Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to Evaluate PR Writers -- Five Criteria

"Is So-and-So a good writer?"

Early on, my response to this question was a paragraph in an e-mail. But we eventually came up with a chart for evaluating everyone in the agency (director/VP and below) once a year as part of their annual review. Here it is below.

In this blog, it's a list. But in practice, it's an Excel spreadsheet with ratings on a horizontal axis: excellent, exceeds expectations, meets expectations, needs improvement. It's not a report card.

This is a business, not a school, so we don't grade on a curve or "reward" people with A's. The excellent category is reserved for "go to" people who are agency icons of that particular skill. The good place to be is "meets" and the good place to work toward is "exceeds."

Critical thinking trumps artistry

The most important category is "critical thinking." The least important is "artistry." In winning the attention of the traditional news media, truly useful insights written in crayon on the back of a crumpled napkin will always beat pretty words on pretty paper.

The chart originated from my sitting down with myself and asking, "What are the hoops that my thoughts jump through when I write these e-mails to executives? How am I assessing skill? What skills am I assessing?"

Having been a news reporter for 10 years, I had the news media part down pat. But I needed marketing insight, too. So I started the list, and agency executives added to it. What you see here is a consensus that I truly and proudly stand by, in every detail.

Emerged from downturn with profit & awards

Our CEO at the time, agency founder Bob Angus, made "writer profile charts" mandatory, and I literally shut down for business during the entire month of October so I could churn out a chart like this for nearly 50 people.

It was 2002, the dot-com bubble had burst and Bob had made an unusual decision. He allowed attrition but didn't lay anyone off; if account teams had extra time on their hands, they'd spend it in training. Our writer profile chart was integral to that process. We set standards, measured people, demanded improvement, and got it.

Thanks to Bob's counter-intuitive management style, we emerged from the economic downturn with profits and awards, even as our competitors lost half their staffs or went out of business.

Agency gained a forward-leaning ethic of improvement

After a few years of this, we reduced the number of people we evaluated. New employees or employees who needed attention were the only the ones who got them. Everyone else had clarity about their strengths and knew how to keep improving.

After a couple of years, people came to me for coaching in anticipation of having their chart done, and their first charts reflected progress from the get-go. That was the most fun.

An awesome benefit of this system was our new ability to pair people with complementary strengths. I told them, "You're good at this, and she's good at that, so when you find yourselves in disagreement, make sure you each win in the area of your strengths and acquiesce in the area of the other person's strengths."

This immediately produced high-quality work and the two people unofficially mentored each other. Organically, both became strong.

I suggest you find a writing guru in your office and ask this one person to assess staff on these criteria. Individual supervisors can't do it because they aren't necessarily good at this kind of thing -- that's why they ask me. Choosing just one person provides consistency.

In a "comments" section below the chart, I always copied examples of the writer's work and offered detailed "next steps" for improving.

In this list below, I've called out one item in blue type. It's the most common and most damaging problem among bad editors. I plan to go into more detail about it in an upcoming blog.

As a writing coach, of course, I continue to hate this question. I couldn't do my job well if I really thought there were only two kinds of writers: good and bad. To me, everyone is where they are, and my job is to help them move up.

Not what executives want to hear, I know. So here's the chart:

(1) Mechanics
-AP style
-Grammar & usage
-Active voice

(2) Discipline
-Digs below surface for "meat," insights
-Terseness (no padding, brisk pace)
-Structure (gives order to chaos)
-Client-ready, carefully copyread

(3) Critical thinking
-Considers audience point of view
-Foresees audience reactions
-Drives clients' long-range objectives
-Balances media and client needs
-Asks, researches, finds what matters
-Offers context, perspective
-Sees new wrinkles in familiar situations
-Breaks rules effectively

(4) News judgment (See detail toward end of list)
-Satisfies journalistic definition of news
-Effectively uses "news elements"

(5) Artistry
-Liveliness, flair, spark
-Engages as well as informs
-Advocacy, subtle “salesmanship”

News is…
(1) ... a break in the normal flow of events, an interruption in the expected.
(2) ... information people need to make sound decisions about their lives and businesses.

News elements: Change, timeliness, impact, names, numbers, nearness, unusualness, currency/topicality, life & death, health, human interest, conflict, biggest/smallest, animals, first/unique, sex, sports, weather, scandal, suspense, discovery, humor

For Senior Staff: Editing Skills
-Elevates messaging, objectives, strategy
-Checks/adjusts for correct emphasis
-Strengthens unity, coherence
-Troubleshoots as needed

-Refrains from arbitrary changes (ear, style)

-Avoids introducing new errors
-Cultivates writers' growth