Do PR practitioners still need to have good writing skills to be successful?

Ask any senior executive about their communications leader, and they'll probably talk about writing skills first.

yes

Sean Williams

Communication Ammo CEO/owner

Nearly 20 years with KeyCorp, Joe Williams Comms., Goodyear, and National City Corp.

Ask any senior executive about their communications leader, and they'll probably talk about writing skills first. Just as the general counsel's expertise is on matters of law and the CFO's is on matters of finance, those of us who lead the PR function are expected to bring communication expertise to bear on business problems.

Writing - the command of language - is our profession's central skill. At the highest level, we might add value in other ways, but the capacity to write effectively for a variety of purposes and channels is what differentiates us from other business executives.

A quick review of professional literature over the past 20 years shows a desire among communicators for a wider role, a "seat at the strategic table." We could conclude that strategic thinking and planning skills are more important to - and valued by - leadership than writing.

But if you're a CEO crafting a business strategy, who are you calling first? It's not likely to be a PR pro. That's not to say we can't add value to the discussion - far from it. But what makes us distinctive is our ability to leverage our communications skills - the most basic of which is writing. It's not a zero-sum equation, though.

We don't need a host of Pul-itzer winners to lead the staff. However, many chief communicators are ex-journalists and their command of the written word brought them to the top.

Many senior communicators I know realize their writing lim- itations and seek out specialists for specific projects. Speechwriting is one example. Internal communicators increasingly need research skills to gather intelligence within their organizations. Media relations specialists do more than write news releases; they foster relationships among the media. Social media's explosion rewards online skills (and cogent, crisp writing), and issues management depends on strategic understanding of the organization and the world around it.

I'm known as a strategist, planner, measurement expert, and writer. Without that foun-dational skill, I'm worth less. Writing is our profession's oxygen. We can't live without it.

No

Tom Madden

Chairman/CEO of TransMedia Group

Former journalist and journalism professor; founded PR firm in 1981

I regret to say it, but it's sadly true and unassailably evident that it's not as necessary as it once was to write well in PR.  

Today it's the era of Facebook, Twitter, and texting. PR has entered an epoch of ever shorter messaging, where phonetics and smiley faces have replaced spelling and wit. Today we're pitching with our thumbs on Blackberrys, e-mailing at breakneck speed to journalists who we seldom ever meet face to face. Sometimes I feel as old and outmoded as a Gut-enberg printing press, since I started as a newspaper reporter typing properly punctuated sentences on a typewriter. Later, I became a speechwriter and taught journalism at a college before starting my own PR agency. 

So, for most of my career, I've prided myself on my wordsmithing ability and have watched that ability in others succumb to electronic gibberish. With the social media explosion and e-mailing and texting replacing the written word, I'm witnessing the demise of writing skills, replaced by new skillsets in those more adaptive to technology and quicker on the draw who become the top guns in most PR offices. The most productive publicists are faster e-mailers and better schmoozers than writers. 

And who cares? There always seems to be someone around like me who has those old- fashioned writing skills. All you need is one or two of us at most PR firms to punch up headlines, tighten leads, and sharpen news writing by using active verbs, vivid description, and, forgive me for saying it, proper grammar. There's always someone who's good at that and who remembers the old AP Stylebook. These are the old guards and tackles enabling the fleet running backs in the PR office, unencumbered with having to construct clear sentences, use good syntax and the right vocab- ulary, to race for the touchdown and win that most coveted prize - the media placement.

Good writing requires clear thinking, but the most effective publicists today are better at responding quickly than thinking clearly, so the writing part is better left to older linear guys - to veterans like me. l 

The PR practitioner's role has evolved to the point where the position requires much more than churning out press releases. However, good writing is still a core and, yes, necessary, skill to be an invaluable counselor.

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