Secret handshakes have gone the way of AOL email addresses (sorry, “Top Gun” fans), but there is still a surefire way to gain acceptance with a group of insiders: Speak in jargon.
Every profession has its own lingo based on a common understanding of terms that are unfamiliar or confusing to those outside the loop. Talking to a Marine about a FOB (forward operating base) is far different from an FOB (free on board) for someone in the freight industry, an FOB (front of book) for a magazine publisher or the fob many of us need to open a locked door.
For PR pros, it’s essential to learn the jargon of new clients (and keep up with it as it evolves) so we can better understand what they do and how they communicate internally. We should also continually advise clients to scrub the jargon whenever they communicate with external audiences. When telling stories and building relationships, jargon is a stumbling block the size of Gibraltar.
Of course, PR pros use jargon too, sometimes to the detriment of engaging those we’re trying to reach. When we do this, we’re unconsciously saying, “If you want to be in the know, learn to speak our language.” We ought to learn that it’s not OK to use our jargon when speaking with anyone who’s not conditioned to get giddy at a follow-back from a prominent reporter.
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Here are 10 PR jargon terms that should not be repeated in public:
1. Elevator speech – If you can’t explain what you do and why someone should care in the time it takes for an elevator ride, you will lose your audience’s attention. (But if you’re talking about work in an elevator, you deserve to ride with the kid who lights up all the buttons.)
2. Story with legs – Most news stories are told once and they’re history, but a “story with legs” keeps running as new developments and perspectives emerge. The best ones—stories for which we are trying to get maximum coverage—are rolled out across multiple news cycles. The worst ones—the ones full of unbalanced, misleading claims—are like ultramarathoners running through Dante’s “Inferno.” They scream and get plenty of attention. If a PR firm is good at what it does, it can extend any positive story by promoting it on other channels.
3. Fluff piece – Many PR clients want a news story to be about as provocative as cotton candy at the county fair, but journalists are naturally skeptical and loath to write a “fluff piece.” They’ll often seek opposing viewpoints—for example, a dietician’s perspective on cotton candy—to balance a story. We’re all chasing unicorns, but prepare yourself to catch a wildebeest.
4. Managing expectations – We get paid to meet our clients’ objectives, and we’re good at it. However, some clients believe PR is about getting the most sought-after publications to cover a brand simply because it exists. That’s just fantasy, and part of our job is explaining to clients that to get coverage, they have to present the media with a compelling story, one that will command the attention of readers/viewers.
5. Above the fold – The top newspaper stories are on page one, above the fold. For online outlets, stories “above the fold” are on the home page and visible without scrolling down. If gaining media coverage is a win, getting a story above the fold is worth ordering extra copies and shipping them overnight to the client.
6. In the weeds (antonym: 30,000-foot view) – While it’s important to be detail-oriented, too often PR writers can get caught up in the minutiae and lose sight of the overall objective. Encumbering the client’s basic message with too many details or detours into interesting but unessential tangential areas all but guarantees missing the target. Messages should be kept clear, simple and “out of the weeds.”
7. Block and tackle – For folks in construction or the moving business, “block and tackle” refers to a system of pulleys used to lift large objects. For a football player, those words mean something entirely different. In PR, media materials and pitches are our stock in trade, our “block and tackle.” While we’ll always handle traditional public relations activities for our clients, our role as communicators – and content creators – continues to evolve. The boundaries between traditional and digital/social media are blurring, as are the players.
8. Out of the box – Creative ideas outside the norm are said to be “out of the box,” but in reality there is no box. If your message isn’t creative, it won’t resonate. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t work anymore.
9. Low-hanging fruit – In PR, “low-hanging fruit” refers to targeting easily achievable opportunities or taking advantage of existing relationships. Deft PR pros know how to harvest fruit from the highest branches.
10. Disrupt [industry] – You ever hear a song and play that jam over and over until you’re sick of it, and then you hear it again on your music stream? Tell a journalist about a product that will “disrupt” an industry, and you will get the Luigi death stare. Solid PR professionals don’t play into the hype machine. They focus on what clients are doing to improve people’s lives and why the audience should care.
Readers, any phrases to add?
Travis Taylor is vice president at Fineman PR, a San Francisco public relations firm that specializes in consumer PR, crisis communications and multicultural outreach. Connect on Twitter @travistweets.