Friday, March 26, 2010

That dang (apostrophe)+(S) in names that end in S -- is it Edwards' blog or Edwards's blog?

Is it "Edwards' advice" (one S) or "Edwards's advice" (...S'S)? The first one is correct.

OK, then, is it the hostess' advice or the hostess's advice? This time, it's the second one.

No wonder everyone's confused, right? I gave you two opposing answers, but both are correct.

The key point is this: "proper nouns" (names) versus "common nouns" (not names). It's "no" on the extra S for names but "yes" on the extra S for ordinary nouns.

My way of remembering this is to remind myself that people get to spell their names any way they wish. So if Marie wants to spell her name Maree, that's OK. It's her prerogative.

In my experience, companies are very touchy about their names -- understandably so. It seems to me that most tend to leave off the extra S, which happens to be in keeping with AP style. I feel the same way. I myself don't like the look of "Edwards's advice." I don't know why -- I just don't like it. I prefer "Edwards' advice."

So ... names don't have to follow the standard rules -- that's how I remember it. My personal suggestion would be to ask the person whose name you're making possessive, if they are available to you. If not, go with the AP rule. If it's a company's name, I'd look on the Web site for press releases and see how the company chooses to handle it. It really is their choice.

Now for the exception: Even with a common noun ending in S, *don't* add the extra S after all if the next word begins with S. Under that rule, these are all correct:

  • the witness's answer
  • the witness' story
  • the hostess's advice
  • the hostess' seat
You'll find this rule in the back of the AP Stylebook, in the punctuation section that many people don't know is there, under "apostrophe."

Don't ask me why it's like this. That's a question for Grammar Girl.

Does everyone agree on this rule? No.

Strunk & White is at odds with AP style on a few points, including this one. So are a few other style guides.

Grammar Girl is with The AP on this one, I noticed. But she, too, acknowledges there's no agreement among the experts.

Some guides extend the exception to words that end in ce, x and z. The AP doesn't.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Write award submissions in narrative structure

The only PR people I know who write well in narrative structure are SVPs and EVPs, so if you are a VP or below, this is for you.

I’m not going to define narrative structure or say why you need it for award submissions. I’ll go straight to the “how.” For this post, I’ll focus on PR campaigns. But the principles apply to many kinds of award submissions.

If you follow these steps, my guess is you’ll quadruple your chance of winning.

Step One: List business results

Make a bulleted list of results without using full sentences. By results, I don’t mean the number of impressions. I mean: business results or some type of before/after comparison of the business’s prospects for success. Examples:

 Doubled sales leads
 Drove 123,000 visitors to Web site
 Boosted conference attendance by 40 percent

Now forget it for a minute. In the meantime, we’ll move on to a new topic within the submission.

Step Two: Identify the slight tweak

Look for the tweak or new wrinkle in your strategy or tactics. What did you do slightly differently? What was the particular spin that your team put on the planning of the campaign? What did you do that you haven’t seen much of before?

Write down your observations. Now forget about that for a bit. Next topic …

Step Three: List business obstacles

List obstacles overcome. Just as with the first item about business results, don’t write in full sentences. In the PR plan, some of this may be in the situation analysis. Examples:

 No advertising budget and recently reduced PR budget
 Rival unexpectedly one-upped client the week before
 Stock was down, top-tier pub said client was “swirling the drain”
 New gov’t regulations turn time-tested customer relations program into a potential legal liability

Step Four: Contrast obstacles with results

Cut and paste bullets from steps one and three onto a blank new page. Only now should you begin wordsmithing, but keep it loose and rough. Don’t perfect any sentences yet.

Compose two to four sentences that tell a story of transformation. This is where you say that you and your client together found a way to overcome obstacles (one, two or three of them) to accomplish XYZ specific business results. Don’t say how.

This is called juxtaposition. You’ve put two unlike or unexpected things side by side. Juxtaposition is an element of narrative structure. It adds a “wow” factor.

It’s OK if it doesn’t “flow” or even make sense yet. Just show the before/after comparison. Skip the middle.

Step Five: Show effects on outsiders

Brainstorm on *why* the story of transformation just above matters to people who aren’t you or your client. Why should we outsiders care about the company’s plight and remedy?

How is industry or society better off thanks to this change? What can the rest of us learn from the triumph? What does the client’s journey prove? Why does this story matter more this year than last year?

Capture a few of your answers. Then …

Step Six: How did research influence strategy?

Don’t write that you did research or describe your research. Instead say how the findings changed your team’s mind about how to plan for the campaign. Focus on the research findings’ effects on your team’s behavior and decisions.

Put another way: What did you do differently that you wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t done the research?

Write down your observations.

Step Seven: Start composing

Now combine steps two and six the way you did earlier with results and obstacles. So this time, you’re combining “slight tweak” with “research’s influence.”

Then add a phrase or as much as one line from step five (why it matters to outsiders).

Attach all of this to your result from step four (the transformation).

This is the content you’ll need for an executive summary or first few paragraphs, which is going to make or break your submission’s moving on to the next level of screening. This post describes the "pre-writing phase," which means the critical thinking and research needed to get the right ideas in the first place. Good ideas write themselves, so first get good ideas.

You can write the rest of the submission following the usual instructions, filling in detail as prompted.

Here are some thinly veiled examples of strong narrative starts:

Example One:

Five days after CEO John Smith assumed the top spot at Acme Manufacturing, a massive explosion occurred at its historic refinery in the coastal town of Sandy Beach, Calif. Smith was touring the facility and conducting his first meeting with employees at the time and watched as first responders and media descended on the refinery to chronicle the company’s response, which Smith knew would have broad implications.

The board would have to determine if they would rebuild; investors would have to hold or devalue Acme’s stock; regulators and legislators would react to public sentiments; and employees would take measure of his leadership. Smith’s ultimate test would be how quickly he could get the company back on track while tending to the emotional needs of employees, their families -- and the local community.

Example Two:

It is hard to overstate just how negative public opinion was when the Acme Oil Association, the national trade association for Canada’s oil companies, launched a new communications program at the beginning of 2009.

Record gasoline prices – first $3 a gallon, then $4. Record oil prices – almost $150 a barrel at one point. Record industry profits – more than $100 billion, by some reports. Politicians promising to “get Canada off oil” and achieve “energy independence.” All leading to relentlessly negative political rhetoric, public opinion, media coverage and heated online attacks against “Big Oil.”

The fact that much of this backlash was based on serious misperceptions and even misinformation about the industry and global energy markets made our job even more challenging. We needed to first inform, then to change the conversation.

Example Three:

Most of the chemical industry wasn’t aware that sugar, a low-carbon alternative to oil-based inputs, could remove the “petro” from petrochemical. On the supply side, producers weren’t aware that sugar could be used to create chemicals. The two industries were largely unknown to each other, with separate conferences, industry groups, research reports, and media coverage.

Enter Acme, a young company based in San Mateo, Calif., committed to transforming nature’s role in producing chemicals with a novel bio-manufacturing process that uses lower-cost and more environmentally sustainable ways to turn sugar into a variety of industrial chemicals.

An effective PR campaign that could effectively bridge the two industries would be key to Acme’s success and help the company transform itself from startup to credible, commercial innovator.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Are your co-workers a little brittle? Try the TRUE COMPLIMENT RX

I’ll bet the people around you are more brittle than they appear. Personally, I think we’re in the danger zone. Collectively, we are worn out from the recession.

In my experience, this is when people crack – when the worst is over but the recovery isn’t quite here. It’s a strange limbo where adrenaline winds down, leaving us finally free to actually feel our cumulative exhaustion. I’ve cracked under circumstances like these, and I’ve seen others crack – just when you think everything’s OK.

Run past the top; don't sneeze through vacation

Or, to put it more mildly, it’s like when you first start training for a 10K. You set a goal to run up all the hills, not walk up parts of some of them. But you make the mistake of aiming just for the top, then you poop out. Experience teaches you to aim for a further-along spot past the top.

Or let me put it this way: You know how some people work too hard all the way up until the first day of vacation, knowing that relief is in sight and they will soon be able to rest as much as they want? Often, they catch a cold and spend their vacation sneezing and coughing.

We’re in the about-to-begin-sneezing-and-coughing stage, all of us. And that even goes for us Edelmanites, who have spent the recession inside a lovely, warm nest thanks to our family-owned company’s financial independence and our executives’ conviction that it’s the people that make the place. Heck, we’ve even profited and won awards. There were no layoffs. Nobody’s pay was cut. We’re continuing to hire and promote people.

But still.

2009 sucked.

This is why I’m suggesting a branded campaign called

True compliment rxJ

Here’s how it works:

Pause to reflect on what it is you like about working with the people around you. Tell them what you notice and appreciate. Or if they’ve repeatedly worked from home in the middle of the night because that’s what it took for a while there, say “Thank you,” even if you can’t offer a bonus or immediate relief.

Look them in the eye and say, “Thank you so much for your dedication. You’ve really helped us hold things together during a tough time. I especially appreciated your catching that huge error Tuesday night. I could hardly believe it afterward when you told me how you managed to find George in time to correct it, even though he was on the road.”

That’s better than, “I’m sorry. I promise it will get better eventually.”

Or how about: “Your sense of humor is one of the things that keeps me going during the work day.” Or, “I’ve noticed that you have a way of really bringing people together. I don’t think the team would be quite so cohesive if it weren’t for you. I don’t know how you do it. But I think it really makes a difference in our creativity and effectiveness.”

Or: “I always learn something from you. Thanks so much for filling me in on these things. It sparks my day and makes me stronger in the long run.”

No assumptions; people want connection

Don’t assume that continuing to receive a paycheck or having plenty of work to do is acknowledgment enough. People want to feel connected and appreciated.

Life has taught me that brittle, fragile, emotionally worn-out people are extra susceptible to little bumps, whether good or bad. A small dose of good at a time like this can make more difference than it would during normal times.

Likewise, emotionally brittle people are less likely to give a compliment. So we all need to push ourselves to do so at this time.

The downside of empathy

Even those of us who have managed very well through the recession can be brought down by those who haven’t done so well. I mean, really, how can you read about foreclosures and layoffs and not feel other people’s dread and fear?

One of my closest friends is in the construction industry, where the unemployment rate is a shocking 50%. She’s been out of work so long that she now gets conflicting notices from the government saying her unemployment is ending – er, no, being extended, umm, maybe, uh, yes, extended for now.

And think of the people who keep surviving successive waves of layoffs, each time knowing they are on the edge of the chopping block. Or the mandated unpaid furloughs that some government employees must take.

Our local swimming pool and library are closed one extra day each month. Just reading the flyer tacked on a bulletin board makes me wonder how the employees are faring.

Has your child’s teacher received a pink slip? It hurts to think about it.

High-stakes client relations took a toll

During the initial freefall in late 2008 and early 2009, client relations felt very “high stakes.” Everyone felt that even the strongest of relationships could be at risk, due to financial pain alone, regardless of the immensity of satisfaction about the work being done. People were on edge. It showed. I saw some bad behavior.

So let’s all chip in and build up one another’s emotional reserves for the long haul still ahead. Notice. Appreciate. Look people in the eye. Or jot them a little note. Nothing heavy. No big deal. Keep it small and genuine.

And don't combine it with a request. Let it be one purely nice moment.

Avoid Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come

It’s medicine for the soul – yours and theirs. It’s one of those things that you’ll look back on and be glad you did. Take the True compliment rxJ today. Don’t wait for Clarence Oddbody (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” 1946) or Marley’s ghost (“A Christmas Carol,” 1843) to show up and turn it into a lot of trauma and drama. A small bit of niceness now goes a long way for later.

"A stitch in time saves nine."

"Do unto others ..."

You get the picture.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When "cheaper & better" carries you across the chasm

My colleague @allenbush offered an excellent asterisk to my post on making the leap from trade press to business press. It's so well put and so right on that I'm sharing it with you, with his permission, of course. I added the subheads.

Here are relevant excerpts from his e-mail to me:

I found one exception (perhaps not an exception but an asterisk) to a rule you mentioned in your post - that reporters are not interested in better/cheaper - actually two on that same note. The big one is disruption.

Technology that removes a barrier

Disruptive products are interesting specifically because they remove a major price or complexity barrier and take something from niche into the mainstream in doing so. Reporters are very interested in this.

The key is that it's not just the "cheaper and better" that you lean on, but that it's moving a product across the proverbial chasm and creating or expanding on a market in doing so.

But it's in fact the "cheaper and better" part (when dramatic enough and in the right product spot) that can start a disruption. Unfortunately, truly disruptive products are few and far between!

Affordability as a timely topic

The second one is simply that there are opportunities for affordability stories out there as long as the economy continues to suck. So again, couching a significant price differentiator in the right terms can generate coverage.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Make the leap from trade to business press

Technology startups often have trouble making the leap from trade press to business press.

Here's what your company must provide to your PR team, if you want them to successfully send you to the big leagues.
  • Competitive analysis

  • Forward-leaning differentiator

  • The "why," not just the "how"
Competitive analysis -- Your competitors are not adversaries. They're your helpers in that they make your story better. Name them in your e-mail pitch to a top-tier business reporter. The more names, the stronger the pitch.

Likewise, name peripherally related companies and industries, and name your partners and customers, too.

There are a lot of reasons for this:

(1) A single company does not an industry make. Your company can't be "the only one" that does what you do. Even if you have no identical direct competitors, any alternative to your company's offering counts as competition, even if it's radically different or radically inferior.
The larger the swimming pool and the more swimmers in it, the more likely a reporter will pay attention to it. Sheer numbers help. The reporter's only taskmaster is the audience, and if there's an already-interested large audience for a topic, he is more likely to cover it.
(2) Conflict is an essential ingredient of storytelling. If that makes you squirm and want to wriggle away, look at it this way: The World Series is interesting only because teams are pitted against one another with something at stake.
If you assembled the world's best batters and sold tickets to batting practice, you probably wouldn't make much money. If you assembled the world's best pitchers and watched them practice without batters, how many people would pay to watch? Probably not many.
A business story is a sports story, with league standings, batting averages, secret playbooks, charismatic coaches and star performers.
You can be a good sport. You don't have to be mean and aggressive to compete. But remember that conflict is your friend.
(3) The pie slices need to change size. I'm talking about economics here. Consider college-level cost-benefit analysis, which involves comparing "before" and "after" pictures with regard to a particular business decision or action. Whose pie slice will get smaller? Whose will get bigger? Whose will stay the same? If your company's actions are not "disruptive" in this sense, there's no story.
For example, say Company A acquires Company B. How will companies D, E and F need to respond? If you have no effect on companies D, E and F, there's no story.
Forward-leaning differentiator -- In what way is your company's secret sauce a sign of the times to come? You can't just have secret sauce; it has to be indicative of the future.

Typically, big-name companies invest in a small-time competitor's great new idea, whether through acquisition, research, new hires or even a direct donation to the competitor. This sometimes ticks off the little guy, who fumes that the bigger company is getting credit for something it's not even good at and was slow to appreciate in the first place. The little guy cries out, "But we're better, we're way ahead, we're the real thing." The little guy resents the big company's fame and advertising budget.

But when big companies jump into a market that *you* invented, that's good.

Now you have data points for your business pitch. Now you have competitors' names to include in your competitive analysis. You've influenced companies D, E and F, and they are now watching you.

Typically, the startup that invented the market really *is* way ahead, and that puts the startup's CEO and CTO in the position of "authority on the subject," which is exactly who reporters want to talk to.

So don't talk solely about your company or technology; instead be the third-party arbiter of the emerging competitive analysis. Talk about where the market is headed, and talk in an analytical manner about factors that could accelerate or "de-celerate" progress. Paint a picture of the future. Explain *why* the market is headed there, what's lost if it doesn't get there, and who will make money once the future has arrived.

Inherently, this conversation will show off your company in an authentically positive light, and your participation will be essential to telling the story at all.

The "why," not just the "how" -- This is the technology startup's biggest stumbling block in making the transition from trade press to business press.

Trade press write about "how it works." That's what they do. Technology startups enjoy telling that story and tell it well. Success is easy here.

Business press don't care about the how, nor do they care if your company does the how faster, better and cheaper than other companies can do it. They simply don't care. Stop talking about it.

In particular, they don't care if your "technology is better." Really, I can't emphasize this enough: Hush! It's all just "yada yada yada" to them. Stop saying it.

Instead, go back to the second bullet here -- "forward-leaning differentiator" -- and become that third-party arbiter of shifts under way in the emerging market.

Your ego may initially protest that your company should instead be the star, but let's get real: Do you know who Sharlto Copley is? Do you know who George Clooney is?

Sharlto Copley was star of the 2009 sci-fi sleeper "District 9," an awesome mock-documentary inspired by real events during South Africa's apartheid era. Talk about an awesome performance. But guess what? Sharlto Copley wasn't even nominated for best actor. George Clooney was, though.

Accept the fact that George Clooney's presence in your awesome sleeper of a technology story is a powerful engine. Ride it, baby! His light becomes your light. It's a way in.

And once you're in, you're in.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

e-Commerce, E-Commerce or ... ?? Not so easy to answer

We know that AP style says it's correct to write e-commerce with a hyphen and little "e." But what about in the headline of a press release?

My vote is for E-Commerce or e-commerce, but not e-Commerce or E-commerce, though I could be talked into any of the four, given the right argument.

If you are a PR person on deadline and want an answer without an explanation, I recommend that you go with E-Commerce. You can come back to read the rest of this later.

Here's what makes this a tough call: There are no AP rules on headlines.

The Associated Press, in its pre-Internet existence, didn't use headlines at all, and newspapers across the U.S. differ in their headline styles. If we look at actual practice on Web sites, we find that The AP now capitalizes *only* the first letter of a headline and that BusinessWire -- a distributor of press releases and a respected industry standard-setter -- usually capitalizes all the words in a headline, with the exception of articles (a, an, the), prepositions (from, under, with, to, by, in) and conjunctions (and).

Capitalize prepositions of four letters or more?

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal take it a step further. They use mostly caps but lowercase articles, conjunctions and prepositions of three words or fewer. So they capitalize the prepositions from, with and across but lowercase for, to and in.

Press releases usually don't apply the three-words-or-less rule. Most appear to do it the way BusinessWire does it. Scanning the news section of Business Wire's Web site, I found more incidences of E-Commerce than e-commerce or e-Commerce, but I did find all three. Not surprisingly, I didn't find E-commerce.

Building a "right-brained" case for e-Commerce

Although I said earlier in this post that I don't prefer e-Commerce, the right-brained part of me likes it best because it *feels* like it carries the intended flavor of the little "e," which I think of as Silicon Valley's casual tossing aside of convention as it reinvents all of our lives for the better. For me, the little "e" means electronic everything, bleeps of light -- as I envision it -- slicing through the physical clutter that used to cordon people off from one another.

But that's subjective, and no one pays me to be subjective.

Apply the AP rule on "titles" to "headlines"

The more complicated NYT/WSJ rule does in fact match AP style if you decide to interpolate. If you treat "headlines" as "titles," you'll find that the rule is to capitalize prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters.

Most people don't do this. Most people don't even know where in the stylebook to look up titles. (Look under "composition titles," not "titles." The former lists treatment of plays, songs, lectures and television shows. The latter deals with job titles, mostly.)

Orgs that capitalize only the first word in a headline, thereby avoiding the question altogether:
  • San Jose Mercury News
  • Boston Herald
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • The Associated Press online
Orgs that use all caps or mostly caps for headlines, with varying exceptions:
  • The New York Times
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Wired
  • InfoWeek
  • CIO
  • BusinessWire
The question of E-C, e-c, E-c or e-C is a toss-up, in my opinion. It depends on the other style choices your company has made.

For example, if you have a company name or product division that drops the hyphen (eBay or eBusiness Solutions), you may want to go that route for eBook and eCommerce as well, though I bet you'll balk at eMail.

If E-Commerce is a proper noun in your company's case (like Spain, Sally and Kleenex), then I'd suggest E-C.

The easy way out: Only capitalize the first letter in headlines

To make life easiest of all, I suggest companies go the way of The AP and capitalize only the first letter of a headline. Then you can use e-commerce with nary a second thought.

The PR industry adopted AP style as its own standard for good reason -- 98 percent of U.S. newspapers follow AP style. This means most people either know it or have easy access to it. So a freelance writer in Pennsylvania can turn in easy-to-edit copy on deadline to a corporation in Arizona, without a lot of wasted conversation about nit-picky style details.

Stop quibbling and get back to work

Why quibble about capitalization and hyphens when you could be doing something that actually advances your company's business objectives? Why insist on a unique corporate style that you will have to re-visit, defend and teach time and time again forever into the future?

Do more important things instead.

Even as print declines in favor of digital reading, the AP standard is still a good one. It's voice-neutral -- that is, it works for any kind of tone or aesthetic. It's neither formal nor informal. And no other single organization has the momentum, reputation or reach to efficiently replace it.