Ben LincolnBen Lincoln

Steve Jobs said intuition is “a powerful thing, more powerful than intellect.”

It’s the kind of quote from the kind of guy who can spark a movement. Indeed, today’s tech gurus and PR thought leaders are equally quick to insist you should “go with your gut” and “follow your instincts.” Hey, it sounds right. And in moments of creative inspiration, it might even feel right.

JetBlue - Back To The Future tweetBut when it comes to your PR writing, it’s rotten advice. See, the problem with guts is everyone has them. And in a communications industry that runs on real-time deadlines, one writer’s instincts are sure to resemble another’s.

Take the branded tweets from "Back to the Future” Day (please). Copywriters, say it with me now: “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” 

Left unchecked, gut-given writing rarely sticks out. That’s because the first thing that enters a busy writer’s brain is rarely the best thing.

This is the darker side of intuition. It leads to unoriginal, uninspired copy that readers ignore and reporters deplore. Good examples of bad writing abound. Here are three from the gut that deserve a second thought before PR pros hit send.    

1. It’s [fake national holiday]!

Ten years ago, made-up holidays epitomized the kind of quirky click-bait reporters couldn’t resist. Now hundreds (maybe thousands) of fake holidays later, these storylines often reek of branded desperation.

Royal Dutch Airlines - Back To The Future tweetThis month’s oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy moments include National Cappuccino Day, Pickle Day and Cake Day, accounting for just a fraction of November’s probable news-jacking victims.

As PR people join hands in celebrating every single holiday, they unwittingly contribute to the law of diminishing returns for readers. “The more often we experience something,” said creative writing instructor Robert McKee, “the less effect it has.”

PR guts may growl over the timeliness of obscure holidays, but we shouldn’t overlook the most important ingredient in a good story: relevance. PR’s value is in building relationships on a foundation of mutual interest. Saturation depletes that interest and the potential for your brand to form connections. So, unless you can demonstrate a profoundly meaningful connection between your hook (the holiday) and the point (why it matters to the people who matter), you may be celebrating National Bundt Pan Day all by yourself.

2. The [seasonal change] is …

Here’s a PR pitch that’ll make any reporter wince: “The winter wind is blowing in, so blah, blah, blah …” Yes, the weather outside is weather. It’s anything but interesting.

Next time your instincts tell you to lead with it, imagine you’re in an elevator. Suddenly, the stranger next to you starts chatting about the winter wind or the rainy rain. Now, ask yourself: Is this conversation about to get fascinating or is it time to hit the emergency exit button?

In a PR pitch, the only thing more interesting than the weather is anything else. But the deeper point is that PR people need to get to the point, quickly. There’s no room for idle prattle when 68 percent of journalists just want the facts.

3. We are on a journey …

Nowadays, it seems like every brand is embarking on a journey. Where are all of these brands so boldly going? Said one company’s press release: “We are on a journey to build our brands in digital.” Hurray! Said another crusading company: “We are on a journey to use multiple, disparate data sources to understand the unique demographics around every single C-store in the United States …” (zzz ZZZ zzz).

In recent years, brands have blazed a well-worn path on journeys to reader boredom. Don’t let your organization wander aimlessly in its PR materials. Instead, tell readers where you’re going, how you plan to get there and, most important, why anyone should care about the destination.

Righting these wrongs: Your gut isn’t always wrong, but you shouldn’t trust it implicitly. Next time your instincts take control of your writing, remember these wise words from High Fidelity author Nick Hornby: “Frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

Have an example of copy from the gut that’s bound to fall flat? Share it in the comments section. 

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GolinBen Lincoln is a writing director at Golin. Send him your words at
blincoln@golin.com or @BenTilious.  This is the first article for a periodic column from Golin focusing on how PR pros can improve their writing skills.