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What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me

What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me

“What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me” is part two of a mini-series on education and being a millennial in the world of PR, from some of our young professionals at A.wordsmith. Read part one here.

 

I veered towards PR after five years in the education and nonprofit world. The overlap between development and communications is significant, but I realized that specialized training would give me an advantage in the market and elevate my skillset. I pursued a Master’s in Management Communications with a Concentration in Marketing and Public Relations. This mouthful of a degree combined a wide mix of journalism, sociology, social media, marketing, research, and rhetorical methods courses into a surprisingly cohesive curriculum. While I certainly had a lot to learn post-graduation, I graduated with an excellent grasp of the core capabilities required in public relations. These are a few  of the things my public relations degree taught me that helped me get a head start in my PR career:

What makes great writing

The writing skills taught in kindergarten through college programs often focus on grammar and basic style guidelines. I believe that great writing requires this knowledge. I can easily bore even the most earnest listener with my zeal for the Oxford comma, my personal relationships with Strunk & White and Harbrace, and my embarrassing crush on The New Yorker’s diaereses.

However, advanced writing requires something richer. One of my courses focused almost exclusively on metaphors. Another guided me through sensory writing about music and food. Still others spent time on the logistics of understanding and cooperating with your audience. These exercises gave me the toolbox and the je ne sais quoi that makes great writing great, and the ability to tap them for the vast range of topics and markets that our PR clients belong to.

How to become an expert in anything

When I explain that much of my work involves writing and working on articles with media outlets, the next question is always, “About what?”

“Whatever the client needs.”

On any given day, I may be producing content about anything from the FDA approval process for prescription drugs to the hidden gems of southern Oregon wine country. The tasks can rarely be boiled down to simple copywriting or editing – most of the time I am researching, developing, and presenting complex subjects. I spend hours poring over articles and blogs, perusing competitor thought leadership, and interviewing subject matter experts. Fortunately, rigorous research requirements in school left me quite adept at zigzagging through academic databases and lay publications. My marketing coursework primed me in strategic competitor research. I owe my interview skills to a fastidious journalism adjunct and a supportive qualitative research methods professor. These skills let me become an overnight expert in just about anything – and I couldn’t produce quality work without them.

What My Public Relations Degree Taught Me

Why we tell stories

We tell stories because they work. Stories are at the root of communication. They’re more engaging and can reach a wide audience. In every course I took – from Social Media and Culture to Applied Marketing Strategies – the importance of storytelling was pounded into our minds. Journalists and editors can sniff right through a pitch about a nonstory. The case studies A.wordsmith writes tell a company’s success story with a certain goal in mind, and even web copy has greater impact if it illustrates the point. PR shares messages, and the best messages are usually couched in stories.

Look for part 3 of this series next week!

Streamline Your Writing: Five Tips

Steve Jobs once said: “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Throughout your PR and writing career, you have heard more than once to tighten up your pitches, your white papers or your press releases. While it takes practice, the result is worth the effort.

Below are five tips to keep your writing clear and concise.

Avoid passive language.

Is the object of your sentence in the position where the subject should be? If so, it’s probably passive. For example, “The dog was walked by me” should read: “I walked the dog”.

Don’t rely on adverbs as descriptors.

Instead, use a descriptive adjective. Not only can adverbs dilute a sentence’s meaning, but they add unnecessary word count. Instead of writing, “He ate his dinner quickly,” say: “He devoured his dinner”.

Use words that resonate with your audience.

While it might be tempting to infuse your writing with large words or esoteric terminology, in most cases, this approach is not appropriate for your audience. Unless you are writing a technical piece or white paper, aim for a straightforward style.

Minimize prepositions.

Prepositions are used to connect nouns and pronouns to each other. Examples include: “of, for, to, by, at, from, on or into”. Instead of saying “The captain of the boat,” you can tighten the sentence by two words by saying: “the boat’s captain”.

Avoid redundant language.

Proofread your piece for words that can be eliminated because they don’t add meaning. For example, you can eliminate “exact” from the phrase, “exact same,” and “time” from the phrase, “present time”. Pay a visit to this site for 200 common redundancies.

Do you have tips or questions about writing more clearly and concisely? If so, we’re all ears. Share your comments and feedback below.

Avoid Bad PR with Good Grammar

Good Grammar

There’s no shortage of articles about the enduring importance of good grammar in the modern business world. They illuminate the ways it bestows credibility on the writer, indicates professionalism, and ensures clarity and accuracy. As a grammar nut myself, I couldn’t agree more. But there’s one more thing I’d like to add to that list: bad grammar is bad PR.

Grammar gaffes go viral quickly. Just last week the world collectively snickered at attempts by Britain’s Labour Party to mock the Tories’ education record with an email titled “NEWS FROM LABOUR: Nothing is doing more to damage English & maths education than the Tory’s failure to recruit enough good teachers.” Mistakes like this used to inspire a chuckle and then fade, but today they are broadcast worldwide.

Don’t underestimate the negative reactions to poor writing. Grammarly recently released a fun infographic that notes the impact of writing skills on online dating success. The company found that just two spelling errors in a man’s online dating profile reduced his chances of a response by 14%, and that “both men and women rank grammar more important than confidence in a potential date.”

This isn’t limited by demographics, either. Millennials are actually more likely to be irked by grammar mistakes than other age groups. “While we’d assume they’d be accustomed to seeing and using abbreviated speech and lingo because they are a tech-savvy generation, we actually found that they have much higher standards,” a Harris poll found last summer.

The takeaway? If professionalism and clarity aren’t enough motivation, just remember what a mess the clean-up will be when everyone is laughing at you. Then proofread, proofread, ask a friend to proofread, ask another, and then proofread again.

5 Associated Press Stylebook changes marketing pros should know

The Associated Press Stylebook isn’t just for journalists. For the best in clarity and consistency, corporations should use AP style in nearly all their written communications materials.

The stylebook is updated year-round based on current usage and feedback from an annual survey. Some changes make headlines: in 2014 when AP said that “over” was an acceptable alternative to “more than” when describing relative amounts, the copywriting community was up in arms. In a critical Washington Post op-ed Alexandra Petri claimed the AP was letting usage win over correct grammar with this change.

The 2015 revised book contains over 300 changes, none of which incited the same response as the “over”/”more than” update. Nonetheless, there are five updates that are most important for those who write or edit for business.

1. New terms.

A new entry has been added regarding suicides and suicide attempts. Overall, AP recommends avoiding detail on the methods used, with the following style change: “Committed suicide” should be avoided except in direct quote from authorities.

It’s also advised to use “Affordable Care Act” sparingly, as not all Americans recognize the law by its formal name. AP suggests using “President Barack Obama’s health care law” or “the health care law” on first reference, and “Obamacare”—in quotation marks—on second reference.

2. Food names and phrases.

The AP made dozens of minor updates to this category. Most relevant: “BLT”—formerly bacon, lettuce and tomato—is now acceptable on first reference. And “craft brewery” should replace the use of “microbrewery.”

3. Social media lingo.

“Favorite” is now an acceptable term for the Twitter button users use to “express approval for a tweet, and/or to bookmark that tweet, and any associated links, for later consumption,” according to the AP Stylebook.

“Favorite” can also be used as a verb, as in: I favorite all the tweets from PR Daily’s Twitter account.

Though social media professionals have used “memes” to increase online interaction with their audiences for a while, it’s now an official AP style term. A “meme” is “a piece of information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that’s shared verbally or transmitted widely, often in social media.”

4. Sports slang and organization names.

AP Stylebook now includes several standardized basketball terms, such as “Elite Eight” and “Final Four,” which are now capitalized.

The AP is also putting the brakes on sports clichés: “A team losing a game is not a “disaster.” Home runs are homers, not “dingers,” “jacks” or “bombs.” A player scored 10 straight points, not 10 “unanswered” points. If a football team scores two touchdowns and the opponent doesn’t come back, say it “never trailed” rather than “never looked back.” In short, avoid hackneyed words and phrases, redundancies and exaggerations.”

5. Index of terms.

Though not a style revision, AP Stylebook has added an 85-page index to its 2015 edition to help users find words more quickly.

What’s your favorite and least favorite AP Stylebook rule?

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AP is at it Again! Time to Spell Out State Names

US Map

For the second time in a month’s span, AP has changed the rules in writing. Effective May 1, the AP will spell out state names in the body of stories. Currently, most state names are abbreviated in stories. The change is being made to be consistent in style for domestic and international stories, as international stories traditionally spell out state names in the body of stories.

State abbreviations will continue to be used in lists, agate, tabular material, nonpublishable editor’s notes and credit lines. They will also be used in short-form identification of political party affiliation. Photo captions will continue to use abbreviations, too. This change will improve consistency and efficiency for domestic and international stories, eliminating the need to spell out all state names in international copy, and to abbreviate them in domestic copy. Please note that you will still use abbreviations in datelines, photo captions, lists, etc.

The new entry in the Stylebook online

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Spell out state names

The names of the 50 U.S. states should be spelled out when used in the body of a story, whether standing alone or in conjunction with a city, town, village or military base. No state name is necessary if it is the same as the dateline. This also applies to newspapers cited in a story. For example, a story datelined Providence, R.I., would reference the Providence Journal, not the Providence (R.I.) Journal. See datelines.

Eight not abbreviated

The names of eight states are never abbreviated in datelines or text: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah.

Memory aid

Spell out the names of the two states that are not part of the contiguous United States and of the continental states that are five letters or fewer.

In the body of stories

Except for cities that stand alone in datelines, use thestate name in textual material when the city or town is not in the same state as the dateline, or where necessary to avoid confusion: Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, Illinois. Provide a state identification for the city if the story has no dateline, or if the city is not in the same state as the dateline. However, cities that stand alone in datelines may be used alone in stories that have no dateline if no confusion would result.

Abbreviations required

Use the state abbreviations listed at the end of this section:

  • In conjunction with the name of a city, town, village or military base in most datelines. See datelines for examples and exceptions for large cities.
  • In lists, agate, tabular material, nonpublishable editor’s notes and credit lines.
  • In short-form listings of party affiliation: D-Ala., R-Mont. See party affiliation entry for details.

Following are the state abbreviations, which also appear in the entries for each state (postal code abbreviations in parentheses)

Ala. (AL) Md. (MD) N.D. (ND)

Ariz. (AZ) Mass. (MA) Okla. (OK)

Ark. (AR) Mich. (MI) Ore. (OR)

Calif. (CA) Minn. (MN) Pa. (PA)

Colo. (CO) Miss. (MS) R.I. (RI)

Conn. (CT) Mo. (MO) S.C. (SC)

Del. (DE) Mont. (MT) S.D. (SD)

Fla. (FL) Neb. (NE) Tenn. (TN)

Ga. (GA) Nev. (NV) Vt. (VT)

Ill. (IL) N.H. (NH) Va. (VA)

Ind. (IN) N.J. (NJ) Wash. (WA)

Kan. (KS) N.M. (NM) W.Va. (WV)

Ky. (KY) N.Y. (NY) Wis. (WI)

La. (LA) N.C. (NC) Wyo. (WY)

These are the postal code abbreviations for the eight states that are not abbreviated in datelines or text: AK (Alaska), HI (Hawaii), ID (Idaho), IA (Iowa), ME (Maine), OH (Ohio), TX (Texas), UT (Utah). Also: District of Columbia (DC).

Use the two-letter Postal Service abbreviations only with full addresses, including ZIP code.

Punctuation

Place one comma between the city and the state name, and another comma after the state name, unless ending a sentence or indicating a dateline: He was traveling from Nashville, Tennessee, to Austin, Texas, en route to his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She said Cook County, Illinois, was Mayor Daley’s stronghold.

Headlines

Avoid using state abbreviations in headlines whenever possible.

Miscellaneous

Use New York state when necessary to distinguish the state from New York City.

Use state of Washington or Washington state when necessary to distinguish the state from the District of Columbia. (Washington State is the name of a university in the state of Washington.)

The AP Is So Over Using “More Than”

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The AP Stylebook governs journalists, marketing communications and PR professionals alike and has been known for decades for its rigid stances on the minutiae of grammar, punctuation and spelling. It’s often the final arbiter when it comes to a debate over what to call undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. (“illegal immigrants” was banned from its list of sanctioned terms a year ago) and seemingly contradictory rules governing how to abbreviate geographical names (U.S. vs EU, for example).

More than or over?

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The Associated Press recently announced that it was overturning a decades-old rule to allow the use of either more than or over when talking about numerical values, such as: “The company recorded more than $3 billion in revenue last quarter.”  The former rule dictated the use of “more than” only.

In theory at least, I’m something of an AP style purist, if there is such a thing, so I side with the legions of journalists and copy editors who are currently a bit disgruntled over what seems to be a loosening of proper standards. After all, “over” originated as a directional term, meaning “higher than.” Under the old rules, “more than” always meant “greater than.”

Does the AP Stylebook evolve?

Nevertheless, the change to the official AP rule is in the usage of more than or over interesting to me because it shows that the AP views its Stylebook as a living organism, one that grows and changes – and one that reflects common grammar usage and word choice actually happening in the real world. As society becomes more colloquial in both the spoken and written word, the rules journalists and communications professionals are expected to adhere to seem to be changing as well.

Why does it even matter what the AP Stylebook deems correct? It doesn’t, in the big scheme of things, because the average person won’t catch the minor error here and there.

But the attention the AP Stylebook pays – and requires its adherents to pay – to the proper way to do things is important in all types of marketing and PR communications. A misused word or misplaced punctuation probably isn’t going to cost a restaurant business, but it could cause a prospective client of business in a professional services industry to wonder about that firm’s attention to detail and professionalism.

In any case, regardless of your industry, you don’t want something as simple as a misplaced comma to leave readers of your ads, website or marketing brochures wondering what you meant. After all, as the old copyediting joke goes, there’s a huge difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” We wouldn’t want your business communications to suffer from a similarly unfortunate misunderstanding.