colleagues to pipe down with the finger-pointing and labeling. We can tell you're trying to avoid doing anything new by objecting to it loudly.  No need to repeat.  Try recognizing that we all are in a time of flux and change.  Instead of screaming about who may have moved your cheese (have you looked over in marketing?), how about considering what you can contribute, and taking responsibility for rebooting your view of your job to fit today's audiences and technologies?  As Godin says, "Linchpins might be afraid, but they know precisely what they're afraid of. And then they do something constructive about it." Amen.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

communicating science: plane language?

Some people might've been surprised at the scientist who said she just wanted "to be able to tell the person next to me on the airplane what I do without having his eyes glaze over."  But she had plenty of heads around her nodding in the "Communicating Science" workshop I facilitated last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.  Here's a story about that session on the AAAS website.  We've trained nearly 1,000 scientists in 12 workshops to date, and you can read more about the program here.  If you know a scientist who'd like to try the workshop, two more will be offered this spring, in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado.  The workshops are free, but pre-registration is required.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

what you can control in social media

This week, there's unrest in the social media world. People think Facebook's too wide open (when it actually has some of the most extensive privacy controls around) or that Google Buzz represents the ruination of society. At the same time, I've heard organizations and companies get enthusiastic about aspects of social media that can help them track what's being said about them--like blog comments, Twitter hashtags and geotags--until they find out they can't decide how those are used, and by whom.  And nearly every day, I hear or see communicators asking folks to retweet a post, or become a fan even when the people they're asking don't have a direct interest in the company or link being promoted.

It's 2010 in social media, a trend that's over a decade old, and some folks are still fighting over control, remote or otherwise.  And it's the efforts to control the "mob"--the many people who now can use free and widely available social-media tools--that seem to misfire the most.  I hear a lot of hypothesizing about bad things that could happen, but often, the reality is more benign.  For most users, crazy behavior is just not how we roll in social media.

I'm wondering whether we might reboot that thinking about what you can control in social media, if you're an organization, agency or business that wants to use it to communicate with your audiences.  Any good psychologist would tell you that, in any given situation where others are involved, the only thing you can control is your own reaction.

That's true in the most effective responses to social media commentary, sharing, mashups and other participatory spins on what you're communicating.  Sure, you can get upset about it and try to control it.  Or you could listen, leave it alone, ask more questions to find out what's going on, listen some more, and maybe gain new customers and respect.  You might find fans you never would find otherwise, and new business you couldn't develop with the best tools around.

So put that remote down. It doesn't work here, anyway.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

4 timeliness tests for your analogies

Here's an analogy that's the greatest thing since sliced bread (a 1928 innovation): Using the Andy Hardy movies, circa the 1930s and 40s, to explain what's happening in negotiations on health insurance in Washington.

Time to make your analogies more timely? I'm just sayin'.

I've heard that Andy Hardy reference all my life. "You make the costumes. I'll get the old barn. Let's put on a show!" -- a reference to the pair's propensity to wedge a musical number into any ordinary situation. Trouble is, it's about 30 years older than I am. That didn't stop a source from referencing Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in this NPR story on health insurance.  It's telling that reporter Julie Rovner had to complete the reference in her on-air story  for the person using it (a sign he may have used it once too often) and that the entire analogy was dropped from the web version of the story.

Timeliness is a particular issue with analogies that make use of cultural references: movies, foods we eat, sports, celebrities, fashion and more.  Before you polish up an analogy that makes use of a cultural reference, make sure it can pass these 4 timeliness tests:
  1. The age of your youngest audience members:  One of my trainees, a young scientist, wanted to build an analogy using a scene in "Back to the Future," his favorite movie.  Trouble is, he and the movie are about the same age--and in his audience of scientists in their late 20s and early 30s, only half remembered it or had seen it.   (Mickey who? Judy who?)  Do some math to compare your analogy's age with your youngest listeners, or you'll lose the shorthand nature of the analogy and need to explain it. 
  2. The age of your oldest audience members:  Now scale that measurement upward.  If your audience is older, when did they last learn something about your topic?  How much older are they than the reference you're using?  This point is critical when dealing with fast-moving topics like scientific research. Cornelia Dean's very good guide Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public reminds scientists that anyone over 30 did not learn about stem cells in school.  That means more explaining, not a shorthand reference.
  3. The shelf-life of your analogy.  If you're using today's "it girl" (a 1926 reference to actress Clara Bow, by the way), cellphone wonder, or Facebook meme as your analogy, you won't be able to use it for long.  Make a mental note to replace it after a month or two--or come up with a more enduring example.  This week's trending topic on Twitter may not make the cut.
  4. Your interests versus those of the audience.  My young scientist trainee could recite nearly verbatim the second-to-the-last scene of "Back to the Future."  I own the DVD, and I can't do that--so when he started with, "You know how, in the second-to-last scene....?" his ramp up to the analogy was a dead-end for me. (Ah, there's a nice universal analogy.) Your intense interest may or may not be reflected in your audience. Take a step back and consider just how popular your popular-culture reference will be with them.
Analogies are a great tool in media interviews, presentations, speeches, even one-on-one meetings.  Check their timeliness and you'll make the best use of this explanatory tool.

Related posts:  Read more advice on shaping analogies on The Eloquent Woman blog

Looking for more on public speaking and presenting? Sign up for The Eloquent Woman's free monthly newsletter, Step Up Your Speaking. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

weekly writing coach: npr short (story)

Robb Hill/Robb Hill Photo
It's my favorite kind of writing challenge: Time-limited, with a short word count and just enough open-endedness to pique your creativity. National Public Radio's offering round three of its "Three Minute Fiction" contest, in which you write a short story that can be read on-air in three minutes (that's no more than 600 words) and is inspired by the picture at left. You must submit before midnight on February 28, 2010. The winner’s story will be read on NPR, and he or she will receive autographed works by the main judge, author Alan Cheuse.

Even if you don't normally write fiction, take a try at this challenge--and of course, I'll want to know if a reader takes the honors. You'll find important cues here from Cheuse. He notes that some of his own writing about photos involved what happened the day the photo was taken, for example. So you can go with a story set within the photo, or just beyond it, or what led up to it, or something else entirely. And if you’re having trouble picturing what 600 words looks like, just take this post and multiply by three—this post comes in at 200 words exactly.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

role models for your funny (back) bone

Nearly all of my social media profiles at some point describe me as "seriously happy and happily serious," my way of saying I can be intellectual and fun at the same time. In the course of my reading, however, I'm hearing that nonprofit, university and corporate communicators are struggling with how and whether to use humor, particularly in social media. Some examples:

  • University of Texas at Austin communicator Tracy Mueller wrote this thoughtful post, "Searching for Comedy in Higher Education," in which she confesses, "I’m afraid of having a sense of humor in our stories, because I don’t want to offend people or make the school look silly."  She points to the whimsical Yale admissions video, below, that had more than 250,000 views on YouTube in less than two weeks, and New York Times coverage--but garnered lots of negative comments as well. 

  • Mark Rovner, who's speaking at the NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference on using humor in online communications, writes a preview of the session in this blog post and notes, "non-profits come off to the world as humorless, stern schoolmarms, and it hurts the cause....Humor is an extraordinarily powerful tool, even when we’re discussing serious topics. Right now we all suck at it."
Mueller concludes her post by saying, "I’m going to keep trying to find my funny bone in higher education storytelling, but I think I better build up my backbone too."  In developing that funny-back-bone, I want communicators to keep in mind two important points:  1) Those who decry the fun parts of social media are often, in my experience, uncomfortable with the technology and seeking to distance themselves from having to learn it, and 2) They're often not the target audience for the funny video, cartoon or joke. No wonder they don't like/get it.

So take two steps closer to making the world safe for humor, please.  When someone slams a fun social media product, step back and ask them, "Are you the target audience for that admissions video, do you think?"  Then look for graceful ways to promote and support good (and appropriate) humor, just as these role models have done. Better yet, forward these and other examples around so your critics get the idea that all the kids are doing it:

  • California State University, Fullerton librarian Colleen Greene posted this student-produced video about the library's reference services to Posterous with the comment, "This is still my favorite of our library videos. Really creative work by this student!" (She's got a set of social media goals for her library that your organization would do well to emulate.) Here's the video:

  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Sue Burzynski Bullard tweeted about a journalism student who rapped about caps (that's capitalization) in Associated Press style, and shaved an "AP" on his head for the occasion. Here's the video:

You'll find more role models making deft use of humor in social media in these related posts--feel free to cite them when you're making the case for building up your company or organization's funny-back-bone:
(Hat tips to Andrew Careaga and Joe Bonner for pointing me to sources for this post.)

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Friday, February 12, 2010

find & use reporters' new tools

Among the best gifts social media's given to communicators: Most of the new tips, tools and tactics reporters are using to reboot their work are out in the open--which means you have within your reach the resources to figure out what your company or organization should be doing to reboot your media relations. From my vantage point, these are among the most useful sources:
  • Read like a journalist: Mashable has published journalists' guides, written by a reporter, to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.  Even better, read Nieman Lab, which focuses on the nexus between traditional and social media for journalism. 
    • Then, do these 3 things:  Update your news pages with reporter guides to your organization's Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social-media pages....make sure your experts all have social media profiles and pointers to them from your website...share links to your datasets, archives and other online resources on your news or "for reporters" pages.
  • Rethink the journalist:  Some news outlets like USA TODAY have long had "data editors," a combination of reporter, librarian, and researcher.  They focused on finding and analyzing gigantic data sets. Today, the new hybrid is the programmer-journalist.  Here's Mashable's take on how programmer-journalists are changing the news
    • For you to do:  Consider rebooting your communications staff to include a programmer-communicator, someone who has the skills to scour your datasets and archives for resources of interest to journalists--and perhaps build apps to help them access your data....make sure your online offerings include features that mimic what's popular now (word clouds to show what people are searching for or saying in comments or posts, for example), so reporters can see what you're capable of.
  • Start using new tools yourself to understand how reporters are using them:  Here's a Nieman Lab post about a reporter using a private Google Wave to interview other reporters, as a group, for a future blog post.  Haven't yet experimented with using your cellphone or a Flip camera to take video and photos or record interviews? Do it now, and find out what reporters already know. In this Mashable article on 5 essential tools for the mobile journalist, the comfort level of interviewees with cellphones for recording is acknowledged.  From the article: “[I]t was frightening for most people when a full TV crew was on site for an interview,” said Frank Barth Nilsen of, a blog dedicated to mobile journalism. “It’s not so frightening to be interviewed by a man or woman with only a cell phone. It’s small and most people are used to being photographed by a cell phone.”  For more on that score, check out how this journalist uses a smartphone for everything from note-taking to files-on-the-go and reader feedback.
    • One key takeaway: Mobile tools mean stories can be edited and published right on the spot and faster than ever, so rethink your expectations about when breaking news will appear. To help mobile reporters, start working now on optimizing your web offerings for use on mobile phones and devices--and make sure your media training and planning accounts for these new devices and conditions.
Related posts:  How hyperlocal coverage is changing local news

See what today's newsrooms look like

Instead of a news release: 11 options

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Localized releases get a new engine

In every communications operation I've ever worked, the most reviled -- and most effective -- news releases we issued were not those about the sweeping trends or newest breakthroughs or grand plans. That prize was reserved for the dreaded awards release, localized to ensure that at least one news outlet (the winner's local newspaper) would use the contents.

Why dreaded and reviled? Good media relations officers know that awards releases rank at the bottom of the list of what reporters want to receive.  (I know--I've done the surveys.) The sheer number of awards issued (many, ironically, to get attention for a cause or organization) means no news outlet can cover them all at the same time. The information's pro forma, the most basic kind of news release to write.  And if your organization has dozens of awards, writing the releases becomes the moral equivalent of writing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" a few dozen times.  Way to motivate your press staff for releases that don't generate much coverage.  But they were effective, the base hits of the press office, getting good, solid coverage where it mattered.  And by localizing headlines ("Barnstable Man Wins National Chemistry Prize"), they worked wonders in search engines.

Fast forward to now: these stock announcements have become vital content for local newspapers' websites and embraced even more because "hyperlocal" coverage is among the few enduring trends in news.  The change is prompted in part by an automated press release generator described in this blog post from Lost Remote (itself a great source on local news issues).  From the post:
Albany, NY-based readMedia has developed a press release engine that can take a dean’s list from a college with 5,000 names on it and generate a unique “story” for each zip code and pump out hundreds or thousands of individual press releases to local media outlets based on the students in their local areas. A particular town or some zip code can receive a press release from the school about one student....[the company's president says] instead of aggregating content, his company is aggregating the creators of the content. Schools, military and state agencies pay for the readWire service because it allows them to localize and distribute information quickly and efficiently. While still in its early stages, the company is on track to generate 250,000 “stories” this year for the 15,000 zip codes it is currently covering.
It offers newspapers free widgets for their websites that serve up all the awards (or other) announcements for their zip codes.  Some may be horrified by this news generator, but I know more than a few journalists and press officers who will wonder why this couldn't have been invented sooner.   Perhaps you should take a second look at that boring, repetitive content you've got sitting around.  Can it be turned into useful content to share with your audiences or local news outlets?  (A hat tip to Joe Bonner, who pointed me to this item.)

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Case study in content strategy: RBI

If you're like most of my clients, you've got plenty of content--and that's great, since content is the king of social media. But do you have a content strategy?  If not, your online offerings are like that well-packed but unorganized garage/attic/storage bin.

I'm starting a series to look at good examples of social media content strategy, including how organizations are using social media to aid their content strategies. This article in Folio looks at the content strategy for Reed Business Information, publisher of more than 400 business-to-business or trade publications as well as 200 blogs, covering a wide range of industries.  It's a revealing insider's look that you can use to think through your own strategy--and, as a bonus, how you might change your media relations approach to RBI's publications. Here's what I came away with:
  • Understand your audience and the platforms they prefer:  RBI sees value in using social media across all its publications--both to reach them with content and get content ideas--but Dan Blank, its director of content strategy and development, notes, "Some markets are much more mature in their use of social media, requiring a different level of involvement."  Likewise, if an audience or market of yours is best reached another way, social media won't be your channel of choice.
  • Find out which social media platforms can best help you source and share other's content:  For these business publications, it's Twitter, which Blank says "has had the biggest effect in terms of communication, gathering information and connecting with new people." 
  • Keep a calendar of planned content, and use social media to gather content before you need it:  Blank notes that, at RBI, "if a team looks at their editorial calendar for the next three months and identifies a few key topics they are covering, they can now develop those conversations on LinkedIn and Twitter to shape the focus on articles, find sources and get quotes."
If you have a great content strategy case study to share or have figured out how to organize your content-laden attic, leave word in the comments or email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.  I'm eager to share examples in all sectors.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

timing and the pitch: 6 ways to change

Dave Fleet's very good blog on the nexus between public relations and social media asks, "Do the old timing rules still apply for media relations?"  He's referring to a longstanding rule of thumb from what now seems like the Pleistocene era of pitching:  If newspaper reporters are filing stories in the afternoon to meet a 5pm deadline, you shouldn't be calling them after 2:30 or 3, unless you're the subject of the story and someone has just set you on fire.  With multiple deadlines throughout the day, journalists now can rightly say, "I'm always busy," as Fleet points out.  So how does that change your timing?
I agree with Dave that your timing can and should be more fluid--and I think it's your approach that may need the change.  Embrace a mix of time-honored and new tactics and technology with these 6 ways to change your pitch to fit the 24/7 world of breaking news:
  1. You had me at "Are you on deadline?":  I don't say hello. I don't ask how you are today. I say, "Dave, this is Denise Graveline from My Organization. Are you on deadline?"  And invariably, I hear, "Yes, but what do you have?" or "Yes, but go ahead." That's why it's number one on my list of 12 questions to ask reporters.  That will never change. You'd be surprised how few PR folks bother with this--it's more than a nicety.  No matter what time of day it is, this is the question that matters.
  2. Don't dive in with every pitch. Stand in the river:  Think fly-fishing, not spear-fishing.  Get yourself established in the social-media stream, hip boots and all.  Be a patient, available angler, not someone looking to make a splash.  The time this takes will allow you to become an observer of what catches the reporter's eye, and what doesn't.  Remember: As in fly fishing, mostly it doesn't. Keep standing. At various points throughout the year, when the river rises and your topic becomes news, you'll be ready--and then can pitch with confidence.
  3. Be continuously useful.  Share widely all those dull, boring, non-deadline-oriented but essential bits of information you think nobody wants.  Curate collections of related information, even if not new, into background packs online:  A report here, photos there, charts with underlying data, related news coverage from other outlets, and sooner or later you've become the library on your topic.  Share them on social media. Create bundles of blogs on your topic on Google Reader, and let people know how to find them. Tweet your resources on a regular basis. Publish them to your Facebook feed. Create a Twitter list of experts in one area, and cross-publicize it on your website. 
  4. Make sure others recommend you to reporters:  The second-hand source--one recommended by a source already sought by the reporter--should be a coveted position, but it's too often ignored by communicators.  Do you have partners, fellow experts, satellite organizations, company branches, regional headquarters?  Each of them should know how to recommend the others--and you--when reporters call, and know their specialties and contacts.  Don't forget to cultivate this option, and return the favor.
  5. Pitch when you don't have to:  Nothing takes the stress, pain and annoyance out of media pitching for both parties like the pitch that isn't pressured. Do you see a trend developing? Know of an interesting debate that will happen at an upcoming industry meeting?  Have the interesting followup answer to a question posed publicly last year?  Share it, especially if there's nothing clearly in it for you or your organization.
  6. Make better use of in-person opportunities:  Be known as one who connects people, and demonstrate that by doing it. Show up at tweetups, writers' meetings, industry or association conferences. Serve on a committee in a professional group where communicators and journalists mix.  Offer your space for a gathering, chat with everyone, and listen.  The last time I went to such a meeting--with nothing to pitch--I walked away having connected 4 clients with reporters hunting for exactly what they had to offer, just by participating, listening and connecting the dots.  Having trouble making the case for travel? Remind your bean-counters or boss that now, more than ever, the chance to establish contacts in person resonates in an era of all-online-all-the-time.
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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

For Communications Directors newsletter

The don't get caught free monthly newsletter has refocused its look and content.  For Communications Directors is still free and still monthly. Each issue will focus on issues communications operations are facing with content exclusive to newsletter readers in advance of its appearance on this blog, along with extensive links to resources and additional reading.  Public speaking content will move to the Step Up Your Speaking newsletter, a free monthly analog to The Eloquent Woman blog; each issue of that newsletter will tackle one public speaking challenge.  You can subscribe to either or both newsletters at the link below:

I welcome your ideas, requests and feedback on this new newsletter. A special note:  If you are a current subscriber to the don't get caught newsletter, you'll get your first issue of For Communications Directors automatically.  After that, you'll need to subscribe at the link above or box at right in order to continue your subscription.

Monday, February 08, 2010

weekly writing coach: backwards, 4 ways

Too many writers try to begin at the beginning, when there's a real case to be made for starting at the end and working your way backwards.  It's a technique that helps you see your writing differently, and it works well for these writing tasks:
  • Getting started:  Some writers get too anxious over crafting a strong start, when the rest of the text--those obligatory paragraphs, or lists of details already known, or concluding remarks--could be done first.  If starting a piece of writing proves daunting, or you want to get the basics done quickly, start at the end.
  • Shaking up your style:  You also may want to shake up your style by starting with the last paragraph and working your way backwards, for a new view of your writing patterns. Yes, this will slow you down, enough for you to realize what you do over and over, from a different vantage point.
  • Proofreading:  My time-honored standby is to read every word from the end to the start.  Proofing backwards forces you to consider each word as a unit and helps you avoid skimming.
  • Editing to catch variety and repetition:  Want to make sure sentence lengths are varied within a paragraph, or paragraph lengths are switched up throughout the text? Look at them back-to-front.  While you're at it, you may be able to pick up on repetitive usage more readily.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

where to catch me: with scientists

In February, I'm facilitating another day-long Communicating Science workshop for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation, on Thursday, February 18, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego. There are a few slots left for this intensive, fun and hands-on workshop for scientists if you pre-register here. Go to the same link if you want to register for the future workshops March 22 in Austin, Texas, or April 29 in Boulder, Colorado.

While I usually warn the participants that we'd need much more than a day to thoroughly cover communicating science with public audiences, it's always heartening to hear how much more confident participants feel once they've had a chance to learn, ask questions and practice in a supportive environment. Here's what some participants have said following the workshops:
  • I went straight from wearing a suit and meeting with Congressional aides to wearing field pants and talking to town managers and kids on the beach! The communication tips and message that you (and the workshop participants) helped me develop was extremely useful. After the workshop, I felt much more confident talking to people about my research and why they should care about funding science
  • I realized that after 25 years I still have problems explaining what I do in a brief, easy to understand fashion. At our lab open house, we have debated presenting what we do in a scientific fashion or as entertainment, and I think now we need to simplify the message, seek more feedback from people that come, and use the new electronic media to at least advertise the event. Presenting the science without considering the audience has been our main mistake.
  • I found the message crafting exercises to be most useful. Not only was it useful to think critically about my own work, the video exercise allowed us to craft messages for our colleagues. This exercise helped me to try out the skills learned on a topic that I wasn’t as familiar on.
  • [I found most useful] the "defining your audience" section, where we learned not to underestimate our public or overestimate our own knowledge on a subject.
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Monday, February 01, 2010

weekly writing coach: iPad adjectives

You know I'm an advocate of excising your adjectives (and adverbs), to tighten your writing and make it sing.  Here's your cautionary chuckle for the week: they've taken the Apple iPad announcement presentations and reduced them to their strongest components, all of which seem to be extraordinary, stunning and....well, you get the idea.  I often suggest writers find ways to edit out adjectives and adverbs if they need to save space, but in this case the speakers would've been left with little to say...