Good Writing Still Matters, and Anyone Can Do It

Posted October 6, 2016 by davidmrosen
Categories: Communication

Tags: , ,

There’s a lot of web chatter among public relations and marketing professionals concerning good writing – what it means, whether it still matters and whether traditional rules and standards apply in the age of digital and social media.

For what it’s worth, this veteran writer/communications practitioner with 40-plus years of experience in the field and in the classroom believes good writing still matters, especially when it come news, public relations and marketing. And while styles and conventions can and should change over time, I see no reason why quality has to be degraded, as it often is today.

Good writing comes more naturally to some people than others, but I believe anyone can learn to write clearly and effectively if he or she is willing to take the time to work at the craft and follow some simple rules and procedures that have withstood the test of time.

Here’s what I recommend:

  • Think before you write. Organize your thoughts. Determine what you want to communicate to whom and to what end.
  • Have something of interest and value to say. If you have nothing useful to say, don’t say anything.
  • Get to the point at the outset. Stay on message. Don’t go off on tangents. Don’t drone on endlessly. In most cases less is more.
  • Speak to your intended reader.
  • Use short sentences and easy to understand words.
  • Write in the active rather than passive voice. Passive voice can obscure meaning and make it difficult to glean who did what to whom. (For example: “A dog bit a man,” instead of “A man was bitten by a dog.”)
  • Use strong verbs; avoid trite adjectives.
  • Avoid jargon. Don’t use abbreviations and acronyms in first references. Avoid clichés like the plague (ha-ha).
  • Use proper grammar and punctuation to make meaning clear.
  • Check spelling. (Remember that the spell check tool is not always correct.)
  • Proofread, eliminate typos and delete unnecessary words.
  • Read what you’ve written out loud. This is a good way to find missing words and identify poor syntax.
  • Set your piece aside and come back to it later. You may see things differently the second time around.

 

Mattapan Patriots Pop Warner Football: Building Community One Child at a Time

Posted October 13, 2015 by davidmrosen
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

Mattapan_Patriots_Pop_Warner1-10115-webMy assignment this week for Teen Urban News in Boston was to photograph a Pop Warner football game at Almont Park between the home team Mattapan Patriots and the visiting Burlington Patriots.

The undefeated Division E home team (ages 7-9) won 18-0, but that’s not what matters, because Pop Warner Football and Cheer is not about winning and losing. It’s about building character and community and helping young people develop skills that will enable them to lead constructive and rewarding lives.

Patriots Pop Warner gives children ages 5-14 the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of football under adult mentorship and supervision and also provides opportunities for children interested in developing cheerleading skills.

Mattapan_Patriots_Cheerleders1-101115-webLike all Pop Warner organizations, the Mattapan Patriots is more than an athletic program. Its goal is to mold the future of the community “one child at a time” by engaging youth physically and mentally and steering them into productive lifestyles. It is committed to keeping children focused and safe and helping them build self-confidence.

Patriot football teams are divided into divisions according to age and weight. This year, Mattapan teams are competing against teams from other communities during an eight-week, season (September 11-November 1), playing four divisional sets of home games at Almont Park and four on the road.

Mattapan Patriots cheerleaders perform at games and participate in regional competitions.

Cristo Rey Boston High School: Delivering ‘Education that Works’ for Inner-city Students

Posted September 15, 2015 by davidmrosen
Categories: Education

Tags: , , , ,

In the Dorchester section of Boston, a small and relatively unknown Catholic high school in is quietly keeping the promise made in its marketing material to provide “Education that Works” for the low-income, inner-city students it serves.

The school is Cristo Rey Boston High School, and in each of the last six years, an impressive 100 percent of its graduates have been admitted to four-year colleges and universities (see sidebar). The college placements are posted on their website.

IMG_6996B-325This is “education that works!” And, in a sense, it reflects “work that educates,” since a key element in the school’s curriculum is a corporate work-study program in which students acquire valuable skills and generate income to help pay their tuition.

Cristo Rey is the successor to St. John High School, founded in 1921, which became North Cambridge Catholic High School in 1957. Notable alumni include former U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and his son, former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Thomas O’Neill III, who chairs the Cristo Rey Board of Directors.

In 2004, North Cambridge joined the national Cristo Rey network of schools that utilize work-study programs to help students to generate income to meet tuition costs. In 2010, North Cambridge changed its name to Cristo Rey Boston and relocated to the site of the former St. William School in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester.

While Cristo Rey has a new name, location and structure, its mission remains the same: to serve families of limited economic means and educate students to become men and women of faith, purpose, and service.

Cristo_Rey_6982-crop-325Cristo Rey enrolls 380 students and plans to add 30 more in the near future. Ninety percent are Boston residents. The others come from nearby urban communities like Chelsea and Revere. The average family income is under $29,000, and 48 percent fall below the poverty line. Around two thirds identify themselves as Catholic.

The academic program includes four days a week of classroom instruction and one day of work at one of the school’s 145 corporate partners. The partners pay around two thirds of student’s tuition costs, and the school provides substantial scholarships thanks to the many donations the school receives. As a result, families typically pay only $900 to $1,000 per year.

“I’m in awe of the commitment and dedication of our faculty, staff, board members, corporate sponsors and donors to our students and our mission,” said James “Jay” MacDonald, who became president of the school in July. “Before I came, I was well aware of the school and knew it had great support, but what I’ve seen has exceeded my wildest expectations.”

He added, “Teaching and working at Cristo Rey isn’t a job, it’s a calling, and these guys and gals are committed to our students 24/7.”

Cristo Rey students have high praise for their school and even higher aspirations for the future.

Stacey Duran (center), a sophomore from South Boston, said she came to Cristo Rey because ”I knew I could learn more here in a year than I could learn in two years at a public high school.” She does her corporate work-study at the Marian Manor nursing home in South Boston and hopes to study science at George Washington University when she graduates.

Brian Sanchez (right), a sophomore from Dorchester, said he came to Cristo Rey because he knew it would prepare him for college. His work assignment is at State Street Bank. He says he likes all of his courses and hasn’t decided yet what to major in and what college to attend.

Pedro Cintron (left), a sophomore from Hyde Park, said he came to Cristo Rey “to get a good education and meet lots of different people.” He says the teachers are great, and he enjoys his classes. Like Brian, he hasn’t yet made up his mind which colleges to apply to and what to major in.

For more information about Cristo Rey Boston High School visit cristoreyboston.org or call 617) 825-2580, ext. 32.

Language changes that pertain to our professions

Posted February 14, 2014 by davidmrosen
Categories: Uncategorized

Language matters to PR/marketing/writing professionals, especially when it pertains to what we do. In recent years, the professional nomenclature we grew up with has changed. Here are some changes I’ve noted. Please add to the list.

Media (or news media) used to mean newspapers, television and radio. Today it means social media for those under 30.

Journalism used to mean news and information reported by salaried writers working for financially independent news media outlets. Today it also includes content written by bloggers paid by special interests and published by brands on their own websites or as paid sponsored content elsewhere.

Public relations used to mean enhancing visibility and reputations and building relationships. Today it means marketing in many, if not most quarters, and marketing to a large extent means social media.

A brand used to be a mark indicating who owed a cow and, of course, a company’s specific name for a generic class of products (such as, Budweiser beer). Today companies, organizations, products and even individuals call themselves brands.

Awesome used to mean awe-inspiring. Today it means good or great.

Like used to mean liking something and was also used (bad grammar notwithstanding) instead of “such as.” Now like is an offhand utterance describing how someone feels or reacts, as in “I’m like … ”

A company used to be referred to as an it. Today companies and others personify companies using pronouns such as we and who. And they have the Supreme Court on their side.

Wikileaks: Journalism or Terrorism? Assange: Journalist or Anarchist? What’s at Stake?

Posted December 25, 2010 by davidmrosen
Categories: News Media

The disclosures of classified U.S. government documents by the Wikileaks whistle blower web site and the erratic behavior of the site’s founder, Julian Assange, have triggered a barrage of commentary from journalists, other communication professionals and government officials.

They have raised a number of questions. Is Assange a journalist? Is Wikileaks protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Does Wikileaks serve the public interest? Has Assange put lives at risk and needlessly damaged diplomatic relationships? Has he engaged in illegal activities? Should he be prosecuted? Should the government try to shut down Wikileaks and impose controls over any similar organizations that may arise?

Todd Gitlin hit the nail on the head when he wrote in a December 7, 2010 The New Republic post that Wikileaks is the Facebook of whistle blowing and Julian Assange is no Daniel Ellsberg. To which I would add he’s also no Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.

It’s clear to me and to many other communication professionals that Wikileaks’ practice of publishing raw information and intelligence documents obtained by questionable means does not conform to any traditional model of journalism, and Assange is not a journalist as defined by these models. But this hardly ends the debate, which I see as largely irrelevant for two reasons.

The first is it’s impossible today to say who is a journalist and who isn’t. The traditional models do not apply in an age of social media, blogs, citizen journalism and actors-and-comedians-turned reporters and commentators who are widely seen as legitimate conveyors of news and opinion.

The second is that the Constitution conveys essentially the same free speech rights to all citizens as it does to journalists, and these rights are frequently extended to non-citizens. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School states, “Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves (sic) through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.”

West’s Encyclopedia of American Law concurs, saying most jurists have held that “freedom of the press derives from freedom of speech” and the Court “has generally rejected requests to extend to the press privileges and immunities beyond those available to ordinary citizens.”

So love Assange or hate him, he is entitled to the same free speech rights as anyone else, but if he’s believed to have engaged in any illegal activity, he’s subject to prosecution. The same would apply (and has applied) to traditional journalists.

Some commentators suggest that Assange should not be demonized and potentially prosecuted for simply telling the truth. While the leaks may ruffle feathers and disrupt diplomatic relationships, in the long run society will benefit from knowing the truth, they argue.

But even if one can ascertain the truth in all instances, which is doubtful, truth can be a tricky business. Some things can be true but better left unreported, for example when the information puts lives in jeopardy or needlessly harms important relationships. What useful purpose is served by reporting confidential diplomatic assessments of French President Nicolas Sarkozy as “an emperor with no clothes, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin as and “alpha-dog ruler of a deeply corrupt state ” or German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “risk aversive and rarely creative.”

Some things can be true but misleading without context. Some things are true but not important. Some truths that are important can be obscured if they are lumped in with a bunch of junk. Sorting through information and making judgments about what’s important and what the public should know has traditionally been an important role for journalists. But the rules have apparently changed, and I’m not prepared yet to say they are better.

It is unclear at this time if any lives have been or will be put in danger as result of the leaks, in part because only a small percentage of the cables that Wikileaks has obtained have been released, as my colleague Steven Spenser of Praxis Communication noted recently. Assange has promised to post tens of thousands more, and some of these may contain the names of spies, double agents, informants and foreign officials who have provided intelligence crucial to our national security.

The international press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has a love-hate relationship with Wikileaks. On August 12, 2010 RWB criticized “the incredible irresponsibility” Assange showed when he posted an article titled “Afghan Was Diary 2004-2010.” It said publication of the stolen documents was “highly dangerous,” particularly when they named Afghan informants, and the precedent set by the action “leaves all those people throughout the world who risk their freedom and sometimes their lives for the sake of online information even more exposed to reprisals. Such imprudence endangers your own sources and, beyond that, the future of the Internet as an information medium.” http://bit.ly/9lgLGE.

But on December 22, 2010 RWB posted a mirror website for the US diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks as a “gesture of support for Wikileaks’ right to publish information without being obstructed.” RWB said “harassment and attempts to close Wikileaks represent an attack on the ‘democracy watchdog’ role to which article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights refers.” http://bit.ly/gjehg9

Neil James, associate executive director of defence in Assange’s home country of Australia, is quoted as saying, “Wikileaks is not authorized in international or Australian law, nor equipped morally or operationally, to judge whether open publication of such material risks the safety, security, morale and legitimate objectives of Australian and allied troops fighting in a UN-endorsed military operation, Moreover, as an Australian citizen, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange may also be guilty of a serious criminal offense by assisting an enemy the ADF is fighting on behalf of all Australians, especially if the assistance was intentional.”

There is good reason to question Assange’s mental stability and as well as his motives and methods.

The October 23, 2010 New York Times reported that Assange’s own comrades as well as government officials are denouncing him and “abandoning him for what they see as erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.”

The same article quotes Herbert Snorrason, an Icelandic political activist, as saying that Assange is “not in his right mind.” It adds that several Wikileaks colleagues say Assange alone decided to release the Afghan documents without removing the names of Afghan intelligence sources for NATO troops. Birgitta Jonsdottir, a Wikileaks volunteer and a member of Iceland’s Parliament said, “We were very, very upset with that, and with the way he spoke about it afterwards.”

U.S. Secretary of State who summed up the situation succinctly: “There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations.”

Unfortunately we live in an age in which technology empowers an unbalanced anarchist like Assange to do just that on a global scale, and it’s sad that many people think he’s a hero.

But it would be even sadder if our government used this sordid affair as an excuse to seek restraints on what citizens and journalists can publish, an undertaking that would almost certainly fail given the globalization of communications. America can and will survive Wikileaks, but it cannot survive censorship and remain true to the ideals that have made it the greatest democracy in the history of mankind.

Has Digital Technology Enhanced the Quality of Communication?

Posted July 20, 2010 by davidmrosen
Categories: Communication

While digital technology has vastly increased the quantity of communication in the marketplace, has it improved the quality of communication? I don’t think so.  In fact, I fear the opposite is true.

As a professional communicator for more than 40 years — in journalism, higher education and government — I’ve watched technology evolve and seen how it effects how people work and think. Take writing, for example. Word processing fundamentally changed the way most people approached writing. Instead of thinking through and outlining what they wanted to say, they just started writing, knowing they could add, delete, cut, paste, etc. This has degraded the overall quality, clarity and brevity of written communication. Twitter takes us to the other extreme when it comes to brevity but creates problems of its own.

Digital photography is another example. When you shot with film, you had to limit the number of pictures you took to 24 or 36 images at a time, and you could not easily crop and correct images that were captured. So you if you were serious, you took great care to compose your shots because each one mattered.

With digital photography you can shoot hundreds of images in a short period of time and hope you get something good. Even if you don’t, you can easily, crop and correct poorly composed and exposed pictures. The result is a proliferation of mediocre pictures.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of digital photography and fancy myself a pretty good amateur digital photographer. I take the time to compose and edit pictures, but most people don’t. They just click away on their cell phones and other devices and email and upload unedited pictures. Same is true for video. Sad to say, many media outlets use low quality, home-made pictures and videos instead of paying professionals to do it right.

Here’s another angle on photo editing and graphic design. I’ve found that the best digital photo editors often have a background in film photography. They have a better grasp of the meaning and uses of Photoshop tools that burn, crop, etc. The same is true for graphic designers. Those who learned and applied their craft with Exacto knives and glue have skills and perspectives (including the proper use of type and grids) that are lacking among people who learned design on a computer.

Today, anyone who can use graphic design software is considered a designer. Design, writing and photography used to be separate functions. Today, largely because technology makes it possible, these functions are often combined. The result is the proliferation of material that is either well written and poorly designed and illustrated or the reverse.

There are a host of issues pertaining to the quality of news and information in the age of citizen journalists and social media. I addressed some of them in my March 24, 2010 post, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say the following. The Internet has greatly enhanced the volume and diversity of information available and empowered citizens to communicate and interact in ways unimaginable just two decades ago. But it’s equally clear that the overall quality of news and information — in terms of accuracy, relevance and perspective – is severely degraded when professional journalistic standards are not used to determine what news to report and how to report it. As a result, we may know more today, but we may also understand less.

The Separation Between Advertising and Editorial Content: Have the Boundaries Shifted?

Posted May 25, 2010 by davidmrosen
Categories: News Media

In a thoughtful blog,  senior online editor Jason Fell of  FOLIOmag.com,  (“Media’s Ad/Edit Relationship Is Getting Increasingly More Hazy” http://bit.ly/d4Nmtn) writes:

“A content producer—whether a magazine editor or a network producer—would like to believe that the content they create can be distributed to consumers without input or intrusion from the advertising side of the business. It’s the great ethical ad/edit divide that our collective media industry has lived and died by for hundreds of years.

“But that immovable boundary has in fact shifted. Examples have trickled out over the years, most recently with magazines like ESPN the Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Scholastic Parent & Child featuring ads on their covers.”

Fell discusses a controversy that arose recently between the publisher of SHAPE Magazine and the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). The flap involves a cover story on Ellen DeGeneres published in the May issue. According to Mediaweek, ads for Vitamin Water that quote DeGeneres appear in close proximity to the DeGeneres feature. The issue also contains a CoverGirl makeup ad with DeGeneres in it, and DeGeneres is said to be wearing CoverGirl makeup in the cover photo of her. ASME asserts that the DeGeneres story violates their guidelines intended to preserve the integrity of editorial content.

What should we make of all this?

There is no question that the invisible wall that in theory separates the advertising and editorial departments is porous and the holes are getting larger. But in my experience, the wall was breached long ago if, in fact, it ever existed.

As a cub reporter some 40 years ago I was assigned to write a story about a strike planned at a large department store at the start of the Christmas shopping season. I dutifully wrote a balanced story with quotes from both sides. The story didn’t run. I asked the editor why. He smiled and said, “Some day you’ll understand why kid.” I didn’t take me long to figure it out. Soon thereafter I was assigned to write a story on a new resort community for the Sunday paper — “Business Office Must,” I was told. Turns out the resort developer had purchased a paid insert on the project. Smart kid that I was, I reckoned that if the resort story was a “business office must,” the strike story was a “business office must not.”

Years later, as press secretary for a Congressional candidate, I visited the editor/publisher of an influential weekly newspaper to pitch an interview with the candidate. He told me he’d be happy to do the interview if we took out an ad., which we did. I’ve also dealt with publications that promised to run press releases if we paid to run a photo with it (this was in the pre-digital age). Colleagues of mine in marketing tell me it remains a common practice to seek favorable editorial coverage for companies that advertise regularly.

On television and radio today we routinely encounter suspect broadcast segueways from news and commentary to commercials delivered by the so called newscasters. We also see ubiquitous product placements on television and in movies and are forced to endure shameless and inane self-promotion of entertainment shows in network and regional newscasts.

I don’t know enough about the SHAPE/DeGeneres cover story matter to have an informed opinion on whether it violated ASME guidelines. I can say that as such alleged transgressions go, this one doesn’t bother me much. With or without paid advertising inside, a cover story on DeGeneres for this magazine makes eminent good sense editorially. Indeed it might be considered a coup to have landed the story. It seems just as plausible to posit that advertisers decided to jump on the bandwagon after learning of the cover story as the reverse.

The litany of transgressions in both traditional and social media seems endless, and I’m afraid that many people today, especially young people, are either unaware of what’s happening or don’t care.  While the fusion of editorial content and advertising is disturbing, I’m afraid the trend is irreversible. Which means readers, listeners and viewers must be on the look out, and must learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. I’m afraid that’s the best we do.