This last segment devoted to a Public Relations graduate working for a non-profit contains a lot of material, so let’s get to it. Just one thing—yet again we have a graduate reminding us of the importance of providing practice in both interviewing and critical evaluation of web material.
Both the intent of the writing and the nature of the audiences influenced conscious rhetorical choices. In the letter sent to possible golf outing participants, the second paragraph opened with this sentence: “As you know, this will be a tough year for many; but the individuals and families that _________ serves feel the pressure of economic and personal challenges every year.” Dated February 4th of 2009, the strategy here was to address the economic downturn directly—“We didn’t want to put it under the rug.”—to encourage giving even if the prospective donors may have to think about how much they can give. And while the subject, co-workers and “other providers” may refer in conversation to the people they serve as “clients,” they would not do so in any written material because “we don’t want for them in any way to feel that they’re our clients. They’re our friends; we’re here to support them.”
Given the nature of her employer, the subject was notably alert to what constituted appropriate word choices. The child with a disability should not be defined by the disability. Therefore, it can’t be “special needs children; it should be children with special needs.” And while the abbreviation MR is still current, what it stands for—mental retardation—is not. Then came the term “developmental disabilities, but now that’s even out the door; now it’s intellectual challenges. It keeps changing.” During the interview, the subject seemed quite comfortable using the language she knew was appropriate but admitted this was something she had to “adjust” to. “Obviously I knew that every time I spoke, every time I wrote, it was reflecting the agency. But I didn’t know exactly what was kind of quid pro quo for the language; you know what I mean?” The subject was guided by a mental template that reminded her the agency wasn’t “changing” someone they served but helping them find their “potential” and reach their “goals.” “We have a scripted elevator speech, even though … obviously that doesn’t always stay the same, but at least gives folks out in the community an idea. … When we’re describing our services we always go in the same order; it’s always children’s services, family services, adult services, geriatric services.”
Other kinds of decisions regarding style and structure are determined by the kind of piece she is writing. Newsletter articles will be like feature stories but news releases must follow the inverted pyramid and demand tighter sentences. Web site copy can be less “fluffy … a little more factual and not as persuasive.” One of the subject’s biggest challenges was to fit all necessary information in church bulletin notices, a genre she never practiced when in college. Such notices have to be “at least a third of what was in the original press release. If it’s longer than six sentences, eight words per sentence, it’s too long.”
When preparing a newsletter article or other material, the subject would often interview people. And “if there’s a situation where I can’t meet with a parent, I have put, kind of just like this [referring to the schedule of questions I had provided the subject], a series of questions in the child’s mailbox and they return it to me filled out.” She may also take photographs, using a digital camera so she has images ready to download into her copy. Composing is done “directly onto the computer,” using Microsoft Word. The subject does not put together the newsletter itself, which is created using Adobe Pagemaker.
Once a piece is drafted, the subject will print out a hard copy for proofreading with a pen. “Reading through it backwards really works. Because it’s hard after you write something and re-read it, you know what it’s supposed to say. You read it backwards, you don’t know what it’s supposed to say. It’s easier to catch mistakes.” Even though her workplace did not consciously encourage it, the subject said she relied heavily on the Associated Press style book, particularly when doing press releases, because in “the stories that we send to the media, I think it’s important that we reflect that we can follow that style.” That approach takes on even greater significance when one realizes that many of the small circulation daily and weekly newspapers to which the press releases are distributed will often place the material in their publication with little or no alteration. “The local chamber of commerce, they run the business section in the paper and they’ll do that; if it’s good enough they won’t even touch it.”
For her current writing, the subject said she drew most from her Public Relations Writing and Public Relations Campaigns courses. “Our campaign group did a special event that raised money for the American Cancer Society. So a lot of the writing that we did as a group was the press releases and the public service announcements, and all the copy that was going into all of our promotional fliers.” While she had taken Feature Writing, she felt her program could have emphasized that genre more forcefully, as she struggled with the newsletter articles at first, “because it’s so different than news writing. … I would write an article, I still remember the first article I wrote for a feature story, and it came back from my boss, I think, a good three times … until I nailed it. And my boss, she’s a wonderful coach actually. And she did a really good job of walking me through feature writing. Now, it works out really well; I usually don’t get an article back from her once.” Most of the research she does involves the aforementioned prepared questions and interviews, not just of parents but also of staff members and of an attorney, for one particular story. Since coming to work for her employer, she felt her interviewing technique had also improved, in terms of “better preparation of the questions, and probably a little more organized when it comes to setting them up.”
The subject didn’t see much resemblance between her current gathering of information and the more academic kind she experienced in College Writing II and the Communications department’s Research Methods, which “was very detailed, very intensive, very focused research. And I’m just not doing that right now.” She did mention that she is careful to mention her source when she cites information, and she has done stories that require extensive digging on the World Wide Web. Because of a growth in diagnoses of autism and, consequently, of autistic children in the agency’s programs, “we did … one just on autism, understanding the ins and outs of the disease. So a lot of that I did online research. I went to National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, E-medicine Health, just for basic statistics …” The subject did differentiate between the credibility of governmental and organizational sites, but only after a little prompting from the interviewer. As with other interviews, the importance of having undergraduates practice critical analysis of web-available information was apparent.