Writing as a Core Competency

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I occasionally encounter young public relations professionals who don't like to write or who otherwise deem editorial skills as not being crucial to their success. So I was glad to garner definitive agreement when I asked colleagues if, indeed, they view writing as a central element of our profession.

“Writing should be a core competency for any business professional - but especially for a professional who makes a living by communicating thoughts and ideas; anyone who thinks otherwise needs to find a new line of work,” said Mark Q. Dvorak, vice president in the Atlanta office of GolinHarris, a leading global public relations firm.

Chadwick Boyd, president and CEO of Lovely & Delicious Enterprises, Inc., a global production company for branded content, concurred, noting that “being able to concisely express a client’s market position and carefully choose language that appropriately represents the client’s brand is key to being successful in today’s market.”

Writing and New Media

“We need to be able to edit ourselves as we write - especially in our new media age where getting information out in just minutes is often crucial to capturing and getting the attention of our audience,” Boyd said. “Writing is one way that we get people’s attention; when we show that we ‘get’ a story and how it can work for producers and editors, they appreciate that and become engaged more quickly.”

In fact, he said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. “Writing is even more important with new media because usually you have to make your point even more quickly than you do in traditional media. Sharp, concise, and compelling writing is critically important.”

Susan Barnes, APR, Fellow PRSA, agrees that writing is more important than ever for public relations practitioners. “It’s much easier to misunderstand intent and tone in an email, on a webpage, or in a blog unless the writing is clear, grammatical, and concise,” said Barnes, who is a senior consultant with Lighthouse Counsel, which services nonprofit clients.

In fact, she said, “spend one semester on the college newspaper to learn to write like a journalist. You’ll never regret it, and it may help you keep your job someday.”

Polishing Your Prose

“Building strong writing skills is done the same way you exercise and develop a strong body: you must write regularly and often, just as physical exercise requires regular repetition,” said Sandra W. Plant, APR, who recently retired after 34 years as a public relations practitioner and manager.

“To build strong writing skills you have to write a lot, and you have to read a lot,” Dvorak said. “Doing both will help you develop your own writing style; I’ve found that I fail miserably when I try to copy someone else’s style too closely and usually end up scrapping what I’ve started and instead write it in my own way.”

“Read good writers,” Barnes said. “Read and commit to heart Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Learn the [Associated Press] Stylebook.” A turning point, she said, came in her first basic news-writing course at the University of Tennessee. “[I] learned to write in short sentences, short, block paragraphs, active voice and how to identify a lead. It’s never failed me in anything I’ve written from news releases to my master’s thesis.”

“On my first real PR job, I thought everything I wrote had to be a masterpiece,” Plant said. “I agonized over every word and phrase. Soon I learned to look for approved language that had already been tweaked by management and the client. Sure, I could add good information and restructure the approved language, but I found there was no need to reinvent the wheel on each project.”

Another secret is in the editing, these public relations professionals said, whether it’s your own editing or help from others.

“Today, writing and editing go hand in hand - together they show how strategy and writing intersect,” Boyd said. PR veteran Plant added that “if you have an organized mind and can write well, you can also edit well.”

However, she also said, “you become a real professional when you learn that input from others is necessary. I learned very quickly that a comment or correction on my writing was not to be taken personally. Listening to input from others and adjusting accordingly is just good business. I have never done anything that was not improved by input from others.”

“Everyone needs an editor,” Dvorak said, “no matter how strong a writer you think you are. A good editor serves two purposes: to catch the obvious errors, but also to tell you whether you’re delivering the messages you set out to deliver.”

“Lots of good editors are really good writers,” Barnes said, “and lots of good writers are really lousy editors. You always want someone else to look at what you’ve written - even the best writers have blind spots. And a dispassionate editor isn’t in love with all of your words like you are.”

The Final Word

“Writing is a key function even when you are working with graphics and financial data,” Plant said, “because the ability to organize the facts and the message is the secret to good writing and makes any project better.”

“Even if you’re writing a memo to employees or an email to the boss, you have to convey your message so that it’s understood in the context in which it’s sent,” Barnes said, adding, “PR people should avoid writing for the boss and write for the audience. It can get you fired, but at least you will have done the right thing!”

Perhaps that’s the inspiration behind Dvorak’s final salvo: “Without a doubt, the fact that I can write helps me sleep at night, because I know there will always be work for me somewhere.” That may be reason enough to polish your writing skills.

About the Author

B. Andrew “Drew” Plant is an Atlanta-based writer and public relations consultant. He previously worked in corporate communications, last serving as vice president of communications and client services for a national niche financial services firm.

Drew’s prose has been winning awards for more than 20 years, including recognition from the American Federation of Advertising, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), and the Society for Technical Communication. He is a member of PRSA. (And, yes, the Sandra Plant quoted in the above article is related; she is Drew’s mother.)

When not writing for profit or fun, Drew often puts his editorial and PR talents to work for social justice and political causes. He can be contacted through his website, www.bandrewplant.com.
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