Sometimes a new word or phrase is developed to communicate more clearly. For example, we say “personalized medicine” instead of “genomics” to help a lay audience understand that this research will enable physicians to prescribe medications more likely to work for an individual because they take a person’s genetic makeup into account.
If a new verbal formulation is exceptionally apt, it can quickly pass into cliché status. Dollars to doughnuts, you know a ton of these. They skyrocket to the top of the usage charts, pedal to the metal past more pedestrian phrasings.
These are all fine; they may indicate lack of literary thoughtfulness, but they aren’t disingenuous. If a cliché briefly encapsulates what would take a much longer phrase to communicate — if it packs a punch — it may aid communication.
Euphemistic clichés are another matter. They’re meant to conceal rather than reveal. Unfortunately for their users, they’re about as effective as Adam’s botanical briefs.
Like pre-owned instead of used cars, or an initial investment replacing talk of a down payment, or agreement being the more delicate way of describing a contract, apparently someone in the PR world did some focus group research and found out that “pitch” has negative connotations.
So now they don’t “pitch” a story idea: they “reach out” to journalists.
Maybe it’s not the newest PR cliché, but besides rapidly becoming dreadfully overused, it also causes bad grammar, in the form of compound prepositions.
I think any communication with reporters that uses language like…
“Hi, I wanted to reach out to you about…”
Should be an immediate candidate for the Bad Pitch Blog. Or the Bad “Reaching Out” Blog.
Grammatically speaking, “reaching out” practioners almost always string at least two prepositions together. And once they get started, “reacher outers” can’t seem to stop, even when they’re not pitching journalists. For instance, I got an email from a PR agency rep last week that said “we’ve reached out to Dr. X regarding speaking….”
How about, “We’ve invited Dr. X to speak…”?
Some of our blogger friends (like Shel Israel) are concerned that PR people won’t be able to break their command-and-control addiction to spin in order to participate effectively in the social media conversation. That’s why, at a PR measurement conference we attended, Shel said companies should just hire a bunch of young people to do social media, instead of trying to retrain PR staff. (See his comments on that post.)
But the reality is that spin and euphemism aren’t keys to long-term success in media relations, either. Good PR practitioners take time to develop solid story ideas and to determine which journalists may find the topic interesting. Then they offer the story: sometimes as an exclusive, sometimes not. And the reverse happens, too: journalists have story ideas and contact PR sources for help in finding experts who can comment. It’s a symbiotic relationship, as journalists get good story ideas and access to subject experts, and the PR pros’ clients hopefully are included in the stories. If it isn’t good for both sides, the relationship doesn’t last.
“Pitching” may carry some traveling salesperson connotations, so I’m not advocating a return to the old cliché. But instead of the mushy new euphemism, “reaching out to,” why not use more concrete verbs like “calling” or “writing” or “contacting?”
Does anyone really think that a journalist who is “reached out to” dozens of times a day fails to see through this language?
I’m not saying the reacher outers should be sent to a correctional facility, but their communication should be hauled away by sanitation engineers.