Don’t let me ask this question

When I’m writing something for the press there’s a question I ask myself after every paragraph. That question is: “Why am I telling them this?”

If I can’t answer that question then I abandon the paragraph and start again. Frankly if I can’t see the point of a section of an article I can’t expect the readers to do it for me. And yet so many people don’t seem to worry; this is particularly true of some sections (by no means all) of the PR community.

If I’m reading your press release and wondering why you sent it to me, you’ve frankly lost me and I’m going to be hard to get back.

Reasons I may not be interested

There can be many reasons I won’t be interested in a particular release and many are easy to eliminate. Here are some of the more frequent offenders:

  • The poorly-targeted release: Just before Christmas I had a lavishly-illustrated press release on hand-designed-and-painted silk scarves for women. To the right journalist this had everything including images. To a business journalist writing about SMEs, Outsourcing and a number of related areas like me, it was of no interest whatsoever. The fact that someone has “journalist” in their job title doesn’t mean you can send them just any old thing.
  • The poorly-written press release: These are in the minority, fortunately. I still get the poorly-spelled and punctuated release from time to time and I try to rise above them. More seriously I receive releases in which the main point isn’t clear from the headline, the thrust of the release is buried in the third or fourth paragraph or the point of sending it in the first place just isn’t clear.
  • The release is of interest only to the stakeholders: A good PR person is a consultant as well as someone who just does the bidding of the client. So if you’re aiming to be a good consultant, please do tell your client that their new regional manager or their ten per cent uplift in sales is interesting mostly to the people working for them. Outside the business is anyone really going to care who heads up the sales team as long as they don’t cause a problem?
  • The release with no point: Sometimes I get sent a release that just tells me a client has an opinion on something. There is no effort to find out whether I might be writing about the topic in question, I’m just offered opinions. I suspect the client is standing over the hapless PR person insisting the release be sent; these releases fail the “why am I telling them this?” question immediately.

A lot of these issues are caused by clients who think that if they pay a PR person, coverage will follow immediately. They are compounded by the journalists moving about so much: yes, I get a lot of poorly targeted stuff but no, I wouldn’t particularly want the job of keeping tabs on all of the thousands of freelancers like me in the industry. We get commissions in the short term that might well leave us appearing to be specialists in something we’re not. That’s the job, though, and the PR community can’t afford to let itself off the hook because keeping track appears a bit difficult.

So before you send your next release out, ask why you’re telling the journalist this stuff. If you can’t answer, you might do well to redraft it a bit.

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Do you need a “hook”?

When I was learning journalism I was always told that a feature, news story or anything else needed a hook. It absolutely had to have something for the reader to hang it on – a reason for them to read on.

Mostly this meant some sort of topicality. Lately this has changed. I still see journalists on various social media platforms complaining that something isn’t timely, it doesn’t seem relevant to anything happening immediately and that it’s otherwise unhelpful.

OK, so far so good – but what’s happening out in the slightly more real world?

Social media

What’s happening is that although people are still reading news they’re also reading a whole load of timeless stuff. Not so much the celebrity interview that purports to be timeless but we all know it’s based on the release of a movie or book, but the genuinely timeless stuff. How many blog entries have you opened recently that consisted of lists? “Five mistakes made by marketers”, “Three ways to attract more followers”, you know the sort of thing. The smart money says the readers love lists, although I have my doubts myself (maybe people are wising up to click-getting titles or maybe I’m just not very good at composing lists).

Or they consist of a title with a question – if you’re reading this blog the chances are that you clicked attracted by just such a question.


I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that the problem isn’t actually topicality and perhaps it never was. The problem is that some people send out press releases, blogs, social media entries or whatever they’re writing, with no regard to whether they’re all that interesting. There have always been elements of this, even before the online world. It’s blandness, not whether or not something is relevant right now, that’s the enemy of good content. You still need a hook to get the reader interested, but it doesn’t have to be something desperately current any more. Interesting and relevant will do.

So how many of your efforts lately have fulfilled that criteria – and have any of them been fillers just because you thought you ought to send something out, maybe even with a news story vaguely tied in?

Do you need to sharpen your writing skills up? I can help – contact me by clicking here.

Corporate writing: You want to use my name?

A colleague asked a question the other day. Like a lot of journalists he does the odd white paper and writes the odd blog post for other people; these normally go out under someone else’s name. It’s standard ghost writing, nothing extraordinary going on.

Only…he found later that the client, or the client’s client, was putting his name onto it without telling him. Given that it was commercial rather than independent, and he has a reputation as being a bit investigative, he was slightly perturbed. The end client didn’t see the problem.

We have our brands, too

The curious thing is that you can be certain that, if he’d used the end client’s name without permission, they would have understood the implications perfectly. I happen to use an Apple computer to type this blog, and as many technically-informed readers will have spotted, it’s hosted on I pay for these services but at no stage does any part of the deal say “This is a WordPress blog” or “This is an Apple-approved opinion” would be permissible if I were marketing it externally (I don’t imagine they’d do much good anyway but that’s another issue).

And yet so many clients assume that if they’ve bought words in they can use the originator without checking. So here are a couple of ground rules:

  • If you want to acknowledge the writer of a guest blog or corporate piece, the first step is: ask. Many writers are perfectly happy with this. Others, because it impacts their personal branding as independent, might say “no”, and still others will want more money – if you want to boost your brand with our name, why wouldn’t we ask a premium? (You might ask why, if their main business doesn’t pay the bills, they’re still doing it – but that’s a slightly different debate).
  • Related point that I’ve made before: Just because you commissioned something, that doesn’t mean it’s yours. We expect to be edited to house style but substantial changes need to be run past us, particularly if you’re going to use our names. The relevant Act – referenced in the linked blog entry – assures us that we remain the owners of the stuff we’ve written.

Every business expects to have to maintain its reputation, whether it’s a giant brand like Apple or a tiny micro-brand like a freelance journalist’s name. If you’re hiring us, remember you’re engaging with a mini-business rather than just a nice person – so the basic business rules around using the name will apply.

Sourcing stories – how it’s evolving

Journalism gets a lousy press sometimes. Given that we are the press this is ironic, but it’s the case. Even before it was uncovered that several of us were tapping into people’s mobile phone messages illegally, people assumed that we made stories up, intruded into people’s lives, named suspects of crimes before they were convicted and soforth.

So I thought it was worth laying out some of the rules we’re supposed to follow. If you or a client feel you’ve been treated other than properly according to any of this, you have a cause for complaint.

First, not every story comes from a press release or official announcement. What, you really thought President Nixon had officially released Watergate, or that the Enron directors had made a formal declaration about their crooked activities? No, the rule is that we’re supposed to find at least two substantive sources for every story. Unfortunately social media is diluting that. Only today I saw a report about an MP’s estranged wife accusing him of being an alcoholic. I make no comment on the truth or otherwise of the claim but it was taken from one of her Tweets. In other words, no second source – so he could sue if he wanted (mind you, he’d then be seen as the big bad MP suing his former wife – that would never play well).

Second, while we’re on the subject, an insult is not the same as a libel. Libels are specifically damaging allegations which are factually wrong. So if you wanted to call me a useless git whose work was unreadable I couldn’t touch you – it’s called vulgar abuse and the law doesn’t care. If you add that I’m habitually late with deadlines and I plagiarise, I can claim you’re damaging me because these are specific and untrue. This protects reviewers; I can say your play was rubbish; if I say it lost money when it didn’t, I’m acting unlawfully.

In terms of accusations, there are clear laws about what you may and may not report and that includes names. If you feel you’ve been named unjustifiably in a criminal case, you need to speak to a lawyer rather than read a blog.


The really interesting thing for me as a practitioner is how this stuff is evolving. OK, I’ve been a journalist for a quarter of a century and had some training so yes, I know about the two-source rule (and I’ve had a few of those which have proven, nonetheless, to be wrong after I published them – I don’t miss that sort of journalism, invaluable training ground though it was).

The emergence of the blogger, however, has diluted a lot of those standards. Don’t misunderstand me; there are some utterly superb bloggers out there whose work is as good as any professionally trained hack. There are others, though, who think they’re in the Wild West, who won’t acknowledge your right to reply and who don’t believe they need more than one source.

This is now spilling into the mainstream press, which is why we’re seeing MPs falling out with their wives and exchanging allegation of affairs and alcoholism without any real thought as to how legal these statements are. The journalists at least should be considering the legality; I suspect they’re actually weighing up whether these people are actually likely to sue and publishing regardless.

Obviously the best way to avoid this sort of coverage is to make the best of any press opportunity in the first place. I can help with interview skills and media preparation – click here to book some time on the phone and we’ll talk. Or fill in the form below and let me know how I can help.

Corporate work: the briefing’s the thing

Journalists can thrive on corporate contracts but the relationship can break down – so where does it go wrong?

Journalists often get asked to write on behalf of corporate businesses – we produce blogs, we ghost write articles, all sorts of stuff like that. When it goes right, it’s great. When it goes wrong it’s ugly, and so often it’s because the brief has been unclear or misinterpreted. Here are five things that have gone wrong, either recently or longer ago.

  • A company hired me after reading one of my books, praised it in an OTT manner and then complained when my work didn’t match their corporate style or appear to come from their agency. Guys, if you tell me you like my style, I’m probably going to deliver copy written in it – you gave me the impression that was what you wanted.
  • A client of a client complained of a magazine article I’d ghost written that my use of chatty language was inappropriate for a professional document. Yes it was, but this was a magazine article, not a professional document at all.
  • A client briefed me to write a book about a company. The lead contact had to leave the room during the initial briefing at which I poured out my ideas to the PR company, who appeared to accept all of my thoughts. After drafting, the lead contact complained that it was off the brief – in other words all of the amendments we’d made during the meeting had either not been communicated upwards or not been accepted. Nobody had told me.
  • A PR client once called me in for a briefing with her client and I went away and wrote. The PR person then complained that I’d simply written from the brief and the interview. This was over a decade ago and I still have no idea what else I was expected to do.
  • A client once had me writing and just after we’d agreed terms and signed a contract she slipped in a load of Excel spreadsheets that needed formatting – my copy would then be put into them. I’ve never claimed to be an Excel expert or artist, words are my game – she claimed (wrongly) that the Excel requirement had been in the initial scope, and that every journalist would be able to handle such an assignment. It is possible that every other journalist could, but I doubt it.

It’s about communication and ensuring everyone is agreed on style and required outputs early on. If you need help with your corporate writing I’m running a course in London with the Henshall Centre on sharpening your writing skills on 16 July; details are here.

How much does your Klout matter?

That’s not a typo in the headline – I’ve been looking at my Klout rating and wondering not what to do to improve it – my score of 76 is apparently respectable – but whether it matters.

I opened the website today and it congratulated me on the subjects on which it considered me an expert, including “accounting”. I haven’t told my accountant; given my record keeping skills and his knowledge of them I’m worried he’d hurt himself falling off his chair.

What Klout’s about

It all seems a bit random – you might as well throw some dice, write the number down and decide that’s your score. And yet there’s an emerging science behind this.

For the uninitiated, Klout is a business that assesses how “influential” you are on social media. It takes your Twitter feed, your Facebook interactions and several other networks such as LinkedIn into account, and gives you a score out of 100.

I’ve heard of people using it as an actual measure of something. For example, I once ran a day as MC at the Social Media World Forum in which a speaker I’d just introduced announced he’d reserved the first two rows of seats for people with a Klout score of 60 or above, and he read their names out.

You’ve never seen a more embarrassed bunch skulking towards the “best” seats – first because they didn’t want to look flash, second because if that was how the speaker began they didn’t know how he was going to continue, and being in the first two rows would make it difficult to slip out again later.

Clumsy use aside, I’ve heard of speaker agencies checking someone’s Klout score before booking them. I’ve heard of people putting their Klout score on their website. There are people who think this thing matters.

I just don’t get how something that fails to ask anything specific can offer a meaningful answer.


When I first wrote “This Is Social Media” I did a few speaking gigs at which I’d point to my own Klout score and also some of the areas in which it had decided I was an expert. One of these was “Muse Records”. As an “expert” I found I had to Google and find out what Muse Records actually was: it turned out it was a specialist jazz label from the early 1970s. It actually sounds rather good but how was I an expert when I’d never heard of it?

This morning, finding that I was an expert in accounting cemented my impression of this rather general measuring tool. Apparently the answer to “is Guy influential”? is “76” and the topics on which I’m an “expert” include those I outsource to someone else, in this case an accountant, because I know how long it would take me otherwise.

The principle, taking someone’s actual output rather than their claims, and therefore arriving at an objective view of what they’ve achieved rather than how they market themselves, is sound. When you can ask Klout or something like it a sensible question about me – “Can Guy write”, “Is Guy any good at media training” or something, that’ll be useful. Without context I’ll continue to query the value of “Is Guy influential” – what does everyone else think?

Don’t get your briefs in a twist

I had an incident recently in which I was writing for a corporate blog. I’ll change the subjects to protect the guilty. However, they wanted ideas from me, which was fine. So I emailed them to say: how about something on computer operating systems working on multiple devices?

They came back quickly, OK-ing the idea – but asking whether we could downplay the operating system side and write about word processing instead, and leave out the multiple devices and instead focus on keyboards.

It was nearly that extreme. My resolution was to suggest a completely different angle and just write about the subjects they wanted, rather than trying to manacle my original thoughts into it. Politeness is one thing, but they’re the client and they clearly didn’t want my topics.

If you’re briefing a freelance writer, here are a few things to bear in mind:

  • We need clarity. I’ve been to meetings before at which I’ve listened to the client ideas and they’ve listened to mine; their response has been “yes, we should include that” – and then when I’ve drafted, they’ve asked why my ideas are still in there. Because you gave the impression you’d approved them.
  • We need to know your processes. OK, maybe not all of them but if you don’t have sign-off on a project, if you don’t have the authority to change a brief when we suggest ideas, don’t give us the impression that you do – or we’ll change stuff.
  • We need an idea of your objectives. OK, you want to write a white paper: the more experienced among us might know this approach has failed several times in achieving the result you want. Let us in a bit, we might be able to help more than just by bashing out words.
  • We need to know what sort of resources you have. One client once assured me they had production sorted out; this means something very specific to journalists, and it was a great surprise when she became positively schoolma’amy when she spotted a missing full stop. She didn’t have production staff at all.
  • We need specifics. Those clients that don’t know exactly what they want but they’ll “know it when they see it” are never worth the time.
  • You may need to understand a little about how we work. I had a client once who booked me for a flat rate including one draft and two rewrites based on their feedback and changing requirements. The UK branch of the company signed this off and were happy with the work I’d done. Then the US head office came back with a few more queries, which I accommodated – then a few more, which I accommodated again. It carried on. In the end, the UK office (kindly) emailed its HQ to explain that I was no longer available to them. The US office said they understood, and kept emailing me for more anyway.

It’s basically about communication and confirming stuff. Like any business engagement it’s a lot easier when we’re speaking the same language. If we’re not, we’re in for trouble!