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Have You Seen My $5 Bill?

Posted At: October 21, 2009 1:22 PM
by Sara Sanderson

Is the language of AP style still viable for PR practitioners? With today’s digital world and international interaction in the field of public relations, many professionals are discussing whether or not AP style will be imperative in the future.

From an educator’s perspective

Doug Fisher was a longtime print reporter, broadcast reporter, editor and producer. He spent 18 years at the Associated Press. He is now a journalism professor at The University of South Carolina and the author of the blog Common Sense Journalism.  He said the language of AP style is certainly viable for PR practitioners, and the style has constantly changed throughout history.

“Remember, a fair amount of AP style dates to the time when the three immutable things in life were death, taxes and 66 words per minute — the speed of the old teletype machines,” said Fisher. “Those machines also could not transmit many odd characters, and many newspaper systems could not set them —including most accents.”

When asked if he believed educators should still emphasize the importance of learning AP style, he said educators have sometimes overemphasized AP style. “We teach a subject — language — that requires periodic reality checks,” said Fisher. “It changes. That’s a pain. When the math professor walks into the classroom, 2+2 will always equal 4. When the engineering professor walks into the classroom, the coefficient of friction will always be the same. Assets will always have to equal liabilities for the accounting professor. In a way, there’s a sort of comfort there. We walk in a classroom and after a summer, things may have gone topsy turvy. For example, think of how Twitter exploded in the past year — though it has been around longer — and how that has changed dynamics.”

Fisher emphasizes AP style more in editing classes than in writing classes because those going for editing jobs are still more likely to run up against job tests that have a style component. In writing classes, Fisher says he is a little looser on it — he just wants students to know primarily the top 15 to 20 points that will take care of 90 percent of the problems.

Most of all, he wants all students to get in the mindset of looking it up — if you are unsure, don’t assume. Check it out. Fisher said, “Don’t be the butt of that old joke: How do you hide a $5 bill from a reporter? Put it in the AP stylebook.”

Fisher believes learning AP style does not qualify you as a writer, but it helps you navigate editors and organizations. According to Fisher, “To be a writer you have to understand far more than AP style — and you can be a fine writer without ever knowing AP style.” However, a qualified writer should know several writing styles, such as New York Times style and Wired style.

It is important to note the value of any style is consistency. Using AP style gives a standard that educators can emphasize in the classroom. It is imperative that students learn to utilize different styles in the professional world, and that AP style is taught because it is the most widely used style in the field at this time.

“One size won’t ever fit all, so in the U.S., AP style will probably predominate for some time,” Fisher said. “Elsewhere, not so much. But AP doesn’t even enforce AP style on international wires — they have their own conventions. Again, style is not this monolithic thing, and I wish we’d stop addressing it as such.”

In the future, Fisher believes public relations practitioners will have to work a lot harder. “Let’s face it, AP style used to be a comforter for many a PR person who could dash off a release, make sure it met AP style and distribute it widely,” he said. “Now, that person needs to take into account the various outlets and their peccadilloes. Heck, with everyone a publisher, a PR person may have to have some serious discussions about what style he or she wants to follow, if any.”

From a reporter’s perspective

Hunter George, executive editor of The Birmingham News, has similar expectations for the future of AP style. He said AP is the style guide for more than 1,000 American newspapers, and it is therefore still a valuable tool for journalists and PR practitioners.

“It is always good to know the language of the medium you are submitting information to,” said George. “But your material is going to be rewritten anyway, so it probably is not crucial. More important is clarity and conciseness.”

George said he encourages public relations professionals to stay on top of what is current and what is developing and to know that standard communication channels will change constantly.

From a PR practitioner’s perspective

Katie Stripling is an account executive at o2 ideas advertising and public relations firm in Birmingham, Ala. She says she thinks the implementation of the style guidelines is becoming more relaxed. She believes as things become more digital, we are unfortunately losing some of the formalities of written work.

“Too often we are trying to communicate a message so briefly — sometimes in 140 characters or less – that in order to get our message across we have to pay less attention to style and focus more on direct and succinct messages,” said Stripling. “Despite the necessity of sometimes derailing from AP style, I believe it is still incredibly viable for public relations practitioners. It is essential that practitioners know how to professionally and formally present their work in the style that is recognized in our industry.”

When asked how AP style should apply when posting to Facebook and Twitter, Stripling said it is still important, but it is not the only guide practitioners need for communicating anymore. “It is imperative that practitioners know how to adapt their messages in other media that require a different set of guidelines, some of which are not yet formalized,” she said.

Stripling also said international interaction in the world of PR has made a slight impact on the relevance of AP style. “I think anytime a diverse group of people exchange ideas and practices there is always an impact,” said Stripling. “It’s important for practitioners to communicate their messages in the style that makes the most sense — AP style should be the basis for building messages, but should be adapted as needed to fit the requirements of specific publications and other media.”

“Communication will continue to change in the world of PR as it becomes more conversational and less formal,” Stripling said. “As traditional communication channels become less common, there will be a lot of discussion around setting guidelines and best practices for communicating via new media. The constantly changing communications environment makes it essential that practitioners stay connected and participate in continuing education in order to ensure that they are communicating in the most effective and professional ways possible.”

As public relations practitioners, the most important thing to remember is to monitor changing trends regarding style and industry expectations. Don’t make journalists search for their $5 bills.

Photo by Niki Gautier

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