Public relations Writing

5 PR lessons from 5 writers

This past week, I was just wrapping up a meeting for my ImPRessions account (ImPRessions, for those of you who don’t know, is the nationally affiliated student-run PR firm at Ohio University; I am the account executive for Express Clothing). At the end of our meeting, one of my associates approached me with a simple yet difficult question. She had signed up to write for the ImPRessions blog and had to contact our communications director with her blog topic by this weekend. The problem: she had no idea what she should write about and was wondering if I could give her some advice on how to pick a topic.

I suggested she start by thinking about things she’s interested in and how they relate to current events, and we talked through a few of these possibilities for a few minutes. Another option I suggested was that she think about a situation in her life and try to pull some public relations lessons out of that. It sounds like a careless way to pick a topic, but it can be surprisingly effective if done well. I previously wrote a post for ImPRessions about what working in the service industry taught me about PR, and felt good enough about it to attach it as a writing sample for an internship I recently applied for. I was interviewing for said internship last week and the interviewer, who had previously worked as a server herself, complimented me about it multiple times. And about a year ago, a friend of mine in my major wrote an article entitled “PR Lessons from a Broken iPhone.” Before you laugh, I’ll just point out that it got picked up by PR Daily.

After the conversation with my account associate, I began thinking about my own blog and the fact that I haven’t updated it/this for about a month now. I decided to take my own advice and look to some of my favorite writers for inspiration. Although these five individuals were not PR pros by trade, their personal and professional lives can provide useful advice for anyone in the industry.

The following five writers come from different time periods, cultures, and personal backgrounds, but they have each had some kind of influence on me as a writer – and now, as an aspiring PRo.

Oscar Wilde: Stick to your personal brand

“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

He’s first on the list because he’s the oldest and I’m doing this in chronological order, but it also just so happens that Mr. Wilde has been my #1 favorite author since reading The Picture of Dorian Gray my junior year of high school. Although he enjoyed quite a bit of professional success during his 46-year life, his critics often condemned his unconventional personal style – not to mention the controversial (especially for the time) themes of many of his works. He was known for his exuberant personality and eccentric way of dressing, which made him stand out quite a bit from traditional Victorian conventions of the late 1800s. He was aware of the criticism he received for this but was completely unapologetic about being himself, and his unique style is just one of the factors that contributed to his lasting popularity.

When working on a PR strategy for a client, it’s extremely important to remember the image that the brand has already projected to the public. Consistency is key and it will help your client stand out and be memorable. It doesn’t make sense to portray your brand as quirky and fun in one campaign and then suddenly switch to a more serious tone – customers won’t know what to expect and can lose trust in your client. That’s not to say you can’t take on a rebranding effort every once in a while – just make sure that the image you project is consistent with how you want to be viewed.

Federico García Lorca: Take advantage of positioning

“Como no me he preocupado de nacer, no me preocupo de morir.” (“As I did not worry about being born, I don’t worry about dying.”)

Señor García Lorca was born in 1898 to a relatively wealthy family in Andalucía, the southernmost region of Spain as well as, historically, one of the poorest. Growing up, he often noticed the unfair treatment that his less fortunate neighbors suffered at the hands of the government, and he decided to use his privileges for good in order to speak for those whose voices went unheard. Many of his works exposed the cruel treatment of Spain’s lower classes, including his 1928 poem ‘Romance de la Guardia Civil Española‘ (‘Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard’) which is my absolute favorite thing written in Spanish and which tells the story of a brutal, murderous police raid on an innocent, impoverished village. Needless to say, the Spanish government was not a huge fan, and he was arrested and executed in 1936 for promoting radical ideas such as “Killing people you don’t agree with is wrong.”

In any kind of PR situation, it’s crucial to know what position your client occupies in the market and use that to your advantage. Is your brand at the top of its class? Play up its supreme quality and target it toward a higher income bracket rather than coming right out and saying that it’s more expensive. On the other hand, if your brand is known for being a less-expensive alternative to more expensive products, position it as affordable and accessible. There are countless other ways you can use positioning to your advantage: is your brand known for being family-friendly? What about environmentally sustainable? Pick the position that best fits your brand and use that position to provide the best possible experience for customers.

Sylvia Plath: Acknowledge a crisis

“I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.”

I first became acquainted with Ms. Plath in my AP English class during senior year of high school, when I had to write a research paper about a famous poet and chose her randomly from a list. I had originally wanted to do my project about Wilde, but my teacher told me to choose someone else because “his work is not used on the AP exam very often.” (A week later we proceeded to take a practice AP test on which the reading passage was an excerpt from The Importance of Being Earnest). This was annoying at the time, but while working on the project I realized that I really enjoyed Plath’s writing and ended up reading The Bell Jar in about two days.

Everyone has their own demons, but out of everyone on this list, Plath was the most notorious for wearing her heart on her sleeve and letting every single emotion – both good and bad – show through in her writing. She suffered from depression and other challenging personal issues throughout most of her life and used her writing as a way to channel everything she was going through. No matter what she was experiencing, she wasn’t afraid to put everything out there and acknowledge it.

Plath can teach us a lot about crisis communications in PR. Although she applied this tactic more to her personal life, in a professional PR situation, it’s always better to acknowledge a client’s slip-up rather than to brush it under the rug. Everything gets out eventually, especially in today’s technology-driven society, and it’s better for your client to have the first word about it and put everything out there for clarification.

Jodi Picoult: Know why you’re telling this particular story

"I don't have to live the lives of my characters to write about them. It's about really  putting yourself in their shoes."
“There are two ways to be happy: improve your reality, or lower your expectations.”

I had the honor of meeting Ms. Picoult in February after she gave a speech at OU. I got starstruck and babbled awkwardly about how my ninth-grade English teacher was the one who introduced me to her books when she recommended Nineteen Minutes to our class, and would she please sign an autograph for Jen? Picoult was very friendly and polite despite my cringeworthy rambling, which made me think that maybe it’s a good thing that I will never meet Wilde or Lorca or any of the many Wonderful Writers Who Died Before I Was Born.

I was going through the notes I took during Picoult’s speech (fun fact: she pronounces her last name “peek-oh”) and started reading especially closely when I came to the stuff I scribbled down as she responded to a question I asked during the Q&A at the end of the program. I don’t even remember what I asked, but I really liked the way she responded. She had said that no matter what you’re writing, it’s always important to know why you’re writing it. Why are you choosing to tell that particular story in that particular way? If you can’t answer that question, there’s no way that your readers will be able to get anything out of it.

Although she was referring specifically to fiction writing, I think this can absolutely apply to PR campaigns as well. In fact, this is something that keeps coming up in my PR writing class throughout the semester. Before you start, you have to ask yourself why you’re choosing to tell the brand’s story in this way. What do you want your audience to get out of the campaign messaging? Why choose to tell this story for your client, and not another one? Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing can help you to communicate the message you want to convey as clearly as possible.

John Green: Know a little about a lot

“What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (in which case, hi, welcome to society), you’ve more than likely heard of The Fault in Our Stars. I think it’s safe to say that TFiOS is the best-known of Mr. Green’s several wonderful novels, but the cool thing about him is that he doesn’t limit himself strictly to writing. He makes a successful YouTube series with his brother, he microblogs about sports, and he was heavily involved in the production of the TFiOS movie. I’ve never met Green, but his impressive resume leads me to believe that you could strike up a conversation with him about almost anything.

I heard it said a while ago that anyone working in the media or communications industry should “know a little about a lot,” and Green is a perfect modern example of that. You never know what kind of clients you’re going to have to promote, or what kind of audience you’ll have to promote them to. The more you know, the more effective your communication strategies will be. And the longer you work in the industry, the more knowledge you’ll gain about all different types of clients, products and audiences. (It sounds weird to hear “the longer you work in the industry” from a 20-year-old student, but bear with me as I try to make a point here.)

Bonus: don’t limit your professional self

What is PR? The industry has become so diverse that it’s hard to say. In the past, PR mostly consisted of media relations, but today that’s just one of many facets of the business.

I think something that all five of these writers show is that no matter where you think your career is going, you’ll more than likely end up somewhere unexpected:

  • Wilde graduated at the top of his class from Oxford and spent some of his early career doing more scholarly/academic work. He then worked mainly as a journalist and editor before deciding to devote his career entirely to writing.
  • Lorca was studying to become a lawyer at the University of Granada. He was my age when his friends encouraged him to publish his first book and decided soon after that maybe he didn’t need a law degree after all.
  • Plath had always dabbled in writing, but was leaning more towards journalism until an editorship at Mademoiselle magazine ended up being the opposite of what she had expected.
  • Picoult studied writing in college, but worked as a textbook editor and eighth grade teacher before she decided to pursue it seriously as a career.
  • And my personal favorite example: Green was in the process of becoming an Episcopal priest. He was working as a hospital chaplain, spending time mostly with terminally ill children, when he was inspired to write the book that would become The Fault in Our Stars.

In today’s PR industry, it’s impossible to brand yourself as “just a media relations expert” or “just a social media strategist” or “just an event planner.” There’s so much overlap with the business nowadays. Keep your career open to possibilities – you may be pleasantly surprised.

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