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Writing to write… finally

“Oh, Em, Gee, did we just become best friends?”

That’s what Melissa exclaimed as she peered into the box of goodies I bought today at the huge Friends of the Library annual book sale. Eleven books for $7.25, and all of them amazing finds.

(And yes, “Oh Em Gee” is how I speak now that I’m growing improbably close to 30. As I age, so does my speech regress.)

What was she so excited about? I’ll tell you what – the copy of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” that she spied, tucked in between “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” and some compendium of American folklore.

I tried reading through Cameron’s spiritual creativity plan many years ago, thinking it was right up my alley. But since I was neither in a place that fostered spirituality, nor of the frame of mind to be particularly creative, the whole thing fell flat.

Then, as things happen, people started mentioning the book to me again. Mostly these are people who are the same as me, in the same predicament: loving to write/draw/paint/sculpt, but afraid to do so, shying away from criticism/failure/losing interest/running out of time, etc.

The idea, I guess, is to practice your creativity with no mind to outcomes. Do it to do it, because it pleases you, because it’s who you are.

Since I write all day – and pretty dry stuff – and read and edit other people’s work, the last thing I want to do when I come home is to write some more. Even if it does make my soul sing.

So here, I’ll dust off this WordPress blog and use it to document my progress in the 12 weeks of Cameron’s path.

(12 seems to be an awfully popular number in the spiritual realm.)

And I promise myself one thing: to try to do something every day, but to not consider it failing if I do not, or if I lose track.

Because someday, somewhere, somebody else will bring this up to me, and I will try again.

Should you follow up on that press release you sent me?

Jeremy Porter over at Journalistics recently surveyed several journalists regarding a personal pet peeve of mine: follow-up phone calls on the part of PR professionals.

So far, he’s found that the vast majority of journalists – 76 percent – are fine with follow-up phone calls.

Here’s the catch: This is only OK with them if the pitch is 1. relevant and 2. time-sensitive.

I myself would have fallen into the 12 percent who hate follow-up phone calls. Most of the time, when PR reps call me to reference particular press releases, I’ve so long ago forgotten what the since-deleted release was about, I end up stammering, “Um, and what was this in reference to?” I try not to be terribly mean about it, but if I don’t respond to a pitch, it’s really because I’m not interested. End of story.

Of course, my situation is a bit different. I’m the editor of a business-to-business publication that covers one topic area, and only certain niches within that topic area. To boot, we have a very specific editorial mission and lots of oft-pitched stories we don’t cover (like personnel changes and proprietary product releases).

As a result, I can usually tell at a glance whether a press release will be useful to me.

This is why I wish there were more directory services available for PR reps – services that list relevant contacts at media outlets, as well as their beats and preferred methods of contact. And why I wish more reps used such available directories (or, more specifically: why I wish these were more affordable for all reps to use).

As a side note, surveys like this lead to another question for me. There are no shortage of “from the horse’s mouth” type surveys, articles, and blog posts designed to help PR reps do their jobs better and approach editors, reporters, etc. in a more effective manner. But what types of reps read these things? Probably reps who are already inclined toward doing a better job (and hence probably holding journalists in higher respect anyway).

My point is, if you’re a bad rep and you’re pitching to people who don’t cover what you’re pitching, blanketing them with press releases, hounding them, and generally being rude – you’re probably not reaching for professional development.

Dumbing down America?

Beginning in college, my journalism instructors taught me to dumb things down when writing to the public. Assume people read at about a third-grade level, they’d say. Because typically, they do.

If even that.

It’s a well-known rule in writing. And I have no problem with it as it relates to clarity.

But I wonder: When we dumb down our writing, are we dumbing down our society, as well?

I first noticed this on the Web site of the publication for which I used to work. A reader called because he couldn’t figure out how to navigate the site’s search function.

The search works like this: You select whether you’re searching for a keyword, an author, or a title. You enter the keyword, author, or title. Then you select whether you want the search to find all the words you just entered, any of the words you just entered, or the exact phrase you just entered.

That means that if you enter Mary Smith and search for “all the words,” it will find all articles that have the words Mary AND Smith, but not necesarily in that order. (So the article can contain the names Mary Fisher and John Smith, and “all the words” will find that.)

If you enter Mary Smith and search for “any of the words,” you’ll get the most hits because the article must contain Mary OR Smith, but not necessarily both.

If you enter Mary Smith and search for “exact phrase” you won’t get many hits, but they’ll be the most accurate.

He couldn’t figure this out.

And when I mentioned it to our editor-in-chief, he wanted to speak with our webmaster about dumbing down our search.

I don’t know – can it really get any “dumber”?

And is it even our responsibility to spell things out for the general public and contribute to their lack of common sense?

Yes, if that’s what everybody is doing, we should.

But if we all raised the bar a little, wouldn’t we all be better off?

Or is it too late?

Is your Web site media-friendly?

There are countless books, blogs, and magazine articles dedicated to Web site usability. Companies both large and small hire consultants who are specially trained to help attract consumers, keep them on the site, and ultimately convert them into customers.

But what if a writer came to your site looking for something that could be made into a publicity-generating story? This happens more often than you would think. When faced with a story assignment, reporters may troll the Internet looking for companies that may be able to provide sources on their topic. Editors looking for new and fresh sources in a particular industry will routinely perform searches. You may even be driving them there through press releases and email blasts.

All too often, however, when I look for new contacts or sources on company Web sites, I’m faced with frustration. Sometimes, that frustration is so great that I turn away in a huff. If your site frustrates me, your company doesn’t get written about, your CEO never gets interviewed, and fewer people know about you.

Here, then, are 6 tips for making your Web site media-friendly.

1. Give us a media contact. If you have somebody who handles your PR, say so. If you don’t have a dedicated person at your company who handles PR, that’s fine, too. If you are the person to call for interview requests and other information, please let us know this.

2. Don’t hide. Put the name of your media contact under the heading of “media contact,” “PR contact,” “media requests,” “press inquiries,” or some such language. This should reside on your “contact us” page, because when I want to contact you, that’s the first place I’ll look. I will only do a certain amount of hunting around on “about us” pages or site maps before giving up. If you own your own company and are also the media contact, list your name again anyway, or at least indicate that we should contact you. Otherwise, we have no way of knowing you don’t have some secret PR person somewhere you’re just not listing (this is not uncommon), but we won’t want to waste our time figuring it out.

3. Give us all your contact information. Some writers/editors/bloggers prefer to contact potential sources via email. Some like the telephone. All of them want to know who they’re contacting. I hate addressing an email “To whom it may concern” or calling a company bumbling about a “media… contact?” So give us your PR rep’s first and last name, email address, and phone number. A fax number is always nice, but not at all necessary. This also makes it easier for us to follow up with you.

4. Start a little source list for us. This is especially helpful if you have a company with several executives who have expertise in individual areas. That way, when I contact your media person, I can say, “I’m writing a story about retirement planning for people in their 20s, and I noticed that David Smith, your senior vice president of sales, is your in-house expert on retirement planning. I’d love to highlight your company. Would David be available for an interview in the next couple of weeks?” So basically, 5 minutes of work on your part (compiling the list) has saved you a bunch of time (asking around, finding the right person) because you’ve enabled me to do your homework for you.

5. Post news about your company. It’s not difficult to make yourself a nice little “about us” page. Include some news there. This can be self-generated press releases or stories other outlets have written about you. Or both. This is not just self-serving – it helps us figure out what’s unique about you. Plus, it gets you higher up in the search engines. Which means more visibility.

6. Don’t hide behind a “contact us” form. Too often, companies use “contact us” forms for everything under the sun, from sales inquiries to resume submissions. If I’m looking to profile your company, I’m not going to fill out your form and wait 2-4 weeks to hear back from you. I’m going to find another company.

Of course, none of this is to sound difficult or demanding. It’s in your best interest to be as visible as possible to the press. Most of us just want to highlight your achievements or the knowledge of your experts. And that type of exposure is so worth the extra hour it will take you to build a sensible, thorough, and clear media page – and to make it easy to find!