Tuesday, December 2, 2014

It's 2 a.m. Do you know where your star employee is?

It's 2 a.m. Do you know if your star employee has logged on again from home and is still awake?

Work flows to the most competent, right? Chances are good that the best writer on your team, if this person is also fairly senior, is staying up too late -- anguishing over the team's mediocre writing.

Documents that should have been wrapped up by 6 p.m. at the office instead get reopened after 10 p.m. at home, when Star has rested a bit or put the kids to bed, and is now ready to tackle nagging thoughts. "Eee! I can't possibly send this to the client as is!"

The more tired Star is, the more likely he or she is to rewrite rather than edit or request changes of the team members who wrote the original.

Well rested people identify key points, make keen observations and pose incisive questions.

Tired people rewrite -- because it's easier. The problem is that this is a downward spiral.

The more rewriting Star does, the more demoralized the team becomes, and the worse their work gets because, they say, "It doesn't matter. She's just going to rewrite it anyway."

I've seen it! Many times! If this is your situation, don't be embarrassed -- you are in the majority!

Boss & Star confide their frustration

A variation on that scene is this one: Boss and Star are confiding in each other, united in their frustration over work that doesn't seem to improve, despite feedback and good intentions.

Both situations are common, and they often precede my being hired to give writing workshops.

I am proud to say that Star in the above scenarios is someone who has worked with me in the past. I know because he/she tells me.

But I'm even prouder to say that there's every reason for hope. I really can help your team improve such that Star doesn't burn out and leave you.

Office-wide culture of self-improvement

For 2015, I'm revamping my offerings to emphasize office-wide improvement. It's possible to create a culture of self-improvement where individuals know how to progress and are motivated to do so.

It's not enough to train junior staff. Mid- and senior-staff need to know how to "receive the ball," so to speak. The roles and relationships on the team need clarification, so that everyone can improve and keep on improving -- because the office culture permits and encourages it.

I don't mean to say that everyone who hires me is anguishing, though many are. Some companies invest in their employees as a matter of course, and that's how they stay strong over the long haul. One longtime client in particular still has me in from time to time for refresher classes.

Here are other common reasons people hire me:
  1. The agency is growing very fast, mid-level staff are mostly new and representative of too many disparate corporate cultures. Training gets everyone on the same page.
  2. The agency grew fast, and the people who took workshops in the past want the new people to have them, too. The veteran staff don't have time to train the new people themselves because they've been so short-staffed for so long while waiting the the much-needed new-hires.
  3. A refresher class is a reward. People who are already giving-giving-giving (!) at high levels of quality enjoy an occasional switch-up. It's nice for someone to give to them for a change.
  4. The teams themselves are self-aware. They have a nagging sense that there are more efficient or effective ways to do what they do, and they are open to expert advice.
Why God created junior staff ;-)

School doesn't prepare us for work -- that's why God made interns, AAs, AEs and SAEs who undergo on-the-job training.  ;-)

Some people squeak by over time despite so-so writing -- because they're good on the phone, because they are strategic thinkers or because they have a way of bossing around the client that the client likes. But they don't make VP because their writing at times embarrasses SVPs and EVPs.

Others learn as they go because they lucked out with a supervisor who is also a good writing mentor or because they took the initiative to improve themselves on their own time or dime.

Who's responsible? 

At any rate, senior staff are good at their jobs, not necessarily at teaching writing, editing and critical thinking. It shouldn't be up to them to train the entire team to write well. It should be up to the teammates themselves. They need to know what the standards are and how to reach them.

That's where I come in. My goal in 2015 is to create office-wide cultures of self-improvement. Frankly, it takes more than one or two workshops to achieve that. But I bet I can get you going with fewer than eight workshops, maybe four to six, depending on your circumstances.

Legacy investment serves up enduring clients

Two, four, six or eight workshops might sound like a lot.

But if the investment leaves your office with a legacy of self-improvement -- not just with individuals who may forget what they learned over time, or who burn out and leave you, taking their gifts elsewhere -- then you'll have achieved a greatness that endures through rough patches.

A culture of self-improvement can serve up satisfied clients long after the workshops end.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Who to mention and when in your media pitch

How quickly should you mention your client's name in a media pitch? And should you mention competitors, too?

It depends, of course. But in tech startup PR, more often than not the answers are:

(1) Don't mention your client's name until the end of your one-screen pitch.

First, say something of relevance to the reporter's audience (hook). Then say why this information matters at this particular point in time (why, why now). Then offer your client as a resource that lets the reporter further explore the topic.

The delay isn't meant to be a trick. Tricks are bad because they don't help you build a long-term trust relationship. The delay is about relevance. If your client is unknown, it's irrelevant. Start with what matters, and then introduce your client as a topic expert.

There are other approaches and other answers to this question, and I've got more to say on this one particular approach, but we can save those for another time.

(2) Do mention competitors, and do mention anything that's an alternative to your client's offering, even if that alternative is "do nothing and just suffer."

In fact, articulating the "do nothing and suffer" part in depth is a good idea, especially if your startup client is extremely innovative and ahead of the curve.

To sell aspirin, you must first remind people that there's this thing called a headache, and it isn't something they absolutely must keep suffering. Rather, there's something they can do about it.

Why competitors? One company does not a market make. Being the only company in the world that does a particular thing is cool, but it makes your client less of a news story.

I've got more on that one, too. But I'll save it for later.

For "before/after" samples of pitches, click here.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Newsprint v. Kindle -- my experience

Experimentally, I downloaded an issue of the Wall Street Journal to my Kindle Paperwhite and compared it with my newsprint version.

The tiny print of the newsprint version is unchangeable, whereas I can enlarge the type as much as I want on my Kindle. That was my primary motivation, but I also wanted to find out if I would miss the sensations that accompany newsprint reading.

In general, I love my Kindle. When I'm reading a narrative (novels, biographies), I find that it's easy to disappear into the story. I'm so immersed that I stop seeing the device.

But educational books, which I also read a lot of, are better in hard copy because I can easily skip, skim and revisit pages as my mind flits and flies between my own ideas and the book's contributions.

Sure, Kindle lets you "bookmark" and take notes, but it's slow and unappealing to change locations electronically. I feel like I'm learning less, too. Sometimes, I've purchased a second copy of the same book because I realized I needed it in hard-copy form, for easy jumping around.

That's where I was coming from in my experiment today.

To my surprise, I found that headlines differ. Same story, different headline. In some cases, photos differed. Check out the top-leftheadline below, compared to the one at right.

It's perhaps irrational, but something about this difference made me feel cheated.

Like a snob, I looked down on the electronic headlines. The substance was the same, but the newsprint versions were aesthetically pleasing, as if those writers tried harder because headlines are their specialty and craft. Am I right? I don't know.

It is nearly impossible to view the charts and graphs on the Kindle.


Major deal-breaker!

The Wall Street Journal is GREAT at meaningful and appealing charts that I actually enjoy taking the time to look at in detail, so that's a big loss.

I tried enlarging them the way I enlarge type, but it didn't work.

Below is the Kindle version of a graph. And below that, the newsprint version.

Below is a newsprint graph and photo combined. In the Kindle version, only the photo appeared.

Below are more images. The Kindle lets you see the lead story in each section via a single screenshot, which could be more efficient for someone who just wants info but doesn't care about experience. The newsprint version requires physical removal of each layer to see the same headlines.

I can also choose a non-graphical view of the same options, and then choose one section to see in a bit more detail. Below are four headlines at once, which are A2-A4 in newsprint.

I won't be quitting my newsprint subscription any time soon. I can see myself preferring Kindle on crowded planes and trains. But at home, in a coffee shop or in the passenger seat of our car (husband driving), I prefer rattling my pages and skimming with my head moving up, down and sideways.

Ideally, the print would be bigger. When I dive into an article, I pull the paper a bit closer to my face, but I can still read it without glasses. That said, I wish I didn't have to bring up the matter at all!

Experiment completed. I wish I could enlarge the type of the newsprint, but that's my only complaint. On Kindle, I have a variety of complaints and the benefit of the compact size doesn't outweigh them.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

PR tip: Rookie mistakes to avoid in email pitches

No offense to actual used car dealers, but if you are new to pitching news reporters, you may feel at times like a variation on that metaphor -- like you're urging something not-so-valuable on someone who is shopping ... but not shopping for what you're offering.

And worse, if you're like 99 percent of the newcomers I've met in 14 years of coaching tech PR writers, the way you're writing your pitch is really bad.

Here are do's and don'ts for newbies, who are extremely intelligent and capable, I might add. But there are certain natural tendencies you must overcome if you are to succeed -- and you will!

Dialog, not an essay
1. Be a person talking to a person, not an agency writing to a publication. Your email in this case should be almost like the transcript of an in-person conversation between two busy people who like and respect each other. It should not sound like an essay or a business letter from the 1950s.

Bad grammar ≠ conciseness or humility
2. But "writing dialog" doesn't mean leaving off the first-person singular nominative case personal pronoun of your opening sentences. It's OK to use the word "I." Leaving it out doesn't sound like casual dialog, nor does it make you seem more humble -- e.g., "Wanted to see if you're interested ..."

This isn't actually a rookie mistake. I see it in experienced people, too. It might make sense in some of their situations, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt, but rookies are copying it and -- given the other problems in their pitches -- the oddness of the omission compounds the bad impression.

Readers with questions, clients as sources
3. Avoid mentioning your client's mission, and if possible avoid mentioning your startup client's name at all until the bottom half of the pitch. If your client isn't yet a household name, no one cares what it's doing. First say something relevant to the reporter's audience, and then follow up with your client as a resource for helping the reporter's audience with questions about their own interests.

Competitors? Yes!
4. It's OK and even desirable to include names of competitors (and customers, if you have permission) because one company does not a market make.

Reporters write about issues in flux. If the movements of one company are influencing the movements of others, there are questions about the immediate future in there somewhere. Reporters care about questions and the immediate future.

Let your client and its competitors/customers be characters in a story that makes a useful point in the readers' immediate future. The characters aren't the story; they are elements in telling the story.

Statistics ≠ smart or relevant

5. Statistics are helpful only when interpreted, surprising or about the reader's own questions. Starting a sentence with, "According to [source]," is like hiding behind your mommy's skirt when you were 3 or like trying to fake out a college professor on an essay you've thought little about.

You are smart. You can make a point. Your point doesn't have to be someone else's. If your point is backed up by a statistic, it's fine to say so and you should name the source, but let it be backup, not a curtain behind which you try to hide.

Usually, when someone gives you the advice to "find a statistic for the pitch," they are really saying, "Find context. Put your info into perspective. Show its relevance."

Statistics are good when they contribute insights and feelings, but not in and of themselves.

That's plenty for now. Below are three examples, one bad and two better. All are fictional.

Fictional bad pitch

Hi [Reporter’s Name],

Hope this email finds you well.

Noticed that you wrote an article on Aug. 20 in the Bay Area Times titled “San Francisco Settles $2 Million Movie Scandal Lawsuit,” and wondered if you might like to interview Dante Williams, vice president of marketing, at Good Law Inc., the leading provider of mobile solutions for the legal services industry. Good Law has signed more than 100 firms for its breakthrough Find Legal Help Fast outreach platform, which assists users in the litigation, mediation, arbitration and advocacy industries, demonstrating momentum in the quickly changing landscape for digital legal services.  

Good Law’s 600 percent revenue growth and its achievement in surpassing the 1-million-mark in apps downloaded nationwide as of April 14 are further evidence that Good Law’s innovative solutions are driving a revolution in the legal services industry.

According to Legal Weekly, many attorneys charge $300 an hour, compared to an average American family’s earnings of $22 an hour. Legal Weekly says many attorneys often ask for a $5,000 retainer.
Good Law’s mission is to aggregate and curate legal discussions to enhance the quality of the legal experience, improving client outcomes while helping law firms generate new revenue streams. Good Law accomplishes this feat through its acclaimed Find Legal Help Fast platform, which uses natural-language-analysis software and other technology to index lower-cost but recurring legal questions and offers authoritative assistance to a myriad of people at once.

Please let me know if you’d like to speak to Dante about the increasingly complex legal landscape and how Good Law’s solutions are improving customer experiences.



Better version:

Hi [Reporter's Name],

Even if a bookstore, library or online information warehouse has answers to legal questions, families still need to search – sometimes unproductively – for the right information and put it in perspective for own their situation and understand their own state’s legal wrinkles.
That's a lot of work, right?
Unfortunately, many families go without legal counsel. Longtime services like [Famous Company] are still excellent, but now software and automation advances are finally coming to the legal industry.
I’d like to introduce you to my client, a startup called Good Law Inc., which uses technology to index lower-cost but recurring legal questions. Good Law offers authoritative assistance to many families at once, while creating a new revenue stream for law firms. Already 100 firms have signed up to participate.

I added useful statistics below my signature. 

Meanwhile, shall we set up a time to talk?

Dante Williams, a Good Law executive, is an expert on what’s ahead for families who used to go without, and for the firms now embracing a new business model.

Dante is usually available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Which is better for you?


Many attorneys charge $300 an hour, compared to an average American family’s earnings of $22 an hour. Many ask for a $5,000 retainer, which is 70 percent higher than an average family’s average monthly income of $3,500. (Source: Legal Inc. survey, June 2014)
The Good Law app, available on iOS and Android devices, has been downloaded more than 1 million times by families, small businesses and individuals who can now benefit from advice tailored for 37 states. Three more state-specific rollouts are scheduled for summer, with all 50 expected to be complete by mid-2015.

The Find Legal Help Fast platform builds client communities around issues such as small claims, family law, personal injury, landlord-tenant relations and other cases that – once aggregated – offer economies of scale that benefit both firms and clients.


Hi [Reporter's Name],

I’d like to introduce you to a startup founded by the guy who invented [xyz] and sold it to [Famous Company] in 2006 for $1.5 billion. Dante Williams is now helping low- to middle-income families get otherwise costly legal help through a new automated platform (patent pending).

Already, 100 firms have signed up to participate because the platform also provides them with a new revenue stream by aggregating lower-cost cases. The new company is called Good Law.

If you're interested, please let me know what days are best for you. Meanwhile, I copied relevant  statistics below my signature.
If you need a "time element" to hang this on, I believe a verdict is due as early as next week in the [Famous Case], which involves a landlord dispute arising from the [Famous Company] squatter case. Click here to see Good Law advice that could have prevented this. 
Dante can also help you pull out some of the larger issues raised by this case, if you or one of your colleagues needs that, as well as generally offer third-party commentary as issues arise in the future.
Many attorneys charge $300 an hour, compared to an average American family’s earnings of $22 an hour. Many ask for a $5,000 retainer, which is 70 percent higher than an average family’s average monthly income of $3,500. (Source: Legal Inc. survey, June 2014)
The Good Law app, available on iOS and Android devices, has been downloaded more than 1 million times by families, small businesses and individuals who can now benefit from advice tailored for 37 states. Three more state-specific rollouts are scheduled for summer, with all 50 expected to be complete by mid-2015.

The Find Legal Help Fast platform builds client communities around issues such as small claims, family law, personal injury, landlord-tenant relations and other cases that – once aggregated – offer economies of scale that benefit both firms and clients.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How to format a media alert? Well, ...

... there's no one correct way,  but here’s one I like:

It's visual, not text-heavy.

An alert is meant to make room on a reporter's calendar. It's a "save the date." The little text there is should help the reporter see why it matters, from the reporter's perspective.​

Honestly, reporters don't care about format. They will appreciate a message in crayon on the back of a napkin if it's relevant to their work on deadline.

The sample above is from Bob Crawshaw, a PR pro in Australia. Here’s his full profile on Google Plus and here he is on LinkedIn. I found him while scanning for less than 20 seconds on this array of images in a Google search.

I didn’t scrutinize the text for news value. I chose this sample for its visual clarity and ease of use.

If you want to know about AP style for formatting in general, here are a few suggestions:
  1. Sentence case for headlines (Bob’s example is all caps, though.)
  2. New rule this year: Spell out rather than abbreviate state names
  3. Single quotes if you need to use quote marks in a headline (or for a quote within a quote)
  4. VP is OK in a headline, but vice president is AP style in body of text
  5. Abbreviate months other than March, April, May, June and July when they are with a date, but spell out all months if they stand alone or with a year only.
  6. Capitalize the R in Room 2.
  7. 11 a.m., not 11:00 a.m.
  8. a.m., not AM
  9. noon or midnight, not 12 p.m. or 12 a.m.
  10. AP style on time zones is difficult because it requires you to know whether it’s standard or daylight-saving time, and different regions do it differently.  I suggest using a service like http://www.worldtimebuddy.com/est-to-pst-converter to make sure you’ve got it right. AP style is EST, EDT, etc.
If you are using a media alert as a "mini press release," rather than a "save the date," consider using a blog post or email instead. Or write a short press release -- there's nothing wrong with brevity!