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Improving PR writing in an agency environment (featuring Don Bates)

Practical advice for getting the best results for your clients
Improving PR writing in an agency environment

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Writing lies at the heart of any public relations campaign. It takes real skill to effectively deliver the right messages in a compelling form.

In this episode, Don Bates demystifies the key elements of the writing process and offers practical tips on how agencies can get the most out of their available talent. Don is particularly generous in sharing a variety of useful resources, including an in-depth presentation he usually only shares in his paid workshops.


About Don Bates

Don Bates is a well-known public relations executive, writer, teacher, and consultant. He has worked for national and global corporations, nonprofit organizations, and consultancies, including AT&T, IBM, McDonnell Douglas, and Planned Parenthood International. He conducts business and public relations writing workshops worldwide, including in China, Singapore, Italy, and Spain.

Besides his professional work, Don teaches graduate courses in PR writing, communication law, and agency management at New York University. He is also senior counselor on PR agency management and M&A with Gould Partners. For 12 years, he owned and managed The Bates Company, the New York City/Washington, DC-based PR and public affairs firm, which he subsequently sold.

Don is an Accredited member and elected Fellow of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), a member of its DC and NYC chapters, and an honorary trustee of the Institute for Public Relations, which he helped to establish as a global research center for the public relations industry.


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Chats with Chip podcast. I’m your host Chip Griffin, I am very pleased to have as my guest today, Don Bates. He teaches graduate courses in PR writing and other things at NYU. He is a senior counselor with Gould partners in New York City, and He is a former agency owner himself. Welcome to the show, Don.

DON: Hey, doing chip. I am doing great.

CHIP: And you and I have known each other for a fair bit of time and it’s been one of my dreams to have you on this podcast. And I’m glad that we’ve been able to make that happen today because I think you’ve got a lot of useful insight for agency owners, particularly when it comes to writing but before we do that, why don’t you correct or embellish anything that I did in my introduction?

DON: Well, I try to avoid embellishment, I teach my students not to embellish or keep it simple. You know, I started out as a recorder, and that’s kind of where I got my chops that big of a better writer. My first piece that I sent into my editor, you slack They’re all up and I thought, oh my god, I’m gonna be fired. And he said, Go back and rewrite this. He said, it would be better. And I said, well, anything in particular, he said, No, just rewrite it. And of course, it was better because I put more time into it. Now he thought about it clearly. And I survived that. Then I came to New York, and I went to the corporate world, then I went into the agency world. And now I’m in the consultant, teacher, half retired, but never, never totally.

CHIP: And we were all fortunate for that, because you still have lots of good perspective to give. And I think, you know, one of the things that you’ve just mentioned, there is actually probably a good jumping off point for our conversation. And that is the notion that you take what you’ve written, and then you rewrite it, you spend more time with it to improve it. But there’s always that delicate balancing act, particularly in the agency world where you have to decide you know, when is enough is enough because any writer tends to be a perfectionist, right you and I would love to keep writing our pieces until they really get just so but sometimes you have to call it quits and turn it in.

DON: Like agree with you perfection is a problem for all right, as we all want to be great, but the fact is, none of us can write the perfect piece. There is no such thing, even though we try to satisfy ourselves and we also want to be responsible and try to convey what we’re talking about in a way that the people on the other run, will accept it, use it and hopefully act in some way in favor of what we’re trying to sell or sewer influence.

CHIP: Yeah, and that’s a good point to most of the writing that you do in the agency environment is somewhere somehow designed to influence you know, we don’t necessarily always think of as an advocacy piece, but effectively it is whether even if it’s more educational advocacy, if you will.

DON: Well, absolutely. I think this is one of the issues with agencies is an awful lot of what I call FYI writing for your information and I in my courses in my teaching and in my writing, I push for your action. Look right with FYI. Even though as you say some of this stuff is just a low level kind of piece of information, all of it is ended is intended to make the reader do something, by a product, by your service for a particular candidate, donate money volunteer, and you want to be aware of that as you write. And there are ways to do that by selling juicy stuff in quotes, making a better attempt to create, you know, information that the person is going to accept and used and, and, to me, that’s what’s really key. So many writers, they say, the in the rush to get it out, tend to go the FYI approach. And to me, that’s negligent in terms of professional responsibility.

CHIP: You know, one of the things that we hear a lot about these days is people talking about the importance of storytelling, particularly with social media and all these things. You know, what’s your view is, is writing in the agency world really about storytelling, or is that just a piece of it?

DON: Well, You know, I’m old enough to know the story tellings been with us since day one, the Greeks had it and you know the yet the Romans did it. Storytelling has always been around. But it’s become a thing as it were in the public relations industry. People have discovered with social media that just writing pure information is not enough. People want something more they want to know about you. They want to have better communication, they want something a little more to weigh. They want to get into the human side. And I think that’s partly the reason it has evolved into such an important thing. And I think the way branding has gone and the way people want greater social responsibility they want the companies they support to do things other than just make the product. It requires you to think about what’s a story and how can we use it to influence our, you know, customers to get them to appreciate us more. And story is where that lies. You know, who is the CEO of the company come from, what’s its history, whatever its people doing now? What’s behind Their products who invented and Who, who, who makes them, things that make them special, because there’s so much stuff coming out of left, right center. If we can isolate a story that resonates with the audience, we’ve got them, as opposed to the guy who just says, We exist. We were founded in such a such a date, by products. Thank you.

CHIP: Right. I mean, I sort of think of storytelling as, as adding structure to your piece and taking the reader on a journey. And, you know, so and I’d be interested in your reaction to that thinking of it. But I, you know, to me, it’s, you know, it’s really about how you think about putting the piece together and what you’re assembling as opposed to, you know, necessarily being like a story like a story you might read as a kid.

DON: Yeah, right. I think about stories, it’s, it’s human, and people are much more interested in sitting down and talking to people than than reading their bio and this is pointless. And that what people give you when they talk to you is not, as I say this information they give you themselves, they tell you a little bit about themselves, even by their silence. And it connects better. You know, the most important thing in the world, people say you have enemies, if you meet them suddenly become friendly. It may not you may not be lovers forever, but you know, and that’s what I think story does. It conveys the human side of stuff. And we we need that because, again, we’re battered by so many messages. That just, we’re overwhelmed. And somebody that can tell us something very interesting is what makes the difference and I think corporation can do it. agency certainly can do it. However, they got to find the stories. And that’s a key for them to get to find the stories and get to know their clients meet their clients. Try to develop a relationship where they can find out where with the company come where you from, who are the key players, what’s your vision, what’s your mission, and express it in terms of the very day to day people want to know just like

How do

you take care of your kid? That’s much more important than having a parental guide? You know, you want to know the human side of things?

CHIP: Well, I think that’s a great thing you’ve talked in on there too, because as an agency, person, you really do have to learn your client and learn their stories. How would you What advice do you have for folks to get that because we’ve all struggled at one time or another with a client, it’s almost sometimes like pulling teeth, to get them to give you information because they sort of just expect you to be almost as expert as they are right from the gate. So how do you how do you get that information? Right?

DON: Well, they’re busy too. And, and they, they have their impatience level, just as we do on the agency side. The way I’ve always approached it is you have to do things if you’re gonna change your writing or change your behavior changing marital relationship, and so, you’ve got to do something and you’ve got to do something very strategic, got to think it through and then approach it with agencies when I had mine, so you’d always made a point and I learned this from a lot of other people prior to, you know, my opening the agency to get to know the clients. So I would find ways to have coffee or lunch or be in the neighborhood or just drop in. If they were near nearby. Let’s say in New York, we’re headways here in DC ran an office, drop in and just say Hi How you doing, bring a cup of coffee, buy some flowers for the receptionist, but open the doors to some kind of relationship rather than just a communication that’s has to do with emails and, you know, news releases you send over. I do have a specific suggestion for agencies. It worked for a lot of agencies that work from lace, and it goes like this. When you pitch a piece of business and you get it. The first thing you do after you get it to sign your contract or whatever it is, is you say to them, I’d like to come over and do it. I’d like to come over to the agency or visit the agency wherever they do a background I’d like to meet your people and talk to let’s say top executive, maybe even with people at mid level, and then turn that background or that information into a document, six 810 pages, whatever it is, give it back to the client. Let them go over. And this is the first way to get to know the client and who are the key players and have them get to know you, which is key to a lot of things getting writing approved, etc. The other thing is, once you’ve gone through that, invite them you’ll invite yourself over say, I’d like to come over top my cup people or whoever you want to send, we’ll pay for the pizza. We’d like to tell you how we do public relations. I’m happy to tell you it works like gangbusters. I did work for Reuters and I did for a particular division. I had four CEOs in a row, everybody else get dumped. Our agency stayed. We work with him one day, when the CEO is leaving. One of them he said to me, you know, is the first agency that came over and told us what public relations was we assumed we thought we knew it. When people sat down lists and told us what you You do, why you do it and how you do it, it really helped open the doors. So whenever we sent over a piece of writing after that, that very few challenges, very few corrections, because they trust us, they understood what we were about. And obviously, we got to know them. Same way. So again, building a relationship with the client, not always easy. Some agencies are reluctant to send lower end people over to agencies now, to me, it has to be done. You can accompany them if you’re the CEO, but you’d have to do something like that.

CHIP: Yeah. And what you described there too, it’s beyond just, you know, building the personal and business relationship, both of which are important, but it’s also setting the expectations explaining to them how you do PR and making sure that everybody’s on the same page, right. So the, the, the more you’re aligned on all of that, the more effective you’re going to be.

DON: I’ll give you one I the one thing that came out of it, we used to always do is tell them how we great we say we do a news release for you Based on stuff you’d give us, we Chin up thinking of what would be useful and press worthy. And we would tell them, we’re going to send you over draft, you can cut it up any way you want, and then send it back to us, we will make the changes as appropriate. And we will send it out. And they would say, Well, what if it’s not right and you send it out, maybe it needs more changes, and say, if it’s not right, and it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, fires can work like gangbusters. Once in a while, a lawyer might get in the way and say, well, and like this, I didn’t like that. That’s okay. But the bottom line is we took control of our product, and we got their information and use it and show them that we were responsible and professional. It avoids all that nitpicking back and forth that will drive you nuts and destroy anybody who’s a writer. Nobody wants

to constantly be changing things, no matter how good or bad it is.

CHIP: So we’ve taken a little bit of a look outside the agency See, and how to improve the writing work that we do. Let’s take a look inside. And so as agency leaders, we are managing people who are doing writing. And so how do we do a better job of managing our agencies, writers mentoring them to become better, that sort of thing.

DON: One of the attachments your listeners will get is a article on how to deal with managing the writing proposition without having to use people like me or a lot of outside consultants, doing an internally building kind of ownership with the whole idea of writing, getting people involved, not just isolating one person against another person, but helping people understand maybe creating a little group inside maybe you meet for lunch once a week or, you know, you have pizza for the people and you talk about an issue, the use of the word it or story or social media, what works, what doesn’t work or what works on Facebook, it doesn’t work on Twitter, etc. and have somebody maybe manage that function, but do it in a way So you’re helping everybody and sharing stuff and maybe you end up having assigning the employees you say next meeting, you’re gonna talk about positional paralysis. You know, Don Bates says prepositions that are killing the clarity. But what does he mean? So they look it up and they present to the staff, however bundling, they may be the present for the staff and each staff person has the responsibility to present at some meeting, a given issue, whatever it is, leads, headlines, quotes, boilerplate. And again, the engagement is building the relationships inside and management can use that as a way to help fashion how the people think other people address the mission of the organization and how it operates. I’m a great believer in being assertive, and not passive with all of this stuff, and most of us are, but a lot of agencies tend to be passive because we’re getting the money from the client. We don’t want to rock the boat. So don’t let them know about it. Take care of it internally embrace Racing, the idea of writing along with it proofing and editing as a piece of the pie, it’s not everything, writing is not the only thing we have to do, actually, we have to think about the client, what they need, what they want, and

what we would advise them to do.

CHIP: I love that you’re talking about having the, you know, the team members presenting to each other, because I like that technique not just for writing, but for lots of things in the agency world, because, first of all, generally speaking, when you present on a topic, you start to learn it better yourself. And secondly, it’s great preparation, because most agency employees are going to have to present things at one point in order to a client or a prospect, so might as well you know, start getting them to have more experience doing that in house

DON: and it saves money. I mean, you know, I’d love to be hired by all these agencies. But the bottom line you don’t need a lot of outside consultants except when you’re kind of stuck. Open it up make it a proposition, so that when people come to work in effect, they know writings important David one, you put that into the interview, you put that into the agreement or whatever the first meetings are, you let them know, then they come to work. And immediately someone says, you know, every Thursday or every Wednesday or every Saturday morning, whatever it happens to be, we get together for an hour and talk about something we’d like you to pick a subject that troubleshoot maybe or, and present it. And it does exactly what you say it helps him with presentation skills, it helps build relationships inside that also have an impact on the editing and proofing your stuff internally. You can’t You can’t go wrong, in my opinion, if you do things inside, and it will save you money and do a lot of other things as you suggest the dynamic of running an agency.

CHIP: Now, you mentioned editing and proofing and obviously as you move up the food chain in agencies, you tend to do a lot more of that. So a lot of the leaders here who are listeners are also doing a lot of editing and proofing. How do you recommend that they go about that process so that a they’re getting the product that they need for their clients, but that they’re also doing it in a way that is constructive for the writers themselves so that, you know, they learn from it and don’t just, you know, see that sea of red ink.

DON: One of the dangers in

in the management editing stuff is they tend to over edit, and they tend to edit from their perspective and their knowledge. And that’s obviously good and useful. But rather than nitty gritty on paper, perhaps cold person if that five minutes and just ask a couple of questions. Tell me again, what this is for what you’re trying to accomplish. Oh, maybe you should go back and just try it again. I think it’s a little weak on this too weak on that. Leave it a little bit open the red marks all over the paper, you know, it’s kind of like, you know, making them feel that they’re gonna be, you know, bloodied up and give them an opportunity to talk five minutes is not a lot or you walk by you the mirror say how’s it going with that? Usually, with what do you say? What do you How are you looking at it now. What’s your take you Give them some feedback, almost like a little walking around management. But sitting down and doing the pencil stuff, you can spend so much time they get better. And then the writer who gets it says, as one guy who did in my agency was our one day said, you know, you’re so good at editing, and you make everything better. Why don’t you write this stuff?

Right? And I took it as Wow.

But he said it in such a way very gently, that the message came across, I was over editing, I was nitpicking I was doing, I was doing my writing, not enabling them to do this, which like, is key

CHIP: when I think it’s tough, too, because a lot of us as we moved up the ranks, you know, we’ve become pretty good writers ourselves. And so we have our own style and our way of doing things and so you really do have to strike that balance where you are, you’re picking the right things to edit and I love your suggestion that you you sort of talk it through instead of just actually you know, editing it piece by piece, you know, have the conversation say you know, here are the things that you know, you need to work on A piece to make it better.

DON: Right? Well, it’s interesting that people will write stuff. I’ve heard this from the best writers in the world. And the worst reason somebody will read something and they don’t quite like it. And they’ll say to him, you know, there’s something lacking here, something missing, I kind of get this, I get that. But, you know, rather than like, spending a lot of time and getting into a lot of back and forth about what’s right, what’s wrong, once you go back and take a look at it, and maybe refocus a little bit, think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Think about what I’ve always said about being assertive or F. FYI, a or making quotes, you’re much more engaging, you know, give them a little leadership and then they go back, and everything comes back better in newspapers. When I worked in newspapers, the emphasis was always saying to people, I don’t know something’s wrong with a story is is okay, that’s okay. Do me a favor, go back to think about it and maybe take another swipe. The things will always come back better because you’re forced to think it through

CHIP: Write, when I think as a manager, you also have to think through the assignment that you gave to because a lot of it comes down to the guidance that you gave at the start of the assignment. And so it’s, you know, sometimes it doesn’t do to be frustrated with your writer, you need to be frustrated with yourself that yes, that you didn’t point them in the right direction to begin with.

DON: Very good. That’s a that’s very true. I didn’t I was

constantly editing other people not telling him, you know,

what, in the early days, what

they should really be doing from the outset. So you good and there’s another example where the CEO or some of the managers can stop by these sessions if they haven’t immaturely and just say we’ve been noticing stuff and we had a meeting with the managers were a little bit concerned the close they don’t seem to have enough zip or you know, the, the headlines are too long. The headline is don’t seem to draw you in really, they seem to be written to just, you know, praise the client and they’re not intended for the audience. So maybe you guys could go bet a little more work on that and just Give them inspiration. And the other thing is when they do their work, and it’s well done, give them a reward, pat him on the shoulder, you got to be careful about how much you spread around. But give everybody in that group free pizza, or buy him a discount, take it to a movie. You know, Tara

$10 bill in half and Tim hold it when they’re all done with their work week. Give them the other piece of the $10 bill so they can tape it together and go have some fun with it.

CHIP: Right? Yeah, that positive reinforcement is just as important as the proofreading and editing and guidance that you give because, you know, particularly my experiences, particularly millennials really like a lot of that, that positive feedback and it’s not just limited to millennials. Certainly. Other folks that have worked.

DON: We don’t like it. I’m I just been. I’m old enough to say, I don’t give a damn if you like me, and it’s the piece of writing Okay, yeah. But you know, have fun with writing too, and it’s not think of it No matter what it’s about, it’s about selling rugs or a water cooler on up to solving the problem of poverty. It’s all about words and how you put them together. So have fun in looking at, did I follow the old,

you know, subject, verb, you know, follow the subject, verb object. Did I? Am I clear

that I have too many prepositions you know, have some fun with it. Create a list of verbs about active verbs, right? So you don’t just say every program is launched. There’s other words for that. That’s not even the best word, that kind of thing and make it fun, create and give it to the group. Okay, I did a list of active verbs, right? I did a list of verbs that mean lunch, you know, so we can vary our verbs and barrier approach to what we write.

CHIP: So one of the things done that I that I have heard consistently from agency owners is their frustration when they hire folks right out of college and they say, God, they just can’t right And I think, you know, one of my experiences has been, it’s not so much that they can’t write, it’s that they, they still continue to write in an academic style because a lot of universities aren’t teaching business writing. They’re, they’re sort of, you know, teaching them to write term papers. So how do you how do you help young employees transition from term paper writing to business writing?

DON: Absolutely. That is that is an issue. And they think writing is term papers and they source things that way and everything. I think, again, it’s back to that some of that internal stuff in a discussion with sharing some examples, maybe get it making read a book, really read some how to pieces by people like me and you and discuss those at the meeting. But I think the first thing to do is have that conversation, say, look, this is a public relations agency.

I’m not sure how well you can write but when you write here, we’re looking at, you know, a different kind of persuasion. We’re looking at a different kind of language. And if you haven’t read about it, here’s a book. I recommend. Did you read or join, go meet with Marian, take two hours out and

go over how we write what we expect. Again, as I say, with me, I would sit down with people at this point in my life and say, Look, I’m in for FYI, a, everything has to create some action. I don’t believe in the idea of a witness if you have a PR campaign that’s a witness, if so, facto. So it’s what do you want to do in a witness make something happen, so write that into it. However, you do it indirectly, directly. You want to have energetic headlines, I would say things at least from my style, I would say no more than 10 words. Remember that you’re, you’re sending it out to the media, let’s say press release, it’s the headlines aim to getting their attention. Probably not going to end up being the headline they use, they’re going to use their own and it may or may not even be the reporter or editor you send it to somebody else, right. So you want to make that as sexy as possible for the reporter or editor and hopefully if it’s done well enough They may even use it with the audience. quotes, quotes is such a gratuitous thing to throw away 99% of time, don’t throw away, quote, it’s the one thing we can guarantee won’t be changed, right? Everything can be changed. So that quote is essential. If you use it, you don’t have to use it necessarily become a tradition with us. But you know, I always say for example, somebody gets hired in the corporate world, they say, so and so’s become vice president. We’re happy that chip has joined us. We know he’ll make a major contribution to the company. No kidding. I know blank. I say Why don’t you say, chip with his 20 years or 30 years background and public relations having owned a company and knowing that the media space, like almost no one else, he’s going to be a major contributor to our goal to become number one in this industry over the next five years system? Then the employee said say, Wow, this guy’s serious, though, if you have shareholders anyways, They will, that’s terrific. the union’s may say, Oh, this suggests they’re hiring him, he’s got some good stuff, we got a plan, we’re going to be doing more. So the whole idea becomes much more, you know, emotional. And that’s an important to add story back to stories, stories about emotion. emotion is very important these days. They’re emotional language, using emotional verbs using emotional headlines. I don’t mean exaggerating, hype being hyperbolic, but using excitement, you know, when you have a headline, you talk about a product, not that it’s just lighter. You know, it’s, it’s, give it give the real benefit, you know, the latest computer ever made, or, you know, faster and maybe not even the computer. It’s what it has inside comes with certain kinds of apps free of charge. Find those things just like you need to find the story in your clients. Find the story in the product or the service that you can then in part with what you write.

CHIP: So glad that you touched on one of my pet peeves, which is wasted quotes, in press releases, because they, they really shouldn’t be the place where you put your your most powerful message for the very reason that you said, which is that they can’t change them. And so, you know, if you take nothing else away from this conversation, make sure you’re not wasting your quotes in your press releases.

DON: And it really the headline is, is critical. Lead is, is next and put the quote is important. Everything else is kind of the narrative and everything. You could say all kinds of things, but you want to get the essentials in there and upfront, so that nobody reads any further, they’ve gotten the message. And the key is to use quotes to kind of not only have an exciting statement about what you’re talking about, but it can be a place that you can keep reiterating something about the brand or the mission of the client.

CHIP: Well, Don, this has been extremely helpful. I know you’ve offered a lot of practical advice for folks and you were also kind enough to share with me a number of attachments that will include with the show Notes for this episode. So listeners can find those in Agency Leadership Podcast and, and download them for themselves. But is there? Are there any other final words that you have before we wind up this episode?

DON: Well, I think everybody who writes needs to think about why

am I writing? Why am I writing in a PR firm, you’re writing for clients, you’re writing to help them. You’re writing to make $1 for yourself. You’re You’re, you’re being professional, ethical, older. Think about the proposition of why do I write? Why do I have to write well, and you kind of answer the questions yourself, and then pursue it by having the tools, the books, inside workshop, whatever you want to call it. taking a course at night, you know, at a local university, there are a million ways to improve. Nobody starts out a great writer, nobody’s nobody’s own writer. They all learn by doing and doing again and again and again. I promise. I promise you if you practice, practice, and keep doing the work in five years 10 years ago, Wow, I can’t imagine how good I am now. That’s because you’ve devoted yourself committed yourself to the whole proposition of why as a PR person, do I right? What am I trying to accomplish? And go and find out how to do that better.

CHIP: And every writer is constantly improving if they if they really want to be effective,

DON: as well, never stops, never stops. I haven’t fallen down. I’ll write a novel every six months that I sit down. How can you do it every six months, he said, Oh, I work about eight hours a day.

CHIP: Well, the learning never stops. But unfortunately this episode has ended because we we are up against our time limit but I really appreciate your time. Today, Don and again, my guest today has been done Bates.

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