Archive for category Employee Communications

16 Tips for hopeful PR practitioners

I was recently interviewed by a budding PR practitioner for a college class. The conversation made me think about the pros and cons of the business, and what I wish someone had told me in the early years.

Thumbs Up

  • A great variety of tasks ensures you’ll never be bored — from writing to photography to media relations.
  • You get to do a lot of fun things. Top of my list? Taking courtside photos at a Boston Celtics game. I’ve also done aerial photography and handled media relations for an event that featured former Secretary of State George Mitchell as the keynote speaker.
  • You learn a lot. About a lot of things.
  • And get to hang with interesting people — celebrities, authors, elected officials, company leaders, and national media. One of my favorites was working at a Leon Redbone concert, and being in the Green Room after the show.
  • The CEO knows your name and returns your emails.
  • PR people have a seat at the table, whether in a leadership meeting or a crisis response.

Thumbs Down

  • Along with the variety comes a high degree of unpredictability. Issues and projects have an interesting way of popping up at the wrong time.
  • You’ll run across people who think they know your job and — often well-intentioned — tell you how to do it.
  • Pressure. PR has been listed among the most stressful jobs.
  • Lack of control – you can do everything correct and still not have the outcome you desire: rain washes out your outdoor event; a significant event bounces your story off the news, etc.
  • 24/7 – Lots of things happen off work hours, from customer events to a middle-of-the-night crisis.
    Your mistakes are often public.

Doing the Job

  • Ask questions – If something confuses you, it likely has the same effect on your audience.
  • Show common sense – Be the person who says, “This doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”
  • Know numbers – A good business sense helps you understand your organization and boosts your credibility.
  • Be quick – The clock is often ticking, so learn to write and think quickly.
  • Act with integrity – It’s the right thing to do and you’re asking for trouble if you veer off course.

Your turn, PR people. What advice would you share with a hopeful practitioner?

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You’re just one word away from being a better writer

There is a simple secret to improve your writing — and your communications in general. Okay, it’s not really a secret, but it is very, very simple.

Use “you” more often.

Yup, I’m serious. Do that and you’re on your way to being a better writer and communicator.

Have a conversation
Using “you” (or forms of it) shifts your messages from talking at someone to speaking with them, making your message more personal and conversational.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate:
Old School: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to employee’ homes in November.”
New style: “Look for your Benefit Enrollment Packets, coming in the mail in November.”

Old School: Students should return their permission forms by Tuesday.”
New Style: Please return your permission forms by Tuesday.”

Old School : “Members and their families are invited to attend the annual banquet….”
New Style: “You and your family are invited to the annual banquet…”

Be casual and clear
As you can see, incorporating “you” makes your writing more casual, conversational, and clear, while the old school way of referring to your audience in the third person is impersonal, and frankly, a little boring. And “you” is almost like calling someone by their name, one of the best attention grabbers available to communicators.

So give it a try and let me know what you think. While you’re at it, toss a “we” or two. I think you’ll like what you see.

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Being humble makes you a better communicator

During a live shot on the news this week, a local reporter caught my attention when she used the word “I” three times in a sentence. Sure, it’s conversational and brings the reporter into the story, but at the same time, use of that pronoun takes away from the subject of the story.

Know your audience
Communicators often talk about identifying your audience. If you’re selling fishing flies, you want to target people who fish. Manufacturing a new soda? Aim for kids and teens.

That’s pretty basic stuff, but writing to your target audience is where many messages fall short.

My favorite example is the typical, annual benefits enrollment announcement that you see at many companies: “Benefit enrollment packets will be mailed to eligible employees beginning November 1.”
In this message, you’re talking at employees, not to them. Contrast the above example with, “Look for your benefits enrollment packets, coming in the mail in early November.”

The second version rises above the first because it 1) carries a friendly, more conversational tone; and 2) speaks to the reader, not from the company.  It’s a subtle adjustment, but a very effective technique to improve your writing.

What’s the secret? Be humble, and put readers ahead of you and your organization.  Think about what they want to read. It’s human nature to be proud of your accomplishments or your company, but remember that you’re writing for your readers, and the message should focus on them.

Another example
Company focused: XYZ Company, the nation’s leading developer of pain-relieving medications, announced a new, over-the-counter medication that extensive studies show significantly reduce pain caused by arthritis.”

Audience focused: Relief is on the way for arthritis sufferers, thanks to a new over-the-counter medication that studies show significantly reduces joint pain. The medication, Pain Away, was developed by researchers at XYZ Company, the nation’s leading …”

While the company was bumped from the first sentence to the second, your message is more likely to be read and remembered because it addresses an issues many readers have (arthritis pain). And that’s what matters.

Being humble does pay off.

 

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Follow your intuition to be a better photographer

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I recently returned from a trip to New York City designed to improve my photography skills. During the four-day stay, I participated in several workshops and also ventured out on my own for many walkabout shoots.

My goal was to become a better photographer, and what I came away with was an interesting, new way to approach photography.

Three of the sessions were offered by The Art of Intuitive Photography, and as the name implies, students are encouraged to follow their instinct and intuition when searching for a good photo, rather than pre-determined guidelines. In other words, look for subject that you connect with, not necessarily a postcard-type photo.

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Sounds obvious, but it was eye opening. As workshop participants walked through the streets and parks of the Big Apple, each of us clearly heard a different calling and ventured off to shoot what caught our eyes. One focused on birds and flowers. Another photographed children playing in a fountain.

During my first session, we came upon a statue of George Washington, located on the steps where he took the oath of office. My images of the statue failed to excite me, but the photo of this flute player (above) at the foot of the statue jumped out. Lesson: I’m a better people photographer because I find humans more interesting than a statue.

The Art of Intuitive Photography teaches students to focus on things that interest you by adopting a child-like spirit. One exercise — pretending we were a newborn looking around for the first time — helped drive this home.

On the final day, I ventured to Harlem to capture the culture and personality of the neighborhood. I shot a few buildings and murals, but my mission was to find interesting people. The image to the left depicts a cook on break during his early shift.  The photo to the right, a man lighting his morning cigar.

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Some people would find the murals and buildings much more interesting, and that’s okay. Whether looking at a photo, painting, or sculpture, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Thinking about what attracts your eye will make you a better photographer, as I hope it has me.

See more of my New York City photos at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnlamb1
Read the BBC article, Trusting your gut: Smart management or a fool’s errand?, which features The Art of Intuitive Photography

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5 ways to beat writer’s block

You sit, ready to craft an important memo, but find yourself struggling to begin. Staring at the blinking cursor doesn’t help, so you do the next best thing — go for coffee.

Overcoming writer’s block can be difficult. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years:

Just write it
Early in my career, I was working with a veteran PR person on an important memo. As I noodled what to say for the opening, he interrupted, “Type something … Just start writing.”

He was right. If I’m struggling with a lead sentence, I’ll skip it and start with the second paragraph. It helps establish a rhythm and prevents me from over thinking.

Make a list
If I’m stuck, or have a lot to cover, I’ll jump to the end of the document and list key points. It substitutes as a primitive outline of sorts, and lets me focus on how I want to say something, rather than what I should include.

For example, if I’m working on a flu vaccine story for a newsletter, my list might include:

  • Free for employees
  • Protect yourself and your family
  • Evergreen Conference Room
  • M-F, 8 – 9 a.m.
  • Nov 1 – 15
  • Painless
  • Employee Health, ext. 1234
  • Remember hand hygiene too

Jump around
Once I’ve made the list above, I’ll pick a point or two and write a sentence or paragraph. For example:

“Public health experts say a vaccine, combined with good hand hygiene, is the best way to protect you and your loved ones from catching the flu. Best of all, flu vaccines are free for employees.”

You can order the segments later, and once you start writing, you’ll likely see things falling into place.

Talk it out
Good writing is conversational, so think of how you’d tell the news to someone who knows nothing about the situation. For example, work is being done on the plumbing in your office building, and during that time, the facility will be close due to lack of water. So what do you want to tell staff?

“The office will be closed next Friday while crews work to repair a damaged pipe.”

You’ve got your start, now fill in the details.

Walk away (but not far away)
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when struggling to come up with something, try walking away for a couple of minutes. Grab a drink of water, pop a letter in the mail, anything to clear your head.

Your turn. What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

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Times change, but skills remain key

Think about the changes an 80-year-old has seen. Growing up, the family’s primary sources of news and events were likely the daily newspaper and word-of-mouth from family and friends. Then came the telephone, radio, and television. That generation witnessed a shift in the methods and speed of communication greater than any group prior.

Now we have the internet, email, social media, smart phones, tablets, and apps that will do everything from paying bills to creating a talking Santa cartoon.

Staying in touch has never been easier — while being an effective communicator has become increasingly difficult.

The following tips will help increase the odds your audience will pay attention to your message:

Be clear and concise
Regardless of your field or message, your writing (or speaking) should be direct and to-the-point. If your readers have to look for key message, you’ve likely lost them. Make your point without lengthy introductions, then follow-up with details.

This is particularly critical when targeting younger generations that are accustomed to more direct communication.

Consider your audience
A NASA engineer speaking to her peers would likely use very different language than when addressing a group of high school students on the same topic. Ask yourself what you audience knows about the topic, how much detail is appropriate, and if they’ll understand terminology associated with the subject. If’ I’m chatting with another photographer, I might mention shooting an image with my 135mm at f2. However, if speaking my aunt, I’d simply say I adjusted the camera to blur the background out of focus.

Be objective
Passion is a double-edge sword. It’s what makes you good at your job, but also makes effectively communicating about it much more challenging.

I’ll explain. You want to tell people about a project, and assume they’ll share your excitement. You begin to tell them the specifics of your work, and before you can know it, they’ve lost interest, either because they can’t follow the details or the story ran too long.

A programmer friend once told me a story about a project she was working on. As much as I tried to follow along, I was lost within 3 minutes. The story continued, with me struggling to keep up. It’s became jokingly known as the “Flat File Story.”

Be timely and time sensitive
Readers are incredibly busy, so you have to reach them where they want to hear the news, and then present it in a way that they’ll want to read/hear.

In my early years, we often drafted newsletter articles or messages from executives that were fairly long, and people seemed to read them. Now there’s great competition for readers’ attention, and you run the risk of losing them with a message that’s too jam-packed. And given the speed at which news travels, by the time you craft your detailed message, it might be old or outdated.

Follow Twitter’s lead
Twitter, with its 140 character limit, provides a great exercise in good writing. It forces you to be direct, clear, and concise. Give it a try.

Your turn. How do you reach your audience?

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South earns its reputation for hospitality

I recently spent a week in the Deep South, exposed to a culture and lifestyle that differs greatly from that of my home state of Maine.

While the food was heavier (think deep fried pickles) and the pace a bit slower than what we’re use to in the Northeast, the courtesy of the people lived up to its reputation.

People at nearly every turn and every venue, from Atlanta Braves staff to passengers on public transportation, were exceedingly polite to this visitor, with extra helpings of Sir and Thank you. After a few days, I began to think my humble Thank You was insufficient, and started adding a Ma’am or Sir.

The South certainly doesn’t have an exclusive on courtesy — I’ve seen shop owners in New York City go far out of their way to help a tourist — but in terms of consistency, the South gets my vote.

I wonder if the common denominator is that Southerners see people as fellow human beings, while those in the fast-pace, always-on-the-go Northeast see coworkers, vendors, and customers. Either way, it speaks to the power of culture, and its impact on the smallest of interactions.

Your turn. What differences have you seen among cultures or regions?

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