Tuesday, June 28, 2011

But for the apostrophe, it was a perfect lunch

Any student in the Creative Communications program at Red River College, where I teach PR, will tell you we're a little bit nuts about accuracy and grammar in writing. Whether you're majoring in journalism, advertising or public relations, it's pretty tough to build a successful career if you can't write properly.

Misspell a proper name in our program and your assignment gets an "F," no matter how brilliant it is otherwise. Sound harsh? Maybe... but not if you're a working communications professional. I've thrown more than one resume/cover letter into the recycling bin after seeing the company name misrepresented: if you can't spell the name of the company correctly in that high-stakes document, I'm guessing you're not that careful on the job, either.

In the PR major, every typo or glaring grammatical error costs you 10%. Guess how long it takes PR majors to dramatically cut down on the number of grammatical errors in their assignments in my class. [Answer: not long.]

Why does it matter so much?

In our business, credibility is vital, and clean writing contributes to credibility. Whether you realize it or not, errors in grammar and spelling send a message to your audiences, and that message is "I'm not really polished, and maybe not as professional as I should be."  A journalist who commits grammatical errors will raise the ire of his/her editor (if the editor is worth his/her salt, that is); a newspaper or news site containing more than the occasional error will be harder to believe than one offering accurate, polished writing.

In PR, our employers often count on us to write and to be the last set of eyes on organizational documents before they're released to the public; if our writing is strewn with errors, the company's image takes a hit.

Today's lunch

Today, I was treated to a delicious lunch at one of Winnipeg's finer restaurants. I had only been there once before, years ago, shortly after it opened: it's a high-end steakhouse, and as I remember it, featured a staff member at dinnertime offering guests "le tour du boeuf," a platter displaying the impressive cuts of beef on offer that evening, complete with a full explanation of their exceptional quality. It was pretentious, but then, pretentious can be fun (especially if you're in what Oprah calls a chi-chi-poo-poo restaurant with a gift certificate). 

It was a lovely environment, and my husband and I were both very much enjoying our little taste of the high life for an evening.

But then, it happened.

As I read the menu, I noticed glaring errors in the French, and the spell was instantly broken. As I remember it, it was like the needle being dragged across a vinyl LP mid-song: what had moments ago felt like a special evening in a special environment now had the feel of little kids playing dress-up in their parents' formal clothes.

Fast forward a decade or so, to today, at lunch.

I had recounted this story to my friend when we made the date, and we'd laughed together about it (she's a PR guy too, and an excellent writer). Today, we sat on the beautiful terrace on a gorgeous day, and enjoyed a delicious lunch together. A duck and her ducklings waddled along the grass past the terrace. And the menu didn't contain a single error (that I noticed, anyway). I greatly enjoyed my lunch, and vowed not to wait so long before coming back the next time.

Shortly before we left, I walked to the ladies' room laughing at myself for having been so anal about the typos in the French.

And then, having reached my destination, I stopped and stared at the engraved brass sign on the door.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are PR and marketing the same thing?

I've been hearing some debate on Twitter about what PR is and isn't.

A few years ago, The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) brought some of its leaders together to produce a definition of PR. Here's what they said:

Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.

(Flynn, Gregory & Valin, 2008)
Some of the conversations I catch online revolve around the notion that PR and marketing are the same thing. As many industry "outsiders" seem to see it, PR is about getting attention for a company or its product, or apologizing for problems, to facilitate sales.

And it is that -- but not only that.

The "PR is a function of marketing" definition only addresses the "realize organizational goals" part of our professional objective and commitment, where the organizational goal we're talking about is generating sales. While marketing may achieve mutual understanding between a company and its audiences in the pursuit of that, marketing isn't focused on the public interest: its job is to create and promote products people will want to buy. 
So PR isn't about money, it's about the public interest?
It's not a one-or-the-other situation.

It's a fact: companies exist to make money. And PR functions in for-profit companies play a major role in supporting marketing (through publicity, customer advocacy, employee communications, etc.). But our focus is a bit different: in PR, it's not primarily about selling the benefits of the product, it's about creating and nurturing relationships that will make customers want to buy from the company. That's why mutual understanding and the public interest are central to the practice of PR: people prefer to do business with companies that treat them with respect.
For example, I'm aware of a business that sells what many consider an excellent product, but whose founder and CEO is widely reputed to be a terrible person.
Let's call this company Bob's Danishes, and the founder/CEO, Mr. Bob. Bob's Danishes produces what many people consider excellent danishes: they are tasty, they are appealing-looking, and they are made of high-quality ingredients. Mr. Bob's marketing folks work hard to get the message out about Bob's Danishes, and talk all about their high quality and appetizing characteristics. They create great advertising, promotional and merchandising campaigns, which target the audiences most likely to enjoy Bob's Danishes with exactly the right messaging to draw them to Bob's Danishes stores.

But while they have been very successful, there's also a significant segment of their ideal target market that won't go near a Bob's Danish store, and will tell anyone who'll listen why not: because from what they understand from media reports and the grapevine, Mr. Bob is a first-class jerk, who treats employees and anyone he feels "beneath" him like garbage.
Marketing can pound that hold-out segment of the target population with brilliant product advertising and deep discounts all it likes: this public won't budge, because they don't want to support Mr. Bob.
That's where PR comes in.
PR's role in the for-profit environment does support the ultimate goal of achieving sales, but not by flogging the product: our role is to give the customer reasons to want to do business with us.
Now, if Mr. Bob is actually the jerk he is reputed to be, the PR challenge is huge. PR practitioners who practice professionally and who adhere to codes of standards like those of The Canadian Public Relations Society and the International Association of Business Communicators won't lie about him, and (if they're willing to work for him at all) will have to focus on creating goodwill in the community through initiatives like a generous community relations program, hoping that the good done in the community will help people look beyond their boss' personal failings.
If Mr. Bob is misunderstood, the PR person has the opportunity to change that, so the company's publics feel good about buying from Bob's Danishes.
Even in for-profit companies, PR is about relationships before sales.
More than once in my career, I intervened in organizational activities that I felt could damage the company's goodwill in the community.  To be clear, these planned activities were never dishonest or dangerous or anything like that -- but they were geared at generating sales with one segment of the customer base in a way I felt would damage the company's relationship with another.
PR practitioners in for-profit companies do this all the time. Sometimes it's simply a matter of killing an initiative that is too potentially damaging; others, it's about getting together with the publics we think might have a problem with the initiative, to seek and address their input before moving forward.  
I don't want to make it sound like I'm saying PR is altruistic and not economically-motivated: in for-profit companies, it is about making money. If we don't make sales, we don't exist, period. But if our customers don't want to buy from us because they think our company does bad things for the community or the environment or its employees, no marketing campaign will make the sale.
The PR function is about creating and maintaining healthy, two-way relationships with a company's publics; we work toward mutual understanding and the public interest, because doing that will help us meet our organizational goals, whatever they may be -- including sales.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Choosing which hairs to split

I was honoured to receive a teaching award from my PR students at their convocation this week - and as it turned out, the award provided a "teachable moment."

Red River College's College Relations department interviewed me for a short bio in the convocation program, which said that I had joined the faculty in 2008, "after serving 10 years at MTS Allstream, where she was Director of Corporate Communications." This is correct - I did serve as Director of Corporate Communications at MTS Allstream; and between MTS Allstream and its holding company, I did serve there for 10 years.

But I didn't serve as Director of Corporate Communications at MTS Allstream for 10 years, which is how that statement was understood by some. The College Relations writer and I actually discussed this specific sentence before it was printed, because I wanted to ensure it was accurate.

I started out as a Public Affairs Coordinator at Manitoba Telephone System in 1996; in the decade that followed, I was promoted, my title changed, and the company's name changed, too. All that detail, though, doesn't really matter to most people, we figured - so we gave the length of my tenure, and my title when I left.

My first call upon realizing how the sentence had been understood was to June Kirby, who was the Director of Corporate Communications at MTS from 1996-2000, and my boss at the time - I didn't want her thinking I had tried to take credit for her accomplishments. 

Her reaction? "Oh come on, kiddo, even I didn't read it that way! No-one will care!" (I love it that she still calls me "kiddo.")

Of course, I hope she's right - but I wanted to set the record straight regardless.

Finding the balance between efficiency and clarity in your writing

I spoke with the writer in College Relations this morning before writing this blog post, and we laughed a bit about how we had tried to make the sentence accurate while still straightforward... and obviously didn't do it well enough. 

He said he had considered adding something like "where she held a number of positions ending with..." but in the end, felt it over-complicated the sentence - and likely wouldn't matter. I had entertained the same thought, and had come up with the same conclusion. After all, the sentence was accurate as written... as long as you understood what we meant.

And that's the key. Whose fault is it, usually, if someone misunderstands what I meant? Mine. As writers, it's our job to ensure our messages are communicated clearly, with as little room as possible for misunderstanding.  

In the end, I don't know that anyone but me cares - but it's a good lesson just the same.  If you split hairs too much, your writing may be lumpy - but if you don't split them enough, you risk inaccuracy. Find the right balance, and your writing will be at its most effective.