Iconic American author John Steinbeck once said: “A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers.” Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, news articles or a press release, this lesson holds true for any professional communicator – consider the message and audience above all else.
I recently shared Steinbeck’s wisdom with high school students exploring career paths in communication arts and drew parallels between the work of professional journalists and the day-to-day responsibilities of PR professionals.
The students are part of a summer camp organized by ThreeSixty Journalism, a nonprofit organization founded in 1971 to bring diverse voices into journalism and related professions by using intense, personal instruction in the practice and principles of strategic communications. Bellmont Partners is a longtime supporter of the organization, and agency president Brian Bellmont sits on its board of advisors.
My presentation focused specifically on the similarities between PR and journalism and highlighted one aspect of PR practice – messaging – as an example of how the two disciplines share comparable DNA. It came as a surprise to some of the students that the basics of journalistic writing – being concise, identifying what’s most important to your audience, focusing on verifiable facts versus speculation – can also apply to crafting PR messages.
A few of the shared principles include:
– Just the facts, ma’am. Don’t bury the lead – your messages should focus on what’s most relevant to the audience
– Focus on “why.” Why should the reporter and the audience care about what you are saying?
– Make sure there’s a call-to-action. What are you asking the audience to do once they know your story?
– Use credible sources. A customer or third-party expert is a far better spokesperson than a company’s marketing manager
– Keep it simple. The average news consumer reads at a tenth-grade level – if your story is too complicated, it won’t be understood by a wide audience
To put our learning into practice, we did a crisis communications exercise to test the students’ ability to create and deliver compelling talking points while keeping their cool under the pressure of intense questioning by a “reporter.” The students did an amazing job staying on message and averting a PR disaster.
At the end of the presentation, the ThreeSixty students turned the tables on me and put me in the famed “hot seat,” peppering me with questions for a profile on the organization’s website. After more than 16 years of playing a behind-the-scenes role in creating so many news stories, it was a bit unnerving for me to be the center of attention.
My experience with the ThreeSixty Journalism students gave me valuable insight into the way young people view news and the role PR professionals play in shaping the news. I was relieved to know that high school students still care about being able to communicate effectively, despite all the negative stereotypes that persist about kids using text message shorthand and emoticons more frequently than English.
Or perhaps they were just humoring me, taking a page out of Steinbeck’s keen observations about audience and modifying their messages to fit the middle-aged guy in the room.