Are we limited – or empowered – by our experience?

Tonight I chatted in a Hoxton pub – yes, I am *that* trendy – with another copywriter.

The guy is running as a self-employed operation and has very strong feelings about what writing ‘is’. No compromises. Be true to yourself. If people don’t like it, then move on.

Part of me admires this. When I started out as a writer, this is what I thought life would be: that people would accept my opinion and damn them if they don’t. That only by following my own path would I become employworthy. But over the years I’ve come to believe that writing is really expressing ‘an opinion’. It relates closely to my idea, recently expressed, that PR is ‘a truth’ (apologies for the self-reference there). It takes skill and judgement rather than gut reaction.

So for every example I discussed with him – for example, the difference between bloggers generally being unaccountable, and untrained in the distinction between the many shades of fact and opinion, versus journalists who need to be accountable, who ask questions and are able to tell the difference – he argued somewhat the opposite. It dawned on me that I was talking from experience, and he was talking about theory. I loved his theory, but I knew, in the real world, it wasn’t true.

So at what point do we take on board what our clients want us to say, and at what point do we push back? And do we do so from our gut instinct, as free thinkers – which is, after all, what people think writers are – or from our experience? In short, are we jaded corporate types, or realistic professionals?

As is so often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. We have to trust our instincts as communicators in every instance, but take into account certain realities of the world. If we were artists, we would create our own briefs: but the real world – one in which we have to earn a crust and necessarily compromise and act as consultants rather than experts – says that will seldom be the case.

Write! Now!

Over at Copy Ideas, Robert Stover mentions the wonderful Douglas Adams quote about loving the whooshing sounds deadlines make as they go by. Adams was known for being so late with episode drafts that it was not unknown for actors to be recording the first half while the second half was still being written.

Fortunately for him, he was writing at a quaint time in modern broadcasting history where people were suitably fluffy-minded at the Beeb that they would accommodate this. That’s what happens when you fill a place with Oxbridge graduates. Nowadays, deadlines are immovable objects and you are a very resistible force. Fail the deadline and you’re, well, dead.

Robert also talks about the adrenaline rush of the blank page. I’m not convinced you produce good copy in the red haze of an adrenaline rush. The problem of the blank page – or screen – is one I’m asked about a lot. I can’t think of one single way in which I overcome it, but generally I seem to go through a process of stop/start which involves reading around a topic, making cups of tea, scratching my head and doing *anything* other than actually writing the piece. Then, somehow, I feel ready to write it and from the process of doing this a structure generally emerges. But I’m far from sure I do it ‘properly’. I wonder how many copywriters do?

I Want Media – so give it to me!

In my Blog PR feed, this comes through from Jeremy Pepper who makes the great point that we can be over-reliant on technology to do our PR for us, when instead of high-tech we should be high-touch. And, despite me being a bit of a geek who would rather sit in a broom cupboard with a PC than actually pick up the phone, I think he’s right.

That’s half the story here. The other half is, on looking at the bottom of his page, what do I find but a veritable gold mine of links to online PR resources and blogs. Immediately, in my strange obsessive-compulsive way, I start to go through them to see if there’s anything I can subscribe to.

And you know what? Hardly any of the PR sites have a feed. We’re talking sites with names such as I Want Media, which look and feel soooo right, which have what appears to be a live and kicking home page, but which doesn’t have a feed.

So I agree with Jeremy, tech is useful and it won’t do our jobs for us. But unconnected tech most certainly won’t be any use to anyone.

When the brand just doesn’t add up

I recently had my attention drawn to a rebrand of a smallish City-based financial IT company. It has expanded quite quickly over the past few years and has undergone some radical reorganisation and so – probably rightly – decided the time had come for a fresh lick of paint on the brand to make these changes evident to the outside world.

So, out goes the old name – Mondas – and in comes a new one – Corero. Sorry, corero (lower case). Can you see what they’ve done there? They’ve replaced one name that doesn’t really mean anything, with another name that doesn’t really mean anything.

Mondas sounds fine to me. In fact, it sounds like something to do with ‘the world’ – le monde, el mundo, il mondo, all from Latin mundus – which, given that its reorganisation involves consolidation of separate business units and geographical expansion sounds about right for the new company. Corero – sorry, corero – sounds like something fast and lightweight maybe – like ‘corrida’ or ‘career’, from the Latin currere – but essentially it means nothing. It smacks of the awful trend some time ago of names that meant nothing but sounded clever, like Consignia (Royal Mail) and Accenture (Arthur Anderson).

Also, the original name was out there and everyone knew it, so now they have the pallaver of telling everyone they’ve changed their names. Imagine I changed my name to, oh I don’t know, Roderick. It would seem strange at first. You wouldn’t be able to think of me as a Roderick. I would have to keep telling you, “Don’t call me Darling, call me Roderick.”

That’s the name. It’s only one small part of the whole company philosophy called ‘the brand’. A good example of what ‘brand’ really means is the recent takeover of Telewest/NTL by Virgin Media. The deal was struck many months ago but Virgin has been putting in place better customer service because its brand values demand it. Everything Virgin touches acquires the brand value of good customer service.

So the real trick lies in making this brand apparent both within the company and to the external world, and making it consistent. Which brings me back to Corero – sorry, corero – which has a luverly new home page with fancypants graphics and a nice movie that is a shade too long. The movie goes on about fresh ways of thinking and all that bollocks. It’s quite nice, I watch it till the end, and I’m almost prepared to ‘believe’. Perhaps Corero – sorry, corero – isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Then I read the copy on the home page. Here’s an extract:

“The above developments have altered the business considerably and the Board believes that to recognise these changes and to reposition the Company for the next phase of its development the name of the Company should be changed. Accordingly, the Board proposes that the name of the Company be changed to corero plc.In order to action the change of name a special resolution must be passed at a general meeting of the Company and accordingly an Extraordinary General Meeting will be convened to be held in February 2007, details of which will be posted shortly.”

Suddenly, everything falls flat on its face. Disbelief is no longer suspended. The company isn’t brand new. The company doesn’t adopt a fresh approach. It isn’t a new way of thinking. If this were the case, it would reword this turgid legalese into something that actually makes sense and excites people. You can do that, you know. Just because something’s complicated and legal doesn’t mean you have to make it sound complicated and legal.

I hope the rebrand works. But first, whoever’s in charge of it needs to make sure that everything – everything – is informed by it. Graphics, copy, the way people do business, the way it’s perceived internally and externally. Everything.

PR can only be about truth

Lionel Zetter today writes about the “disappointing” result of the vote at the PR Week debate over whether PRs have a duty to tell the truth. The ‘truth’ motion was defeated by 138 votes to 124.

The vote surprises me. Far from the romantic vision of PR practitioners being compulsive spinners playing fast and loose with ‘the truth’, they are a fairly conservative bunch who know that one step in the wrong direction and they’re mincemeat. No one wants a ‘good day to bury bad news’ episode. No one wants a Sony PSP flog.

So PR really is about ‘the truth’. Or, perhaps more realistically, ‘a truth’. It’s the job of the practitioner to elevate the client message , and at the end of the day this purely represents a point of view that the client pushes into the public domain. What’s wrong with that?

When specialists just aren’t… special

So, in my Google Reader there appears what initially looks like an interesting tome on blogging. But there’s something not quite right with the header – “It’s now becoming evident that blogging is undergoing a radical rethink. Buy why?”

‘Buy why?’ Did he say ‘Buy why?’

Anyway, on with the link. There’s a beautiful picture of the contributor – looking every inch the forward-thinking tech-savvy web dude who pushes back the boundaries of contemporary thought (see right) – and then an article that states: RSS is a niche activity; blogs look amateurish; blogs bring tricky legal issues; and we should think of an umbrella term for everything e-related, which he suggests is a ‘corporate log – or clog for short’.

My responses, in same order, would be: debateable; wrong; no sh!t Sherlock; and what on earth are you talking about? Clog? Clog? Y’FOOL! See left.

It mentions at the bottom that he’s the MD of a company called Writing for the Web. So, let’s take a look at that shall we? Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. Normally, this would be what I term A Bad Website. But considering it’s for a company that prides itself on web writing, it’s diabolical. Still, let’s take a look at what they have to say for themselves, and I find an articles list - and look! There’s his blogs article! So I click it – and it takes me to the wrong article. They got the link wrong. And he’s not even really using a blog setup to publish his articles anyway. Then I think ‘not to worry, let’s subscribe cos he’s got a dirty great RSS icon on his page’. But the RSS icon isn’t actually there for a reason. It doesn’t have a link. It’s just there for show, like the other ill-chosen and badly formatted images on that page.

Why does this raise my ire? I think it’s because, whereas I can appreciate a lot of blogging is by amateurs, it’s easy to come across highly intelligent, articulate and sophisticated thinkers in the blogosphere and learn something new every day. So when someone starts claiming to be a specialist but provides me with nothing new and indeed seems very backward, stultifying and slipshod in what should be a forward-looking, professional discipline, well it just makes me mad. Stark, staring mad. See right.