Spin Doctors or Word Doctors?: The Importance of Writing in PR

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Posted: October 29, 2012 11:30 A.M.
by Memorie Bailey

It is a common misconception that in order to be a public relations professional, you must first and foremost be a people person. Most people outside the industry think PR is mainly a speech-oriented profession or that we are “spin doctors” for our clients. Yes, we must be able to work well with people and speak comfortably in a public setting, but in order to be able to communicate effectively, the most fundamental tool a public relations professional should have is the ability to write, and write well.

One of the first things we learn as PR students in our introductory courses is that our profession requires us to write every day for multiple purposes. Dr. Jennifer Greer, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama, said students often don’t realize that PR requires so much writing when they declare their majors.

The amount of writing our field requires may scare some of us at first, but as we progress through our coursework, we develop the skills we need to be effective and strategic writers. Some students never catch on and end up struggling not only in their PR writing courses, but also when they begin to work on campaigns in the field.

Writing is an essential aspect of our industry, because it is the way we communicate with our key publics.

“The primary goal of public relations is to build a mutually beneficial relationship between an organization and its publics, and that can only happen if you establish effective communication,” Emily Cain, a PR writing professor at Mississippi State University, said.

PR practitioners write news releases, annual reports, advertising copy, radio and video scripts and social media posts, so it is important to be able to write effectively, especially in today’s online world. A PR professional must be able to write strategically and concisely, catering to the outlet in which the message is being sent as well as the target publics who will receive the message.

As PR students progress through their studies, writing usually comes easier for those who enjoy it. Morgan Hopper, an undergraduate PR student, said she expresses herself through writing and enjoys writing about things that interest her. She understands that as a future PR professional, it is her job to appeal to the public.

“People associate what they read about an organization directly with that organization,” Hopper said. “If something is poorly written, target publics tend to think poorly about the organization.”

It takes time and careful planning to convey a certain message to key audiences and this process can be difficult for some students. Gloria Kelly, another PR student who does not enjoy writing, said writing has been a tricky task for her to tackle.

“I don’t like writing because it is time-consuming, and I am not that creative in my word choices,” Kelly said. “I feel that in classes, my writing has not been as strong as others.”

Kelly said, however, that she has so much passion for the industry that she is willing to continue to improve her writing skills. She believes learning the basics of PR writing and practicing them often will help her overcome her issues, including not giving herself “enough credit.”

In fact, Tracy Sims, a PR writing instructor at The University of Alabama, said the best way to develop good writing skills is to practice, practice, practice. Students should write simply to be writing. Composing anything that delivers a tactical message, like blogs, poems and letters, can help foster a greater enthusiasm for writing. More advanced skills, like AP style and editing, will come later.

Greer said another way to improve writing skills is to read all the time. By reading other professionals’ writing, it will be easier to become accustomed to varying sentence styles and construction. Having the ability to write well is a distinctive quality that will stand out among others in a crowded job market, Greer said.

As an aspiring PR professional, if you don’t like writing, you must at least learn to tolerate it. Greer pointed out that not everyone has to compose brilliant pieces like those of 20th century literary geniuses — in our industry, it’s more about expressing your message in the most concise and effective way possible.

“This world needs all types of writers,” Greer said. “Find out where you fit and be the best you can at that style.”

Choosing clients who you are passionate about will also help make the process easier. However, we don’t always get to choose our clients. Sims said it is often difficult to bring the same amount of fervor to our work every day, so it is important to balance work writing with personal writing.

Sometimes we may think that the simplest writing, like ad copy, Web copy and radio scripts, may not make as much of an impact. It is vital, however, to make the message as appealing and noticeable as possible, constantly considering each client’s strategic goals.

“If each client is treated as an individual, it will be easier to make the connection happen,” Sims said.

It is important that PR practitioners take time to realize how imperative good writing skills are to the industry.

“Once students realize just how much their writing can accomplish — from sharing their ideas with others to affecting their own credibility with the person reading their work — they should easily see that their writing ability is something they should strive to improve,” Cain said.

Public relations practitioners are NOT spin doctors. They are professionals who seek to make meaningful connections with their clients and target publics. Future and current practitioners should always be wary of the importance writing has in the industry and should strive to bring their best expertise to each word.

5 Comments

  1. Jennifer Greer

    Nice story, Memorie. It’s a good message to get out to PR majors early in their studies. I look forward to having all the terrific PR major at UA in JN 311.

    Reply

  2. Hayes Parnell, III

    Great insight in this article! You have nabbed the very essence of what companies are looking for from their PR professionals. Carry on, and GREAT JOB!!!

    Reply

  3. Ellie Dowden

    My initial decision to major in public relations was based on my extraverted personality and love for people; however, within my first year of related classes I learned that the public relations industry is dependent on written communication. My writing skills were quickly put to the test last summer when I interned in the public relations department for a major financial corporation. The daily work in the office revolved around announcements, press releases and pitch letters. Writing was a crucial part of the daily routine and was most frequently the form of both internal and external communication. I have learned to love written communication and verbal communication equally.

    Reply

  4. Jaycee Edmiston

    This post is so relatable and from my point of view an accurate assessment of many PR students’ assumptions. Although I do not like to admit the fact that I declared my PR major originally on the basis that I was personable and able to put things a certain way, I have now learned to respect the art of writing. Now that I realize the importance of writing in a career in PR, I can’t help but feel daunted at times when a certain piece isn’t coming easily. I appreciate the insight you have offered from professors at our own university, and I know practice mixed with reading will help further shape my skills. I also feel frustrated though, because I do wish to work in some aspect of entertainment publicity and I feel that the term “spin doctors” often comes from this part of the industry. I hope to use my training to be concise and effective as your article says, but most importantly honest. I feel there is a negative stigma surrounding the PR practitioners that represent entertainment, sports or high-profile companies, just as there is a false impression that working in entertainment is all events, hanging out with “celebrities” and fluff. Reading your post reminds me to form a solid foundation on the principles of good PR practices and, as you say, the rest will come later.

    Reply

  5. Melissa Stewart

    I am able to connect with Memorie’s article through my experience with PR. When I came to The University of Alabama as a PR major I had no idea how much writing was involved. I never thought of a PR practitioner as a “spin doctor,” even though I have heard that term used plenty of times, but more as a sales person.

    I immediately learned that we were so much more than just someone who makes a person or product look good. In order to gain respect and a build a good reputation for your client, it takes so much more than just “spinning” things. This has to be accomplished in a very strategic way, which requires good writing skills. In all campaigns there is a strategic plan that the practitioner has to pitch to their client. It is very important the data is concise and has no mistakes.

    Recently, I have had the opportunity to experience how important these skills are. I have heard of companies making job prospects take writing tests before they get hired, which makes perfect sense now. In my current job I am in charge of social media updates and writing press releases. I did not realized how important my writing skills were until it affected the reputation of the company I work for.

    I did not start off as a talented writer, but through practice I am becoming more comfortable in my writing skills. Each class we have to take for this major builds off of the previous one to increase our skills for the real world of PR. If an individual is truly dedicated to the field of PR, I am convinced that through practice they can gain the writing skills that are expected of them, just as I am doing.

    Reply

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