Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How not to write a press release

I have thrown away more press releases than you've had hot dinners.

No, really. Look, here's the maths:
Press release carnage (I used to get more than 10 a day, but I didn't throw them all away)

13 years as an editor @ 10 press releases a day @ 240 working days per year = 31,200
5 years as a publisher @ 10 press releases a week = 2,500
Total = 33,700
Chilli con carnage, and other hot meals (assuming an average age of 50)
50 years @ 1 hot dinner per day [a reasonable average, I feel] = 18,250
Of course, you might have had three hot meals a day since being weaned, in which case you would have surpassed my press release count by the age of 31, assuming you lived that long on such a diet. But I think my assertion stands up to analysis, at least for most people.

Here's one I didn't throw away. I didn't keep it because it was good; quite the opposite. Please forgive me for posting it in full, although I've cut out the list of speakers and the 'about us' blurb:

International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) hailed as key to effective implementation of MLC 2006
A ship's crew, yesterday
On Friday 19 April 2013, IMEC held its inaugural International Maritime Conference in London. The conference focussed on MLC 2006 and the employment of seafarers. It brought together over 65 delegates and speakers from across the world, representing every MLC 2006 stakeholder including ship-owners, employers, trade unions, flag state, P&I clubs, and the legal industry.
Speaking at the event, Giles Heimann, IMEC Chief Executive Officer, said:
“The MLC is the most significant piece of maritime legislation for many years and, rightly, has been a focus of recent industry events. However, in our conference we have achieved something exceptional.

“Today’s delegates have heard from a unique series of speakers:  IMEC members, the ITF, the ILO and representatives of all areas of the industry who are affected by MLC. They have also been given the chance to quiz these same speakers in an open and honest panel debate.”
The key-note speaker, Dr Cleo Doumbia-Henry, Director of Labour Standards for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and one of the chief-architects of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), praised IMEC’s contribution to the implementation of the most significant piece of maritime legislation in recent history.
“The activities of IMEC, with its international membership, are key to achieving effective implementation in many regions,” said Dr Doumbia-Henry.

“I am aware of the important efforts undertaken by IMEC in developing agreements with the ITF to implement many aspects of the MLC 2006 well in advance of entry in force.

“This has been tremendously helpful and can only make it easier for governments to ratify and implement and ultimately, of course, achieve the Convention’s goals.”
MLC 2006 becomes binding for the first 30 countries with registered ratifications on 20 August 2013. This group of countries is very significant as it includes the largest flag states, as well as many key port states. It also includes countries that are home to the majority of the world’s seafarers and are the location of private seafarers’ recruitment and placement services.
“The role of employers, our members, in the practical implementation of MLC cannot be underestimated,” added Mr Heimann. “We are committed to working with our members in the run-up to its introduction in August 2013, and to continue working with them to secure effective and fit-for-purpose provision for seafarers and employers alike.”
“Vital to this effective provision is an understanding and cooperation between all interested parties. We are proud to have brought together such a varied group of major stakeholders in the same room and remain committed to working with them.”
[List of speakers]

The conference was held the day after IMEC’s Annual General Meeting, which attracted a record number of attendees. 2013 sees the beginning of the next round of International Bargaining Forum (IBF) negotiations over the wages and conditions of seafarers serving on ships to which IBF Special Agreements apply.
It's a bit long at 481 words, but not disastrously so. The problem is the content, or lack of it. Can you imagine wanting to read a story with the headline "IMEC hailed as key to MLC 2006" (I've cut it down to fit on the hypothetical page)? Since this is an industry press release, it's reasonable to assume I know what MLC 2006 is (it's the Maritime Labour Convention), but what does this press release add to the debate? The answer, if we boil the release down to its bare essentials, is nothing. Here's the press release expressed as bullet points, with the comments of a jaded editor in italics:
  1. IMEC has held its first ever conference. Like I give a toss.
  2. The conference studied the labour convention. Really? There was me thinking they were discussing the role of unicorns in medieval heraldry. What did they say about it?
  3. The convention is important. I already know that.
  4. The conference was "exceptional", apparently because there was a Q&A session. Hate to break it to you, old bean, but someone had that idea before you.
  5. The ILO (which drafted the convention) thinks the IMEC has been helpful. Splendid. My kids think I'm great too. Shall I whip out a press release?
  6. The convention becomes binding in August. OK, this is significant, but it's hardly news.
  7. Negotiations over wages and conditions begin this year Again, this is hardly news.
Normally I would try to pick this release apart to suggest how it could have been done properly, but there is literally nothing here. The journalist's only recourse is to call the press officer and ask, "Did anything interesting happen at your conference?" Few journalists have the time to follow up a press release that doesn't even offer the hint of a lead, which is why (so far as I can tell) none of the industry publications have carried a story based on this one. In fact, this blog post is probably the only coverage this release will get.

I'm left with the suspicion that this press release wasn't meant for the press but was written purely to caress the egos of the conference organisers.

Moral: Don't waste our time and yours.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Corporate clichés: "Dedicated to mediocrity"

I'm filling in a survey for gas and electricity supplier nPower, run by a market research company called Nunwood. Nunwood's slogan is "experience excellence". 

As you can see, Nunwood abhors capital letters. That's not a major crime in the world of corporate branding (you might think 'nPower' is worse), and I'm not even complaining about the clichéd slogan. I don't mean that "experience excellence", with or without caps, is a good slogan; it's simply the kind of bland cliché whose awfulness doesn't stand out in the vast ocean of corporate mediocrity.

It's a sad state of affairs when the word 'excellence' has come to be a shorthand for timidity and lack of imagination, but this is how too many organisations think.

Chances are, unless you work in marketing, your only experience of Nunwood will be its surveys. Their wording displays such a degree of sloppiness and imprecision that one would think it was deliberate. The public's "experience" is hardly one of "excellence", unless "excellence" has come to mean "carelessness and inattention to detail".

Take this question: "How much do you spend on gas and/or electricity?" Yes, it's our old friend "and/or", used by people who can't be bothered to decide which word they want to use. How am I expected to answer that question? Do they want to know how much I spend on gas, on electricity or both? The answers are very different.

Then there's a series of questions, introduced thus: "The communication I receive from npower…". That's right, Nunwood can't even be bothered to follow its customer's naming style (nPower). Excellence, or casual disregard? 

Irritatingly, Nunwood insists on referring to its customer in the plural: "npower are a company that…". In other words, it uses the format "It are a thing."

It might seem petty to damn a company simply on the basis of one survey, but surely that is the face it offers to the world, so it's fair game. But if you want to look deeper, may I direct you to the unintentional hilarity that is the company's website (url:, where the clichés are almost falling over themselves:

We provide an end-to-end approach to customer experience management: a platform to move organisations from the desire to excel, through change, to leading performance.

To do this, we combine customer insight, analytics, consultancy and frontline training with our Fizz Customer Experience Management Software.
Alongside these capabilities, we provide clients with an advanced, detailed view of what cutomer experience excellence looks like: Nunwood's Customer Experience Excellence Programme is one of the largest international studies of best practice.
Underpinning this, the Customer Experience 5M Transformational Model is a proven framework for moving organisations from aspiration to excellence
I especially like the spelling mistake ("cutomer"); it's almost as if someone put it in deliberately, in case you weren't convinced that "excellence" was meant as a joke.* I'll let you mine the rest of the site for more pearls of non-wisdom, but I'll leave you with the almost poetically bad "Energising the organisation to achieve breakthrough change". 

Moral: Corporate literature makes more sense if you mentally change the word 'excellence' to 'mediocrity'. 

* Shortly after publishing this post, I noticed that someone from Nunwood had been looking at my LinkedIn profile (nothing wrong with that: it's there to be looked at). The spelling mistake on the website has now been corrected. The clichés are still there.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Defuse or diffuse?

What's wrong with this sentence?
In the UK, the old offence of incitement has been replaced with the much weaker offence of ‘assisting and encouraging’, which includes such defuse crimes as ‘encouraging’ the accessory to a crime (rather than the principal offender), encouraging a preparatory offence (rather than a criminal act), and encouraging an offence which is at the time impossible to commit (therefore a crime that could never have happened, with all the encouragement in the world).
Spiked Online, 11 March 2013
Well, lots of things, although the title of this post gives a tiny clue as to where I'm going with this. You can choose from the following:
  1. It's too long, at 72 words
  2. The phrase "In the UK" implies that there is such a thing as UK law, which there isn't (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legal systems)
  3. It uses a serial (Oxford or Harvard) comma: "a preparatory offence (rather than a criminal act), and…"
  4. It says "an offence which…" instead of "an offence that…"
  5. It talks about "defuse crimes"
Only 4 and 5 are actually wrong. The Oxford comma is only wrong in terms of style: few UK publications favour it and Spiked isn't one of them. In most US publications it would be fine (and probably compulsory). A 72-word sentence is generally not good style, but this sentence provides a list of legal definitions, which is bound to bump up the word count. It's readily comprehensible, so I'd leave it alone. Point 2 is almost the epitome of pernicketiness.

In Point 4, "impossible to commit" clearly distinguishes such an offence from all other offences, so the writer should have used 'that' instead of 'which' (see my earlier post here) 'Which' probably seemed preferable because of the awkward order of words.

But Point 5 is the real howler. The writer should have written 'diffuse'. She has used completely the wrong word, which in a piece about legal precision is a bad mistake.
Defuse (verb): to remove a fuse, or, when used figuratively, to make something safe
Diffuse (verb or adjective): widely scatter(ed)
'Defuse crimes' would be the illegal disarming of bombs, which I think neatly comes under Point 4: "an offence … impossible to commit".

Moral: Similar-sounding words can have diffuse meanings. When an editor spots such an obvious mistake, he'll suddenly find lots of other things wrong with your writing.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Countries and people: whose word do you use?

Back in the 1980s, a friend forced me to sit through a video of the Michael Schenker Group. Part way through the gig, the American singer introduced the band, bellowing out, "From Scotland, England: Chris Glen!" Glen left the band shortly after that, which seems an extreme reaction but it goes to show how sensitive people are about nationality.

You can tie yourself in knots about what to call foreign countries and people, or you can just say, "Sod it, I'll use whatever word I want." One should be sensitive to other people's feelings but one can't be totally governed by them. For instance, I've been told that Turks want us to call their country Türkiye, as they do, but all three of my Turkish friends call it "Turkey" when speaking and writing English. Similarly, I'm told the Dutch don't like being called 'Dutch' (see the Twitter exchange on the right), but what's the alternative?
There are 80 million people in Turkey and 17 million in the Netherlands. Chances are they don't all have the same opinion, and many of them probably have no opinion at all on what you call them or their country. Don't worry about it.

Other countries are more sanguine. No German would expect an English speaker to call his country Deutschland, and the Japanese are quite happy that we don't call them Nihon-jin (Nippon is also correct, but terribly old-fashioned, like calling England 'Albion'). And, boot on the other foot, what's the Japanese word for 'English person'? Do you know? Do you care? (It's 'Igurisu-jin', if you must know.*) Are you, if you're English, going to insist on the correct term? Of course you're not. In some ways, I'm flattered that they have their own word for my country and language. It suggests it's important to them, and what could be more flattering than that?

Tying yourself in knots will leave you like the hapless Guardian newspaper, which is so desperate to be correct that it can't see any kind of perspective. Look at this exchange from a live report of a cricket match in India in 2011, in which the writer reports the events of the match while fielding emails from fans (not just any cricket match, but one of the greatest ever World Cup matches):
21st over: India 116-1 (Tendulkar 44, Gambhir 33) Five from Yardy's over: two singles, a two and a wide. England have got to take wickets in these middle overs or the death overs could be extremely painful. "Please stop calling it Bengaluru," says Robin Percival. "The English name for the city is Bangalore; just as the English name for Roma is Rome or Moscva is Moscow. I have just returned from spending over five weeks in Bangalore and everyone I spoke to (in English) referred to the city as Bangalore. Of course I do not speak Kannada and if I did I would call it Bengaluru. English language papers in India such as The Hindu refer to the city as Bangalore. Why can't the Guardian?" Don't shoot the style guide adherer. I know I am a maverick, but I will never – never – deviate from the Guardian style guide. My life would not be worth living. (Guardian, 27 February 2011)
Subsequent overs report other readers' comments, including a bemused Sriraghavan B: "I am from Madras, India and I still call it that way as do many of my relatives, neighbours and friends and many more. It never occurred to me that I should say Chennai as I feel that it is not right." 

And God help you if you call all Eskimos Inuits, because most of them aren't. I'm sorry for pasting this whole exchange, but the relevant episode of QI isn't on YouTube and you'd have to register with the website to read it in its original location:
The word "Eskimo" is non-PC in Canada, much as it's fine in Alaska. The particular indigenous person of the north who was featured on QI was a Yupi'ik from Alaska - Sarah Palin's husband is one of those as well - and hence "Eskimo" rather than "Inuit" is the term to use. The plural of Yup'ik is Yupiit.

Had the person been an Aleut, then again "Eskimo" might have caused offence. The Aleut are very sure that they are not Eskimos; while they don't object to "Aleut", they prefer one Unangax̂, two Unangax, three or more Unangan. (Note that most of the Eskimo-Aleut languages have what's called a dual number; this comes between singular and plural and is used when there are two of something. It's rare in European languages; Slovenian and Sorbian have it, and it's on the point of vanishing from Lithuanian.)

The indigenous people of Baffin Island and such like places absolutely are Inuit, although "an Inuit" or "lots of Inuits" are always going to be wrong since "Inuit" is the plural. One Inuk, two Inuuk, three or more Inuit.

While the people of the central Arctic would prefer Inuinnaq to Inuit, they won't get especially upset at the more general word. As for indigenous Greenlanders, the preferred term is Kalaallit, singular Kalaaleq. (There's no dual in Greenlandic.)
(And for those who are interested, here's a case study from QI on how they got the question about Jerusalem - the song - wrong.)

The Guardian style guide might try to do the right thing by pressure groups, but if none of its readers understand what it's talking about then surely it has failed. The readers make their own rules, not always logically, so Pinyin spellings for Chinese names have largely been accepted ('Beijing' instead of 'Peking', etc) while only 'Mumbai' of the new Indian names has really caught on.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: whatever you write, you write for your readers. As soon as you put anyone else's interests before the interests of your readers, you've abandoned your responsibilities as a writer.

Moral: If someone else has their own word for my country or language, I'm not offended. I'm flattered.

* No it isn't. See the comments.