How important is writing in public relations today? A PR Week editorial has sparked a fresh discussion about the value of writing skills in today’s PR agency or corporate communications department. In the op-ed, University of South Carolina’s Shannon Bowen, Ph.D. argues that as PR has evolved into a management discipline, college communications curricula must shift to make room for the teaching of skills like critical thinking and ethics.
Strategy must drive communications tactics, and critical thinking is a vital skill in our business, but I take issue with the thesis that advanced writing skills are no longer crucial for “real-world” PR jobs. PR has surely evolved, but writing skills are more important than ever. Here’s why:
Writing is at the core of persuasion. The creation of compelling content is a fundamental communications skill, and honest persuasion our goal. If you’ve crafted an op-ed about a business-critical issue or written a keynote speech for a C-level executive, you appreciate the power of the written word to convey ideas, evoke emotion, and build influence. Written and spoken words are still our number-one way for business and government leaders to communicate.
PR is content marketing. Bowen asserts that, “The days of writing news release after news release have given way to the cleverly-worded 140 character snippet.” But social media posts are merely the entry point into a whole new world of content marketing. Today’s PR campaign incorporates a much wider variety of written (and visual) content than in the days of press releases, much of which is longer-form content or brand storytelling. In a given day we may be called to write web copy, a white paper, or a strategy document.
PR ethics must be instilled in the workplace. Bowen makes the case that “PR writing style can be easily taught in the workplace,” but that ethics must be part of a core communications curriculum. But the reverse may be closer to the truth. The very diversity of today’s PR practice and the integration of paid, earned, and owned media means that there is no such thing as “PR writing style.” Communications ethics, on the other hand, must be institutionalized in the agency and corporate environment, to ensure good practice and train future PR leaders.
Bowen is absolutely right about the high cost of university education and the importance of ethical decision-making for PR and communications pros. But excellence in writing is more than “wordsmithing.” The PR practitioners of the future will be far better prepared to support clients, counsel senior management, or marshall a cogent argument in the face of a reputation threat if they can master not just “PR writing style” but know how to craft and use language for clarity, authority, and impact.