Audience Engagement, School Spirit Style

Purple versus Gold. Image by Vickie Bates.It’s such a small thing. Yet, when it comes to engaging your audience, it’s huge.

Did your alma mater have school colors? Did it divide the student body into Blues and Yellows or Reds and Greens? Were there points awarded all year for various activities – academic, athletic, volunteer work? Was there cause for celebration among fellow Greenies when your team won the end-of-year tally?

This type of thing was a big deal at my high school, culminating in Field Day – a full day of sporting competitions with the largest pool of points on the line.

So it baffles me why I should receive a request to donate to the annual fund accompanied by a photo of present-day students, grinning from ear to ear, like they’ve just emerged victorious from the traditional Field Day tug-of-war, adorned in Gold.

I was a Purple, you see.

It’s not like this should still matter some unmentionable number of decades later. And it doesn’t really. I’m long past reliving any high school athletic glory or Purple-Gold rivalry.

But engagement is all about speaking to your audience about what matters most to the audience. Not what matters to you or what’s convenient for you. How hard would it have been to line up four Purple kids and snap the exact same photo, then sort alums by school color, and send a customized appeal – Gold kids to Gold alums, Purple ones to Purples? With spreadsheets and mass email systems?

Easier than beating Golds at tug-of-war…

When a Hotel is Not a Woman

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll authored one of my favorite pieces of writing, the column “The Claremont is a Woman,” in which he dissected a press release so packed with clichés that the words lost all meaning. The title is derived from “grand dame,” a phrase the writer chose instead of grande dame to describe the hotel’s restaurant. The writer made other unfortunate choices, such as “leading edge,” which, as Carroll pointed out, is the front edge of a propeller, which is a rather unsteady place to locate a restaurant, which Carroll also pointed out.

You get the picture. I certainly did. I keep that column nearby at all times, not to make fun of the writer, because I can’t believe that anyone sits down at their desk in the morning and sets out to write unclearly on purpose. Over the years, Carroll’s response to that press release has served as a reminder of what can happen when you push too hard to promote a client.

Several years after Carroll wrote “The Claremont is a Woman,” I had the chance to talk to him about the column, as well as what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to PR and marketing writing.

The object of any press release is to get the client noticed, but not like the Claremont release. Sometimes a poorly executed release doesn’t just fade into obscurity, or email Trash. Like “The Claremont is a Woman,” sometimes it backfires into posterity.

Bad releases are “such a large target, but if they’re funny enough, I’ll do it,” Carroll told me then, indicating a column that puts the writing under a microscope. “Language means something. Some of these writers don’t understand the meaning of the metaphors they’re throwing around, so I say, ‘Let’s find out what this means.’”

Here are some of the things that catch the eye of columnists and reporters – and that can help your client get coverage:

  • Good spelling and punctuation
  • Headlines that clearly and honestly tell you the news or the angle
  • Content that supports the news in the headline
  • Brevity

What doesn’t work:

  • Electronic press kits (most reporters don’t have time to read them and these days often worry about viruses that might hitchhike on an attachment)
  • Newsletters (likewise)
  • Adverbs and overly effusive adjectives (a simple rule of thumb, said Carroll: “You do the nouns, we do the adjectives – that’s the deal.”)

Sending a barrage of releases all at once or week after week after week also fails to impress journalists. “This is make-work,” Carroll noted, “so you can say to the client, ‘See, I’m working!’ These releases become worthless by their repetition.”

Journalists, he added, pride themselves on discovering stories on their own. “You feel older, lazier, cheaper if a story comes to you. You want to be known as the person who thought of the idea and wrote about it first,” he concluded.

Most effective of all? A one-page pitch, personally addressed to the reporter, indicating your (genuine) familiarity with the journalist’s work and suggesting a story on a related topic or field.

How about you? Do you have a favorite piece of advice that reminds you of the importance of writing well?

Writing that inspired me this week (or adverbs sometimes work when a whale is not a sea mammal, but a metaphor):

“Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”
Herman MelvilleMoby-Dick