Monday, March 28, 2016

Let's outlaw passive voice in newswriting

News item provided by the Associated Press, repeated by a local public broadcasting affiliate: "The Russell Station power generation plant, an iconic landmark near the Lake Ontario shoreline outside Rochester, is being torn down."

Russell Station photo by RChappo2002, via
Flickr (Creative Commons License 2.0).

The "is being torn down" is Exhibit One in the case of the AP tearing down journalistic writing. Passive voice -- leaning on a wobbly "to be" verb instead of an active verb -- weakens any writing.

Marketing communications and public relations agencies will cough up the occasional passive-verb hairball in news releases. For example: a release from the Del Prado law firm relies on "has been serving" instead of "has served." This suggests that neither the agency or MyPRGenie has newswriting skill.

AP and other news organizations shouldn't fall into the same trap. It creates flabby, dull writing that makes readers ask: why should I care?

Instead of this:  The Russell Station power generation plant, an iconic landmark near the Lake Ontario shoreline outside Rochester, is being torn down. Crews have begun demolishing the facility located in the Monroe County town of Greece. 

How about this: Crews this week started demolishing the landmark Russell Station power plant near Lake Ontario, just north of Rochester, NY.

I opted for immediacy and fewer words. I also dropped the windy "iconic" descriptor. The Colosseum in Rome and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur are iconic. The Russell Station plant looks much the same as any other smokestack coal-fired power plant from the 1940s. It's a landmark, in the sense that it's visible to passing boaters and motorists, and hard to confuse with other structures on that area of the Lake Ontario shoreline.

Come on, AP. Before you deride lame PR writing, please outlaw your dependence on passive verbs. Thank you.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Shaking the dust off an old murder case

2003 Surveillance image of Xerox Federal Credit Union
assailant, provided via Webster (NY) Police Dept. web
page at
I'm a college professor, not a reporter. But I may or may not have had something to do with getting a 13-year-old murder case back in gear.

Eight weeks ago, I dug up details of a 2003 bank robbery and murder at a Xerox credit union branch in Webster, NY. A Xerox employee, Raymond Batzel, was killed. The killer fled and was never found.

My reporting days are well behind me, but I wanted to use the case in a journalism class I teach at St. Bonaventure University. The idea was to get students to think about who they'd call to get updates on a case no one had reported on for almost a decade. (Most of the officers and others connected with the case have moved on.)

During my research, I emailed the police chief in Webster, NY, and the FBI's Buffalo office. The FBI responded first, telling me the Webster Police are the lead agency on the investigation -- and the FBI have no comment. The Webster police chief replied by phone, a few days later, confirming that the case was still "active."

This morning (March 21), the FBI held a news conference announcing a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the robber/killer. Few substantive details were disclosed; we still don't know how much cash was taken.

This in no ways suggests that either law enforcement agency wasn't on top of the case. I have no knowledge of their investigation, and I doubt they'd tell me anything useful. News media hadn't touched the story since 2008. Remember, I'm a college professor, not a reporter.

However, I'd like to think I helped shake a little dust off a cold case, and that the investigation moves forward to apprehend a violent felon.

Celebrity Apprentice politics -- and how to beat Trump

Editors of a student publication asked me: "If you were hired to take attention and support away from (Donald) Trump in the presidential campaign, what would you do? And how would you go about doing this?"

Across my career, my engagements in political PR were minimal. Most of my corporate and not-for-profit clients had little political interest. But the editors' questions made me wonder: is taking away Trump's bluster and strong-arm tactics the best path forward?

Tom Selleck photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Here's what I shared with the editors:

The challenge with “taking interest away from Trump” is that it’s impossible. He spent years cultivating his personal brand through his Celebrity Apprentice TV series and phoning news-talk shows on radio and TV. So the entire country believes it “knows” Donald Trump.

In other words: Trump's campaign is not based on ideology, GOP dogma, or an electorate allegedly disenchanted by the major parties' machinations. He has no real workable ideas, or strategists who can help craft policy suitable for a global leader; traits by which most authentic leaders are judged.

Trump's only strength is his celebrity. He's a media darling who knows how to wrap news media around his (insert your favorite size euphemism here) fingers. Those over-enthusiastic attendees aren't packing Trump's rallies because of his brilliant ideas about walls or deportation. They're hoping a WWE-style fight breaks out, complete with John Cena and a guest star.

It's all about our country's preoccupation with celebrity.

Back to the GOP's case. A workable solution might be to draft a highly regarded GOP leader – House Speaker Paul Ryan, or perhaps Sen. John McCain – who have records of public service. Both are familiar to the national electorate from their past campaigns. 

Or, as a true dark horse option, enlist a GOP-affiliated actor who’s widely admired. Tom Selleck leaps to mind. He's generally well-liked, with a TV and media pedigree that pre-dates Trump's by at least a decade. Unlike Trump's resort properties, Selleck owns a ranch, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

 And he knows how to drive a Ferrari. Sounds promising.

Properly focused, the GOP would need to concentrate its messaging and resources on persuading an uncommitted “moveable middle” segment of the GOP faithful who find the prospect of a Trump presidency unacceptable: voters unimpressed by empty threats.

I hope those voters watch Blue Bloods or repeats of Magnum, P.I.

Full disclosure: I did have a near-brush with Trump's celebrity in my corporate PR life. See below. It's pretty awful.

Monday, March 14, 2016

You're not going to like the way this looks

(The following post is 100% free of political commentary. But it does mention a few blowhards.)

When's the last time you bought a well-made suit? Not the Haggar separates some retailers sell, but a good suit that would last a few years, until fashion dictums made it obsolete?

Probably not anytime recently. Casual Fridays at many businesses extended to Casual Everydays. Which, outside of Wall Street, law firms, and TV anchor desks, usually meant fewer suits and ties. My last suit was hand-tailored with Italian silk, and cost the equivalent of a mortgage payment. I don't need to buy another suit anytime soon.

This only partially explains why Tailored Brands, the parent company of Men's Wearhouse and Joseph A. Bank, announced last week that 250 of its 1,500 stores would close this year. Not good news for a brand that had some cachet with consumers.

By Ed!(talk)(Hall of Fame) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Tailored Brands' CEO reported last week that year-over-year sales dropped by a third, in the wake of the company dropping promotions and sales that the Bank stores famously promoted. Offering three free suits if you bought one at full price sounded like a great idea. Except men wear fewer suits and sport jackets at work today, so four suits could last for years. Assuming leisure suits don't make a sudden comback.

Tailored Brands made a tough decision to scale back promotions, disregarding the painful lesson J.C. Penney learned in 2012-2013, when its CEO did away with the sales shoppers had grown to love. After the company cratered, Penney ditched its sale-free strategy and Ron Johnson, the CEO who forgot that consumers like a sale.

Even ex-Men's Wearhouse Chairman George Zimmer saw disaster lurking. He told Bloomberg Business that buying the Joe Bank stores was a bad decision: “They had a problem,” Zimmer said. “Joe Bank had really damaged their brand over a number of years by running incessant promotions so that nobody wanted to go there and pay regular price.”

Consumers want sales -- or, at minimum, the idea of getting a great deal. That's a hard habit to break. And Tailored Brands may have sold its investors on the wisdom of ditching the 3-for-1 deals, but it didn't talk or listen to consumers, whose interest in worsted wools had declined to the point where it required prodding in today's Casual Workplace world.

The rag business isn't easy. But, there's still a source of good-looking suits, offered by a would-be presidential candidate -- who, for better or worse, knows how to tell an audience what it wants to hear.