I’ll be quite honest: until (thankfully very premature) reports of his impending doom appeared recently, I had to a great extent either ignored or forgotten about the writing of Clive James. When I did think of him, it was in the context of “reviewing” Japanese endurance gameshows on late-night TV. However, a rapid outpouring of quotations on Twitter helped show how useful a good command of language can be. Whilst in PR there may not be a huge need to describe Arnold Schwarzenegger as “a brown condom full of walnuts”, the ability to work with and tame English is essential.
Like a number of others, I entered PR from what I considered to be a background in writing: English Literature at university followed by a stint in consumer tech journalism. However, also doubtless like a number of others, I initially had grave misconceptions of what I would actually be writing. I had seen myself as a Clive James: twisting words around my little finger for the eventual audience. However, what makes good critical writing is not the same as good PR writing. What PR needs above all is clarity, simplicity and a focus on the message. That doesn’t mean it’s easy: it can often be a lot harder to follow that focus than to give in to the temptation to use what seems like the most “attractive” language possible. While a small linguistic flourish can sometimes help, especially to get that initial interest in a piece, it should never come at the expense of clarity.
Without wanting to come across as rampantly egotistical, commanding this style of writing is one way in which PRs really prove our value. Essentially, we should follow the same rules as journalism: the first consideration in any writing should always be “am I telling readers what they need to know?” Our job isn’t to write advertising copy or to dazzle the reader with feats of literature. We need to take a message and communicate simply and, above all, honestly in whatever we write. To an extent, this can mean minimising our own voice: after all, the audience wants and needs to hear from clients, not from us.
This can be a problem. I recommend finding alternative outlets to prevent any frustration. Blogging is one excellent way to do this. Whether a purely personal blog lurking in the corners of the internet, a PR-focused blog or even an agency blog such as this, you’ll still be capable to have your own voice heard a lot more. It’s also worth looking into completely separate avenues to get creative. The growth of social media also provides another option: it’s much more acceptable, and even expected, to get creative with writing on Facebook or Twitter.
Essentially, PR writing is a discipline: like any other there are rules to follow, some more established than others. This isn’t to suggest it’s staid or unrewarding: after all, some of the greatest writing has been about efficiency and communication rather than pushing back the boundaries of language. It may be that PR won’t ever directly produce a Clive James: personally I’m fine with this. After all, what works for criticising the ex-Governor of California won’t work for everything.