The Sad State of Written Communication

The Sad State of Written Communication.

The Sad State of Written Communication

brett west head shotBy Brett West, Director of Media Relations,  Epic PR Group

I don’t know about you, but nothing irks me more than reading and editing a document riddled with mistakes apparently made by a seven-year-old, only to find the author is a well accomplished executive. Half thoughts, run-ons, misspells, compound sentences, incorrect syntax and inventive vocabulary are things that always get under my fingernails like wood splinters. What bothers me more, is that these mistakes, once considered taboo, are becoming increasingly acceptable.

Someone who proves an inability to write effectively strikes us all as someone less “leaderly.”  More importantly, it diminishes their credibility.

There is no doubt that the mad pace of this busy world plays a significant role in our writing abilities. The 24-hour news cycle demands headlines that grab attention. Everything the reader needs to know must be located in the first paragraph of a story. Search engine optimization dictates keys words in content. Clients require memos with bullet points in place of full sentences totaling no more than one page in length. And as though that weren’t enough, the Twittersphere places a 140-character limit on all tweets.

Positioning the bottom line up front and communicating with brevity is hardly causing the downfall of written communication. The problem is priority – a lack thereof.

Once considered blueprints for writing, sentence diagramming and outlining have become long lost art forms.

Given my PR career, I consider it a blessing to have been a seventh grade student of Maryann Ostermeyer, an English teacher affectionately referred to by her students as Miss O. Under Miss O’s tutelage, students struggle through and conquer sentence diagramming to learn the relationship between words and the nature of syntactic structure. Proficiency in this exercise enables the writer to determine how to properly write a sentence. Understanding outlining leads to thoughts that can be articulated in an orderly fashion.

Another painfully difficult lesson Miss O led was on the prefix, root and suffix of words (AND THEIR ORIGINS!!) in order to understand every term thrown our way, and how to use them in intelligent sentences. Education on vocabulary is critical and is missing from today’s set of priorities.

Equally important, Miss O taught us to read literature (no, People Magazine does not count) because edited reading material offers us a chance to see the best of written language in its most appropriate use without mistakes, without slang terms and without improper usage.

I’m not going to sit here at my computer and tell stories about how I walked uphill to and from school in the driving snow of Southern California. I’m not even going to fib to you about how much I enjoyed learning these lessons on vocabulary, sentence diagramming and outlining. Perhaps these skills are tedious to learn – and may be as painful as learning math for a language-oriented person – but they are critical to effective written communication. What I will share is this: mastering these skills allowed me to be a much stronger writer. And being a strong writer is essential in business across all industries.

To those who struggle with written communication, I encourage you to defy laziness and cultural norms. Take classes. Read. Increase your skill level. Challenge yourself. Turn off autocorrect on your smart phone, and turn off spell check on your computer. Pick up a dictionary and review the prefix, root and suffix…not the spelling and definition alone. Hell, if I could get my hands on the syllabus for my seventh grade English class and publish it, we’d all be more proficient writers, and Miss O would be a bazillionaire.

In the global workforce, the proven ability to write effectively offers higher power to influence hire power.

In business, what we say – and how we say it – equates to who we are. And the way in which we communicate is as important as our brand. Whether creating a multi-million dollar Super Bowl ad at the pinnacle of a career or participating in an interview for an entry-level job at the onset of a career, the language choices we make are given tremendous significance by our peers, by those in the board room and by those with the decision making power to hire us.


About the Author:  Brett West’s experience in strategic communications spans more than two decades, and crosses into corporate, political and nonprofit sectors. He currently serves as Director of Media Relations at Epic PR Group in Alexandria, VA.


Did the White House Blow its Crisis Communications Plan?

Did the White House Blow its Crisis Communications Plan?


Crisis communications at the White House

Setting off a crisis

This hasn’t been a fun couple of weeks for President Obama. Republicans and even members of his own party are gunning for him over the IRS, AP phone records and Benghazi debacles.

Starting with the IRS, several mid-level career IRS employees in the Cincinnati office targeted conservative sounding groups like the Tea Party for extra scrutiny when considering their applications for tax-exempt status.

Apparently, their instructions for screening these requests weren’t clear – at least that’s the IRS’s defense.

Doing a Better Job

Politics aside, the Administration could have done a better job handling the IRS debacle. Then there are the other still festering inquiries. For example, whether the staff and U.S. Ambassador who were killed in an assault on the embassy in Benghazi could have been rescued, and the Justice Department’s review of AP journalists’ phone records.

If the White House has a crisis communications plan in place they blew it.

Regarding the IRS scandal, the White House press secretary, Jay Carney sounded pretty lame when he claimed that insiders knew about it but didn’t think to inform the President.

That was mistake number one in handling the crisis. You’ve got to know you have one. The President’s inner circle of advisors should have recognized immediately that this information would get leaked to the press and it did. A red flag should have gone up when they discovered that the Tea Party was specifically targeted.

The President learned about the IRS misdeeds from media reports. Talk about being blind-sided. That’s akin to the CEO of a company turning on the TV and discovering that customers are getting deathly sick from one of his company’s products.

Crisis Communications Planning

If you’re in charge of communications for your company, don’t wait for a crisis – or multiple crises — to test your plan or think it will never happen here. Take these steps to avoid a crisis when something goes terribly wrong for your company.


  • Recognize a crisis when it comes. As the White House learned, it’s almost impossible to regain control of the controversy and misinformation once the media gets hold of the story.
  • Be alert for anything that could impact negatively on your business.
  • Develop a plan for your crisis team, establishing communication channels and assignment of duties. Make a list of all those who should be notified, especially the CEO.
  • Be sure your spokespersons are media trained to handle reporter inquiries.
  • Review the plan periodically. Select a crisis scenario and talk it through.


  • Contact key audiences quickly with accurate information about what has happened. Tell them what steps have been taken, and will be taken, to address the situation and how the incident may affect them.
  • Establish an emergency nerve center where the senior communications professional handles all media inquiries and distributes updated information to the company’s target audiences. Advise employees to refer all inquiries to people staffing this nerve center.
  • Keep employees informed of continuing developments.
  • Tell employees what they can do to help.


  • Reward/acknowledge heroes, those who went out of their way to resolve the crisis.
  • Investigate preventable causes and include results in best practices.
  • Take steps to restore trust with all key audiences.

Clearly, the Obama Administration will continue to be under fire for its handling of these ongoing crises. But that’s the nature of the office.

You could argue that the White House is always in crisis with the continuing violence in hot spots around the world and ongoing domestic issues like the environment and the economy.

This post is not about politics. It’s about how to manage communications during a crisis, whether it’s the White House or your own company.

How do you feel the White House has handled the current IRS, AP probe and Benghazi crises? Where did they go wrong? What could they have done better?

Read more:

Why Social Media Is the Front Line of Disaster Response

Why Social Media Is the Front Line of Disaster Response

By Zoe Fox, May 22, 2013

Nearly one million people are affected by natural disasters each year. In the U.S. alone, some 400 people die from disasters that cost the economy $17.6 billion. Helping respond to these cataclysmic events, social media is now a go-to tool for those effected by disasters.

One in five Americans has used an emergency app. Of those Americans effected by natural disasters, 76% used social media to contact friends and family; 37% of used social media to help find shelter and supplies; and 24% used social media to let loved ones know they’re safe.



This infographic, created by our friends at USF’s Online MPA, details how social media has revolutionized communications during natural disasters.

At the bottom of the infographic, you’ll find a FEMA tweet sent during Hurrcane Sandy, which exemplifies why social media is becoming the best way to spread information during dangerous events: Phone lines can get congested, so updating social networks can be the ideal way to let loved ones know you’re okay.

Have you used social media to communicate with loved ones during a storm, hurricane, earthquake or forest fire? Let us know in the comments.


Homepage image courtesy of iStockphotoKrakozawr



News Releases Have Different Value During TAOTSE – The Age of the Search Engine.

Editor’s Note:  This post is in response to a story last week by Richard Berman on about the decline of the value of press releases.  

S.Sobel.featuredBy Scott Sobel, MA Media Psychology

No doubt it is just this side of useless and a waste of money to spray out a pro forma news release to a mass audience.  Our agency does use news releases all of the time to great advantage, however, but we do not use them necessarily in ways they were used before TAOTSE – The Age of the Search Engine … now that the algorithm is king and ubiquitous.

Of course, just putting a release willy-nilly on the web or even e-mailing cold to an unknown reporter has little value unless you are thoughtful in the way the release is fashioned and your targets and follow-up well considered.

The release posting helps the searchability of a topic, can drive all related coverage higher on the search engines, especially when we facilitate linking between web sites and then reposting on all kinds of social media.

Fact is, a release is no longer the primary door opener for journalist interest as it once was but it should be used as one more arrow in the PR persuasion quiver. If the correct key words are dropped-in, the right #tag chosen, the release has a better chance of catching the attention of Subject Matter Experts (SME) bloggers or those reporting a specific news item, and can begin a dialogue that leads to story placements.

Other value. A well-constructed release can be used for background and follow-up information for interested journalists who we do contact directly by an aggressive phone call (avoid leaving the despised voice message) or a personalized e-mail with a powerful subject line.

The call-and-send-a-release strategy is even more valuable when you are pitching a novice desk-assistant or editor who you get interested in a story and then needs something concrete in their hand or in an e-mail to pass to a decision-maker.

We are in the PR trenches and work every day with media outlets like 60 Minutes, ABC News’ Ross Unit, Washington Post, Huffington Post, legal and aviation trades, national radio and every kind of local media outlet – even international news outlets.  Our news releases are part of almost every engagement; the release is not the only tool used, but one that should not be ignored.

So, the release is not dead at all, it is just morphing and being repurposed by smart practitioners.  I was a journalist for 20 years and I still pitch former colleagues and now new contacts with the same kinds of story hooks as I was interested in when I was doing live shots myself or writing for the newspaper. And yes, I was interested in getting information then from news releases, anonymous tips, off the record conversations, carrier pigeon, it didn’t matter as long as I could corroborate the information, the subject lead was compelling and relevant and the release information broke or advanced a storyline.

Good journalists or bloggers today also are interested in getting information from news releases or any other kind of valid source. A news release alone has marginal impact and value, it’s the execution of the release and then the follow-up that makes the difference between the release being tossed or the release igniting a favorable action.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of the news release are exaggerated.


About the Author:  Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc., He is also a former major market and TV network investigative journalist with a Media Psychology MA from Touro University Worldwide

Is Social Media Advertising or PR?


May 11, 2013

PR excels at messaging, but advertising focuses on results. So where does that leave your social media marketing?

 Who manages your company’s social media?

The social world for marketers remains a space where rules are yet to be written. But whether you think of social media as PR or marketing matters: It changes the tenor and the implications of your interactions, not to mention what you get out of them.

Most companies view their social efforts as a form of PR, thanks to the dynamic nature of the interaction between their brand and consumers. But as social media objectives evolve from “creating buzz” to delivering return, it’s important to view social media through the lens of what you want to accomplish to determine who on your team should own your social media efforts.

The PR argument is simple. Social media is a real-time, open dialog between company and customers. This environment requires the kind of rapid turnaround and message controls that PR groups excel at. PR knows how to stay on message and manage a diverse group of stakeholders to deliver a message across a variety of touchpoints. They have the press and media relationships to make sure the message spreads more organically. And PR knows how to conduct damage control when this all goes horribly wrong, which it inevitably does at times. Clearly this is a PR function…

…But not so fast. Social media is maturing, evolving quickly from just a place to communicate to an environment that can help sell and inform messaging. Many people “like” and follow companies not to be part of a community, but to stay connected to products, promotions and developments. For instance, while they have a huge Facebook audience, few people “like” Charmin on Facebook to share their thoughts on toilet paper usage. The real interaction is around sweepstakes and promotions that drive activation.  Increasing business investment in social media is coming in conjunction with new capabilities that enable tracking through conversion. That’s clearly an advertising metric.

So the argument for viewing social media as a form of advertising is simple: Advertising is far more connected to day-to-day business strategy and the objectives associated with specific products and services. Advertisers are focused more on achieving measurable results and meeting actual sales goals. As investment in social increases, return on investment will become an increasingly important metric. And social media will need to be closely aligned with product news, promotional offers and customer segmentation to drive real success. In other words, the expertise required for future tangible social success clearly lies with the advertising team.

So what’s the right answer for your company? It really comes down to what you are looking to accomplish in social in the first place. The best way to decide is to look at the goals you use to define success. Are share of conversation, buzz generated or customer care metrics the ideal measures of success? If so, your efforts may be more PR oriented. But if you look ahead and see social playing a greater role in generating response, sales and other metrics that you would typically associate with advertising, then you’re thinking of social as advertising and should be developing plans, metrics and messages as part of your overall marketing communications efforts.

Scott Elser is co-founder of NY-based Launchpad Advertising, a full service ad agency focused on redefining market opportunities for brands in transition. A member of the 2012 Inc 500, Launchpad has helped drive growth across a wide range of businesses, from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Scott is a marketing consultant, entrepreneur and business coach who spent more than a decade on the marketing team at AT&T as well as holding executive posts at McCann and Grey before opening Launchpad in 2007. @scottlpa


YouTube Announces the End of the World – PRNewser

YouTube Announces the End of the World – PRNewser.

YouTube Announces the End of the World

What? They want us to pay?

Hold on. Breathe. The news is true. YouTubehas just (finally) made it official that it will allow content providers to charge viewers access to videos. So, what will this do to the next Harlem Shuffle, the next cat floundering in a paper bag, or the next Justin Bieber musical sensation? Not much, probably.

Most of YouTube will remain free to the public, and the channels that do decide to charge customers will probably be able to do so because they know what their discerning customers want. YouTube is going niche. This means that we can actually choose the content we want to pay for, just as we choose whether or not we want to subscribe via pay walls to our favorite online newspapers and magazines.

Though much of the public still thinks all content should be free, it is slowly coming to the realization that some people actually make a living by creating content, and ultimately consumers will have to make a choice between paying for quality content and not having access to that content at all. This increasing reality has found its way onto YouTube and it doesn’t signify the end of the world for online content. It might, however, signify the demise of cable television.

The public hates paying for cable packages that include hundreds of channels it will never watch. For years, the public has asked itself, “Why should I pay for TV programming that doesn’t interest me at all? If I order a pepperoni pizza and it comes with a side of lobster bisque and jar of jelly beans for a total of $112, I’d be an idiot to pay.” But pay we did, until now.

Now that our TV’s have gone digital that space in our homes reserved for watching television has become a portal to the online universe. But that digital freedom won’t be free. And it shouldn’t be. Because, you know, even bloggers who no longer pay for cable still have to pay for electricity. Ahem. And someday we’ll all be on YouTube.


Twitter Sets Their Sights on the Media

Twitter Sets Their Sights on the Media.

Twitter news featured

Twitter is already playing a large part in the news industry: it’s where many people find breaking news and it’s where journalists go to locate sources close to a breaking story. And they want to do more. They recently posted this job opening:

Twitter is playing an integral role in the evolution of the news industry — both as a tool for reporters and newsrooms and as a way for consumers to find news in real-time. Twitter has already changed the way news breaks and provided journalists new ways to connect with their readers. We are looking for a seasoned leader to shape and drive the next growth phase of Twitter’s partnership with the news industry. We believe Twitter is a valuable complement to the great work already being done and want to find ways for Twitter to help ensure the industry’s success.

How does Twitter envision their role in the news business? This is what they expect the new hire to do for Twitter:

You will be responsible for devising and executing the strategies that make Twitter indispensable to newsrooms and journalists, as well as an essential part of the operations and strategy of news organizations and TV news networks. You should have a strong vision for the broad potential of Twitter and news, while also being able to rigorously manage and scale the news team’s daily impact.

And these are the key results they hope this person will achieve for Twitter:

  • Develop a multi-year year strategy for news that drives substantial increases in:
    • Volume and quality of professional news content on Twitter, especially in breaking news
      • Number of journalists using Twitter, both as a tool to aid their reporting and also as a tool to distribute their content
    • Volume and quality in usage of Twitter as a source in news stories (online and in print)
    • How widely and effectively Twitter products are used by news organizations—from embedded timelines and Tweets on news sites to adoption of on-Twitter products like Twitter Cards
    • Volume and quality of on-air integrations across TV news networks
    • Frequency and engagement level of user behavior around news content on Twitter

No small undertaking.  And a clear indication of Twitter’s commitment to becoming a major influence in the news industry. If Twitter is not yet an integral part of  your Digital PR and media relations strategy this might just be the nudge you need to rethink what you’re doing with Twitter.

What we think, we become. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world. – The Buddha

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