Monday, July 23, 2012

Write This Way with Tom Gable

Welcome to Write This Way, an interview series where public relations leaders and integrated marketing experts share their thoughts on communications writing in today's digital age.

Tom Gable, CEO of San Diego-based Gable PR, was kind enough to lend his insights on various subjects every successful PR practitioner needs to know.

You'll find Tom's complete bio at the end of the interview. Enjoy! 

What are some fundamentals to keep in mind when developing marketing communications and PR copy?

TG: As a former journalist, I tend to think about how do we tell good stories. First, who is the target audience? How to get their attention in a way that supports the business and marketing goals of the client.

I start with the ideal headline: what would be the perfect headline for this story and where would the story appear? Then, before delving into the writing, I always counsel our teams to start with two big questions: so what and who cares?

The copy and facts being conveyed need to appeal to someone other than internal audiences and their immediate families. Then, we need to craft the story in a human voice, without any industry jargon if possible. Have a colleague with another firm (or friendly journalist) who is not familiar with the client read the story and provide a quick litmus test on the quality of the message and supporting facts. A few more fundamentals: avoid hype and superlatives. Be fact-filled, including the use of data from outside sources.

What markets does your agency or organization target? What audiences are you trying to reach?

TG: Gable PR works on strategic programs in several different industries with often complex communications challenges, including technology, lodging and hospitality, transportation, renewable energy, real estate, education, and healthcare and the life sciences. We also have a major crisis PR practice, where the communications issues can get even more complex.

In a world of sound bites and tweets, how do organizations develop powerful messages regarding complex issues?

Organizations have to create a positioning that clearly differentiates them from the competition, then craft the messages that convey the supporting evidence to build the brand and its reputation accordingly. One approach we use at Gable PR is to create a competitive matrix using an Excel spreadsheet. We put the names of the companies across the top (often disguised with a code to avoid prejudicing the analytical process). Then, for each company on the matrix, we conduct research to identify the core values and messages they are using to differentiate themselves. The categories include: tag line (if they have one); key words from their boilerplates in news releases; major themes from their website home pages; the dependent clause in the first sentence of most news releases (e.g. “Company ABC, a leading developer of mobile applications for the medical profession, today announced…”); and key words they sprinkle throughout their copy (leader, best, innovative, award-winning, etc.).

This is a fun exercise. Most companies claim to be leaders and use the same words in their copy. We did a matrix for one client versus 10 competitors and coded the names at the top. The CEO could only recognize his company and one other. The rest all sounded alike. This was a big wake up call for the client who wanted to promote his leading solutions, as did 10 others.

From this foundation, Gable PR gets creative: what is there and what isn’t there? And how can we create distinctive, compelling copy to help the client rise above the clutter in all its communications? This is not always achievable, but it’s definitely the goal.

Are press and sales kits as relevant today as they’ve been in the past?  Does an organization’s website make the need for such content superfluous?

TG: The first place an inquiring reporter or editor turns for more information is a company website. So the website needs to have a compelling News Center, to include a comprehensive media kit written in journalistic style. It is far better for a writer (or financial analyst, or potential strategic partner, or customer, or community leader or anyone else) to download the backgrounder, or the leadership team piece, or a technical fact sheet, etc., than to randomly pull things from different parts of the website. Having well-crafted stories ready to go helps with consistent messaging and reduces the chances that the media will get the facts wrong. We will often see sections lifted from backgrounders and other media kit pieces directly, which we love!

Gable PR also uses pieces of the media kit to introduce a company and its key elements to new media targets. For example, in driving coverage of the $400 million geothermal plant we identified key targets. Most had never heard of the company that built the plant. So we had a gradual education process leading up the event and to set the stage for ongoing pitching. We sent the backgrounder in week one to introduce the company and its essentials, with a cover message mentioning that more detail would be forthcoming. We sent the leadership team piece the next week, followed by the Geothermal Technology piece, and finally a piece on the Salton Sea Geothermal Resource area, quoting outside experts. The goal was to drive coverage of the plant, plus bigger stories about the region, since our client is going to build two more plants there and will be looking for big time financing. A method to the media madness.

How has social media affected a company’s ability to get its message out? How do you advise a company that is overwhelmed (and incapacitated?) by the opportunities?

TG: There is no easy answer because the use of social media by companies is directly related to the size of their audiences and markets. Our geothermal client doesn’t need an aggressive presence on Twitter, Facebook or  LinkedIn. But we use YouTube for videos on the technology and the development of their plant to build credibility.

On the other end of the spectrum, we work with a mortgage company with about 100 offices and they wanted to be active in social media to position themselves as having the best customer service in the business, versus the big impersonal banks. We worked with them to develop a “Think Like a Publisher Plan” the branch managers could use as a template for doing their own blogging, Tweeting and posting to Facebook to build a conversation with their target audiences. Their internal staff created a training program to prepare the branch managers to go forth and communicate within specific guidelines. Gable PR would review the first three to five blogs from each new blogger for quality of the content. Gable PR would then approve the blogger to go forward without further editing of each piece. At the same time, we developed an editorial calendar to blog weekly with important information for homeowners and future homeowners, and Tweet three to five times a day with links to helpful sites for the same targets. We aren’t selling. We are building trust and relationships. Gable PR writes all the blogs and Tweets. The blogs are furnished to the branch managers who don’t want to write themselves. They add local links and other information to personalize each.

The “Think Like a Publisher Plan” is a good one, whether handled internally or externally. You create your editorial calendar and plan, then implement and gain momentum. The publishers can supplement, too, with links to breaking stories or write new blogs on emerging trends the customer would find helpful.

It’s all strategic.

What transformations in written communications—style, form, distribution, etc.—do you foresee in the near future?

TG: Public Relations firms are the ultimate resource for the “Think Like a Publisher Plan.” PR agencies and internal staffs are going to be significantly more active in taking charge of strategic messaging for their clients, companies or organizations. It is just logical and it will keep evolving as new tools enter the mix and old ones disappear. I spoke about this recently at a PRSA Counselors Academy Conference. We can’t fall in love with our tools and lose sight of the architectural plan we are implementing to build image and reputation. 

Anything else about your work you’d like to share?

TG: As a former journalist, I love having all these different outlets for writing and publishing! We, as a profession, just have to make sure we accept the added mantle of being thorough, accurate and enlightening in telling our stories.

Tom Gable, APR and PRSA Fellow, is CEO of Gable PR, a full service firm based in San Diego and with clients throughout the west. In more than 35 years in the profession, Tom has represented a range of clients from startups and new ventures to Fortune 100 companies.

Prior to entering public relations, he was business editor of the San Diego Tribune and a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and other business, travel and regional magazines. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and holds many awards for writing and public relations, including four Silver Anvils from PRSA, the highest award in the profession. Tom writes regularly for national business and marketing media on trends in public relations and crisis PR. He is currently working on completing the fifth edition of his book on PR program management -- The PR Client Service Manual. Tom speaks frequently at PRSA and other professional conferences. He blogs about PR issues, is contributing wine editor for San Diego Magazine and also blogs on wine.


If you are a senior PR executive and would like to participate in the ongoing Write This Way series, please email me.

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