I rarely spend time thinking about the messages I find in Chinese fortune cookies. -- I've certainly never written about one before. -- But, the one I recently received at my local Chinese buffet was not only surprisingly profound for a cookie, it's an important axiom for public relations practitioners. It said:
"People are not persuaded by what we say
but rather by what they understand."
Don't spend too much time on wordsmithing.
Clear, crisp, and vivid writing is imperative for anyone who hopes to succeed in public relations. It's a profession that demands skilled wordsmiths. Year after year, and survey after survey, those who hire entry and mid-level public relations professionals cite "strong writing skills" as one of the most important traits they seek in potential hires.
Public relations practitioners are expected to consistently produce punchy, powerful prose that resonates with their target audiences and achieves desired results. But, they aren't expected to produce great literature.
In fact, public relations writing may have few, if any, literary qualities. It's not always grammatically correct, and it may not be stylish or sophisticated. It may not even be entertaining. And, it certainly need nor be self-expressive. Public relations writing is not done for its own sake, or for the gratification of the writer, or as an art form.
Public relations writing is purposeful writing intended to trigger a desired reaction in a specific target audience so the relationship between that target audience and the person or organization that initiated the public relations effort is enhanced. From a public relations perspective, anything else is wasted effort. Regardless of how beautiful a piece of writing is, or how many literary awards it wins, it is NOT successful public relations unless it positively affects the client's relationship with the target audiences.
This is not to suggest that great literature cannot serve a public relations purpose. It can and has done so. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, has long been regarded as great literature. It was also a rallying cry for the abolition movement when it was first published in the 1850s. Even today, it remains the source and context for many racial stereotypes.
Other novels prized as literature also had public relations value for social causes or organizations. George Orwell's Animal Farm and, even more so, 1984 were powerful anti-communist propaganda as well as great literature. John Hershey's Hiroshima was cited and distributed by those opposing the spread of nuclear weapons, and Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff came along at just the right time to prop up the image of astronaut's and NASA when the U.S. moon program was shutting down and before the success of the shuttle program.
Perhaps to a lesser extent than novels, some great speeches have also achieved the status of literature as well as being effective public relations. John Kennedy's inaugural address and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech are the two that most readily come to mind, but there have been many others. Some were decades or centuries in the past; others were more recent. Even Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" is sometimes placed in this category.
However, public relations writing need not be great literature to be effective. Nor does it need to be long and detailed. Sometimes the best public relations writing is just a slogan. -- "Give me liberty or give me death." "Go west, young man." "Fifty-four, forty or fight." "Keep calm and carry on." "Be all that you can be." "Hell no, we won't go." "You're in good hands with Allstate." or even "Obamacare" -- The critical need is that it reaches its target audiences and resonates with them.
For a public relations person writing to impact a target audience, brevity or length is a secondary consideration. So is complexity or simplicity. And, so is sentence structure and syntax. It may not even matter if you use faulty grammar, or slang, or vulgarity. You might even get away with being politically incorrect.
What's critical is that the target audiences receive the message and respond to in the ways the client wanted. If the target audiences are now thinking and/or acting in the desired ways, the literary quality of the message that triggered this is irrelevant.
With this in mind, consider that fortune cookie observation.
"People are not persuaded by what we say but rather by what they understand."
If you believe this, as I do, you'll always seek a clear understanding of your target audience and what motivates it before starting to write. It's in this context that I urge you not to spend too much time on wordsmithing.
If you're not attuned to your audience, it won't matter how much time you spend crafting and polishing whatever you write.
But, if you take the time to learn about and understand your audience and then focus your writing so it resonates with their values, beliefs, interests, and aspirations, you're headed towards success. If you connect on an emotional level, they'll overlook or forgive less-than-literary writing.
So, in the limited time available to complete a public relations writing project, be sure to spend enough time/energy to thoroughly understand your target audience even if it means having less-polished prose.