Category Archives: pr

Corporate writing: some “rules” which are actually not correct

A week or so ago I hosted a session on corporate writing for the Henshall Centre. It’s a good gig and the people were terrific. They suffered from one thing, though: they’d believed everything they learned at school.

A lot of people do. Why would these teachers lie to you? Answer: because they fell for the same old guff as well. So here is a handful of stuff you may have thought was correct but isn’t:

  1. -ise is English, -ize is American. So many people have been brought up to believe, but not if they check the Oxford English Dictionary in which -ize is perfectly acceptable. Your use of it should depend on your house style, not whether someone happens to think it’s correct or not (NB: if the person who signs the cheques says it’s wrong, it’s wrong – I’ve done bits of writing and had a client send them back for “American spelling” and just changed them. The customer is always right).
  2. I before E except after C (and when the sound’s ‘ee’). Draw yourself up to your full height (that’s hEIght) add some weight (wEIght, you get the idea) and accept that there are actually more “ei” words than “ie” words in the English language, or so I once read.
  3. You should never split an infinitive. Good grief, did they make Star Trek and its “to boldly go” for nothing?
  4. Every sentence must have a subject, verb and object. Right. But “right” made sense there so it’s a sentence. Most sentences should have a subject, verb and object, and preferably in that order. They don’t all have to.
  5. You should always write one, two, three, four…until you get to 10, which is written in figures. That is actually a little like point 1 – it’s all about house style, and as long as it’s consistent it should be fine.

Anyone else got any confessions of things they thought were rules which turn out not to be?

Do you want to sharpen your writing skills? My writing skills course at the Henshall Centre is on their site here, see you at one sometime?

Writers and speakers: If it’s not yours you can’t use it

I’ve been part of a discussion on Facebook in which someone ghost-wrote something for a client, then found it appearing under someone else’s name entirely without the client’s consent. She has taken action and stuff is happening, because she stood her ground.

A number of people think they can use items that are already on the Web because it’s in the public domain, right?

Er…wrong. Copyright isn’t consistent around the world but one thing you can’t do is just help yourself.

UK and Europe

If you’re in the UK, you’re covered by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act ˚of 1988. This means that if you create something it’s yours. This blog post is mine, and as a jobbing freelance anything I write is mine by default unless I sign the rights over, even if someone pays for it.

People sometimes doubt this is correct but it is; consider wedding photographers, whose pics you are not allowed to produce because they are protected by copyright even when you paid the snapper hundreds.

The EU is slightly different as every country has a variation on the same laws; ultimately they all date back to the Berne Convention. All of this stuff predates the Web, of course, and presumably there will some day need to be some legislation that actually takes account of electronic publication. Someone out there has made two of my books available electronically; I don’t know where they are so it’s tricky to do anything about it.

Made in America

One complication that follows from the Web is that different laws apply in different regions. There is no reason, for example, to expect any European laws to apply on another continent. Lawyers will be able to unpick the American copyright laws; my layman’s understanding is that the bit that applies to writers is that until 1989 it was important to assert rights, in other words to put a (c) notice at the end. This didn’t apply in the UK. It can still be useful to do it in the US although it’s not mandatory (I am grateful to Steve Addison for correcting the first version of this post, which incorrectly stated that the ruling was still current – here is a Wikipedia entry on the subject).

This can still be important. I once had someone’s rights queried in a book I co-wrote because we’d credited them rather than their company as co-copyright-holders. The US lawyers thought this quite serious and pointed to the copyright assertion; I pointed out that the book was published in Europe rather than America and they were surprised to learn that copyright was automatic (this happened two years ago and I have left the reference in, even though the copyright assertion is optional in the US as per the paragraph above). After that, the issue went away.

It’s also possible that American bloggers etc. will see your work and copy part of it, not realising it’s in copyright because in their territory they may think it would need a copyright assertion at the end.

Fair use, common sense

In British law there is no such thing as “fair use”, which confuses people. I’ve known people who’ve had paragraphs lifted and attributed to them without their knowledge and when they’ve objected a British person has cited “fair use” – it doesn’t actually exist over here, it’s an American construct that applies to American law.

I also happen to think it’s a rather good one. It’s insane that a decade or so ago when I wrote “This Is Social Media” I had to clear every quote and reference with everyone, when I was only using a few sentences.This is where in my mind it all gets watered down a little; the strict letter of the law doesn’t allow for any repetition over here and that just doesn’t reflect the way communication happens at the moment (technically quoting a Tweet is a breach of copyright; you begin to see how unworkable this would be if we tried to apply it rigorously?)

So to my mind there’s an element of common sense to be taken into account. By all means use paragraphs or as much as instinct tells you in a longer piece, attribute and link where appropriate and someone would have to be very petty-minded to take exception.

Lift an entire piece wholesale as happened to my colleague and you can expect trouble. At the very least, when it becomes common knowledge, your reputation will be shot to pieces.

Oh, and if you want to lift my entire book and put it online, you’re technically a thief. However, anyone who takes a copy of an almost-ten-year-old book on social media and expects to build a business using it is technically a mug as well, so whatever…

Do you need help writing for your business? I can help – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer – before assuming any specific element of the above is correct, get proper legal advice if your career depends on it.


MC-ing and speaking: it’s a matter of time

What’s the most important thing an MC can bring to your event? Humour? Some sort of spark? There’s actually something a lot more important.

Years of experience tell me that if the speakers are any good, my most important duty is to bring the event in on time. I found this particularly at an event at which I MC’d last week, on contact centres. One of the panels had to be scrapped because two people didn’t show up. If they hadn’t already seen the agenda, the audience would never have known.

Here are a few tips for making an event run to time:

  • Have an emergency speech in your back pocket. Last week I knew one of the other speakers would be highly knowledgeable so we stretched his Q and A session and also had a longer lunch break to cover the absence of the panel; the audience went away happy.
  • Brief speakers in advance so that they understand they mustn’t overrun. Years ago I was speaking at a conference and the guy before me went 15 minutes over time, just before lunch. He even said “I know I’m over time but this is important”. Not to the audience it isn’t, matey. They have expectations and they are much more important than us in a conference. I cut a bit out of my own presentation, we finished on time and the audience and organisers were pleased.
  • Also brief the MC. I was once speaking at a very swish restaurant where the fish starters were going to be served at 1.00 precisely. I had my timings carefully mapped out and the MC, in fact the MD of my client, decided to get everyone in the room to introduce themselves. This took 40 minutes. I did what I could and invited the staff to serve while I was speaking but they were reluctant; talk on the way out wasn’t about my scintillating speech but about how surprising it was that such an establishment would serve such dried-up fish. Seriously, ruin people’s lunch and they’ll remember it a lot longer than they remember your messages.
  • My speaker friend Graham Jones once advised me that the speakers and MC were less important than the coffee. This isn’t 100 per cent right but we’re certainly less important than the networking opportunities, which is why a lot of people bother to turn up to our events at all. Respect those breaks at all costs and you should be fine.

After all that, by all means put the humour, the spark, whatever you want to call it, into your presentation or MC-ing. Just don’t forget the people you’re there for and what they need from you.

Do you need a professional host for your event? I can help – contact me by emailing here.

Media training: in business or in politics, don’t knock the competition

This is not a political blog but there are two areas I would like to highlight about the general election. Reassuringly, standard practice is right in both cases.

The first, as the headline suggests, is that slating the competition never works well. Today we wake up to a general election result in which there will be a hung parliament. Among the many errors made by prime minister (as I type) Theresa May was the notion of attacking her enemy too directly.

He was going to “go naked into the negotiating chamber” over Brexit. He was going to “sell out the union” between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Previously David Cameron had told him to “put on a suit” and “for goodness’ sake, man, go”.

This was poor for two reasons. First, it looks vindictive and unprofessional. In business it’s the same. Years ago I worked on a trade publication in the computer industry and every three months or so, two software companies would send us conflicting reports about who was ahead in the market. They’d exchange unpleasantries, we’d write a thoroughly entertaining story…and the readers would hold the software companies in complete contempt. They didn’t want their suppliers focused on each other, they wanted them focused on service.

The second reason not to criticise the competition too heavily is that you manage expectations downward. This makes it simpler for them to exceed expectations. Frankly, all Corbyn had to do was turn up on time with his trousers on the right way around and he’d pleasantly surprise anyone who’d been listening to May.

She sounded amateurish and vindictive and set the bar low so he couldn’t help but outperform it. She also set her own bar so high that a result of Conservative 318 seats, Labour 261, ends up looking like a moral victory for Labour. That takes some doing.

So what about Corbyn?

It’s beyond doubt that he had a rocky start. Footage of him stomping away from a Sky News journalist has mysteriously vanished from YouTube; he’s also been snappy, grouchy and relatively recently he staged a “full” train when there were seats available.

He’s not the slickest performer. However, during the election campaign he’s smartened himself up. He’s worn better suits, he’s engaged with people and journalists. He’s prepared answers but not to the extent of ignoring questions.

In spite of people saying he’s different, he’s actually swallowed the entire rule book on media training – or at least the best bits. The friendly, sometimes self-depreciating Corbyn was always going to win friends if not supporters, unlike the robotic May with the “strong and stable” and “there’s no magic money tree” phrases, no matter how much she may have believed them.

There’s more to any election than presentation. You don’t elect someone because you’d like to share a pizza with them but because you trust them with the difficult decisions. However, presentation and media engagement plays its part, and on this occasion, quite unexpectedly, Corbyn turned out to be the more polished performer.

Press questions: be ready for the obvious

I’ve avoided discussion of the general election in the UK on this site for the most part – anyone who wants to see me ranting about it is welcome to check Facebook out. However, there have been a few lessons to learn in terms of communication.

One of these, as I’ve hinted in the the headline, is to be prepared for the obvious. So many politicians of so many different parties have missed this. Here is a four-leader, five-politician guide as to stuff that’s gone wrong – and in italics, where businesses can learn from them:

  • Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott: Know your figures. If you’re going to launch a policy, know them even better. If you have a notebook and an ipad with you, have them set/bookmarked so that you’re able to find them very quickly indeed. That’s so basic it’s embarrassing. (If you’re leader you have a better excuse for not knowing all the figures offhand than if you’re shadowing a specific department, but only just). In business, a journalist is bound to ask you for some figures. Have them to hand and know what you’re prepared to announce and what you’re not. But not by much.
  • Theresa May: Make sure everyone is au fait with a policy, whether it’s the so-called dementia tax or other taxes. Over the weekend Theresa May said taxes might rise and Sir Michael Fallon, widely tipped as a new chancellor of the exchequer, said they wouldn’t. Get your story straight before going public – it’s not as if someone else surprised you by calling the election. In business, if your colleagues are briefing a differing viewpoint from that of the company it can look bad – try to be consistent.
  • Tim Farron: People in this country have always obsessed about sexuality. You’ve been known in the past to abstain from some votes on the subject and are also known to be a Christian, a faith that is rightly or wrongly perceived as anti-gay. You’re going to get asked about this. When someone asked whether you thought gay sex was a sin in the House of Commons you said “I do not”. When journalists ask you, though, you say “I’ve already answered that”. It looks slippery when “I do not”, even if you just repeat it, wouldn’t. Don’t worry about repeating an answer as long as it’s true. In business there are some issues that won’t go away – if you’ve done nothing, be prepared to repeat that message rather than show impatience with reporters – they might personally be asking for the first time even if you’ve heard it seven times that week.
  • Paul Nuttall: If you’re going onto a panel of leaders, remember everybody’s name. Write them down if you have to. Frankly, mate, your party’s on its knees already without telling us that the leader thinks everyone is called Natalie. In business, although you don’t have to repeat a journalist’s name every thirteen seconds like some interviewees do because they think it looks sincere, getting the name right at least once is positive.

Do you need help with your media engagement? I can help – call me on 07973 278780.

How to stop me killing your pitch

Another day, another brutal murder of a public relations person’s pitch. Actually I killed two yesterday: one on the phone and one by email.

I’m not talking about the poorly-targeted piece of nonsense that told me about sales of “sex robots” in the UK – wrong sort of technology for my market I’m afraid. Nor any of the other irrelevancies: if you want to tell me which beer goes better with a barbecue that’s fine, just don’t expect me to write anything as I’m focused on technology and business.

No, these could have been relevant but I scared them off. And I did it with one question.

Ask yourself this first

The question was simple. Without disclosing any details of the pitches – it wouldn’t be fair – I asked the first person by email, “which of my outlets did you think this would fit into”?

That was 10.00am. By 5pm there was no response and I realised there wasn’t going to be one.

Later the same day I was in a supermarket and the phone rang. Hello Guy, is it a good time to talk, they asked: well, I’m in Sainsbury’s, I said…they laughed and carried on regardless.

(Mental note: PR people always think I’m joking when I say I’m in a supermarket, driving or whatever. Must be the way I tell them).

So she pitches – and I say: I’m not sure which of my outlets this would go into.

She falters, stammers, says “OK, nice talking to you” and goes away.

A question is not a dismissal

There may well have been something in the story or stories, I’ll never know. The thing is, I’d have been pleased to read and listen if they’d actually answered. Someone might well have noticed something about the publications for which I write that had escaped me, and if I end up with a commission that’s great – it’s how I earn my living.

Unfortunately they hadn’t thought through to the obvious questions. “Who’s it for” doesn’t just mean the journalist, it means think about the reader. If either of those people had given the matter any thought they could have come straight back at me, to our mutual advantage.

I can’t see that either of us has won as it is.

Do you need help with your PR pitching skills? I can help – fill in the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Don’t pitch me a client, pitch me a headline

I led two masterclasses on pitching yesterday, at a PR company I won’t disclose because my clients are always confidential. One thing became apparent during the session: everyone wanted to pitch their client to me.

Which sounds perfectly logical. But it’s not.

One of the delegates came out with something like this: “Hi, I’m calling with a photo-opportunity. My client is coming to the UK and will be making a speech to his/her employees, and you’d be welcome to come along with a photographer.

Her colleagues congratulated her on the pitch and her manner was indeed superb. The pitch, however, would most likely have died on its backside.

The pitch isn’t about you, it isn’t about me

The problem with the pitch above is twofold. First, it’s all about the client. It doesn’t have to be about me, whatever some journalists tell you, but it’s absolutely got to be about my readers. Consider it again: there’s a photo-opportunity (which sounds a bit manufactured anyway), there’s a chief executive and there’s a speech.

I know nothing about the content or whether it’s going to be relevant to my readers at all at this stage.

The second problem is related to that first one: the delegate had actually pitched me the process, the mechanics of what his or her client was doing, and stopped there. You get limited time with a journalist on the phone. Why would you focus on the process rather than the content? (Come to think of it, why do so many people phone me and start “I’m just giving you a call”? I know that bit already…)

Start at the end

Here’s the way I’d do it. Start from the final output you’re looking for. Imagine you’ve prompted me to write an article. It’s in the paper, on the web or wherever, and you’re happy with the coverage and the headline.

Ask yourself: what does the story say? And what’s the headline?

Now back in the real world, pick up the phone and pitch me that headline. Never mind the process, never mind that your client has done a survey of 3000 clients, never mind that your organisation is in the top ten widget suppliers to the small business market in the UK – that’s background.

Lead in with the story. Tell me that your client has found that half the people who believe they understand IT security still have the default passwords on their phones. Tell me that your business has enabled someone to increase productivity by 30 per cent, meaning they’ve avoided making redundancies. Tell me why someone’s life is better because of your client.

In fact, just tell me the story. If it’s a good one I may well be interested.

Do you need help pitching to journalists? My pitching masterclass is ready to go – fill in the form below or call me on 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.