Posts tagged “public relations”

Happy New Sidereal Year

What New Year’s really means.

While most people know that the Western (Gregorian) calendar is “solar” (and measures the earth’s full rotation around the sun – an orbit which takes about one year) few people know that the earth’s rotation around the sun is seldom the same, year in and year out. In fact, our orbit is quite irregular, and is called a sidereal year.

By the way, a sidereal year is 6 hours and 9.1626 minutes longer than the standard calendar (solar) year of 365 days. Which is one of the reasons why we have a leap year every four years.

Of course, not every culture bases its calendar on a solar cycle, and in fact more people on our planet use a lunar cycle – which is about 29.5 days per month. Lunar calendars pre-date our solar calendar (since the earth’s rotation around the sun is a relatively recent discovery) and are still in use by many of the major cultures and peoples. The oldest known lunar calendar, by the way, was discovered in Scotland and dates back to around 8000 BC – 10,000 years ago.

Our calendar is only 433 years old.

It’s entirely forgivable for people who use the Western/Gregorian calendar to assume that our calendar, as of January 1, is 2,015 years old, but that just ain’t so. It is in fact only 433 years old, having been brought into existence in 1582 to mark the precise celebration of Easter.

Why is our calendar called the Gregorian calendar? Because it was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII, via a papal bull – a decree – signed on February 24, 1582. It was several centuries before it was adopted throughout the western world.

Pope Gregory XIII’s motivation for his reform was that the Roman Julian calendar (which had preceded it) placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a “solar year,” or a full rotation around the sun) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Extremely cool math for 1582, eh?)

With the aid of Jesuit priest/astronomer Christopher Clavius (who built on the work of Aloysius Lilius / Luigi Lilio) it was determined that the 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries. That resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox “occurring” on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar.

How we almost had a 13-month calendar

Our calendar is all about Easter.

You know why that 11-minute inaccuracy irked Pope Gregory? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t at all reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, they may have wanted to peg the new calendar to the date of birth for Jesus, but that’s quite an iffy thing.

You see, no one was really certain of the year and most scholars agree that Jesus’ (or Yeshua’s) likely birth month was actually March. Why, then, do we celebrate it on December 25th? Because early Christians hid their celebration on December 25th (or thereabouts) when Roman pagan festivities (Saturnalia) were already going strong for the winter solstice.

Pope Gregory XIII, et al, calculated Easter, by the way, the only way they could: using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his fellow Jewish disciples. Since Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, the date of that Passover meal, “the last supper,” was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.

The fact that Easter is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, by the way, is why it’s a movable feast, unlike Christmas which is always on December 25th.

Today, of course, the majority of the people using the Western calendar think of it as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was, indeed, the main reason the Gregorian calendar was ultimately adopted. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on setting the correct dates for religious celebrations.

Is it New Year’s for everyone?

2015 will no doubt see further globalization taking hold. Our clothing, computers, cars and customer service (alas …) can come from anywhere in the world. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our economic maps.

Brazil took a significant lead on the global economic stage when it moved ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too, have Russia, India and China all moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.) Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain continue to worry the rest of the world when their economies teeter … and teeter they do. Because the global economy affects us all now.

So, bearing all that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who continue to follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, both of which are based on lunar rather than solar cycles?

For the Chinese, their new year 4713 will begin on February 19, 2015. For those following the Hebrew calendar, the year 5776 will occur September 14-15, 2015. And for those using the Islamic calendar, the year 1436 will occur October 13-14, 2015. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.

[“Traditionally, New Year’s Day in Russia fell on September 1, which ended Russia’s tax year. In 1700, in an attempt to westernize the country, Russian ruler Peter I moved the holiday to January 1 according to the Julian calendar. Russia started using the Gregorian calendar in 1918. Between 1919 and 1937, the Bolsheviks banned public celebrations of New Year’s Day, calling it a bourgeois holiday. It became a non-labor day again in 1947. The tradition of having Russia’s leader give a televised address became a New Year’s tradition in 1976.” –]

The diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that everyone is a year older. (Not sure about cheering that.) And, as you can read above, the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated (or measured) the same way by all people on earth.

What do we measure when we measure time?

Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time?

In reality, we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used and look forward to some future calendar event – a celebration, religious holiday or vacation – which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.

But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we’re actually measuring when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun-up, sun-down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons.

Bearing all that in mind, it’s possible to see that days and years are in reality markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact simply measure the passage of time as it relates to us, personally.

In other words, what we think of as time is actually very subjective.

More proof that time is a human construct:

[“Time Undone: Right now, on the top of Mount Everest, time is passing just a little bit faster than it is in Death Valley. That’s because the speed at which time passes depends on the strength of gravity. Einstein himself discovered this dependence as part of his theory of relativity, and it is a very real effect.” – Geoff Brumfiel, Science Correspondent, NPR]

It’s all relative.

Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time (one of my favorites) that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” It goes like this: one twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns seven years later; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years. But for his brother, back on earth, several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)

The point is that time is not as fixed as we think it is … or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time, based on where we are on our planet, and the calendar we’re using.

We all subjectively say, “one year has passed,” or “our child is two years old,” or “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important to us, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time – an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movements of the planets around our star, which is what calendars theoretically measure.

Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars – New Year’s day would come more often. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the Gregorian calendar we’ve all agreed to use is just slightly more than 400 years old, and it even has a back-dated, highly subjective starting point.

In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. The date that we now, in the West, refer to as “New Year’s day” is a very recent innovation … and an entirely subjective event.

Why winter solstice is the longest night of the year.

Happy New Calendar.

New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming. That’s what Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was all about.

No one can deny that our lives are run by calendars. They determine when we go to work and when we rest. They determine when we play and when we pray. They determine when we’re paid, and even how much. Do we have a choice? Not really. But I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that if you asked a large number of people what their favorite day is, the most frequent answer would be whatever day they consider the Sabbath.

And all of that is why I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. But, hey, knock yourself out.

New Year’s is supposed to be about new beginnings. January 1 strikes me as a very poor date for that. What it really means is that we’re celebrating a calendar event rather than a cyclical, natural event. It seems to come down to celebrating Happy New Calendar.

But, I suppose that makes as much sense as anything else …


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Working with virtual marketing professionals.

I’m virtual, you’re virtual, we’re all virtual.

The Internet first appeared in the late 1980s but wasn’t fully commercialized (the World Wide Web we now knowuntil 1995. Less than 20 years ago. Yet we could hardly imagine being without it. The Internet changed the way we read, work, communicate, make phone calls, watch TV, look up restaurants, find directions … and shop. The Internet also dramatically changed the way we do marketing.

Online marketing is now crucial to every kind of business. Because that’s where everyone looks first – to find out about you … and to find you. The other side of the online marketing world is that you can now use the Internet to tap into a global, virtual talent pool.

Anyone who needs marketing to promote their products and services is no longer required to hire an advertising agency. Because there’s a virtual army of writers, designers, marketers and coders available via the Internet to help you achieve your marketing goals.

I’m one of them and I partner with many of them, on both coasts and in-between.

Is there a question in the back?

Some of you are likely wondering, “what’s the difference between hiring an ad agency and working with independents?”

Good question. When you hire an ad agency, the entire process of marketing communications (strategy, positioning, competitive research, media planning, media buying, copywriting, art direction, production services, etc.) is managed for you … and you pay for that privilege.

When you work with independents, you don’t pay the hefty fees or retainers agencies typically charge, but then you have to manage the process and pay for à la carte services, as needed.

It’s pretty much the same as handling your own home renovations – you can hire framers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, painters, etc. and manage a renovation yourself, or you can hire a contractor who will manage it all for you … for a fee.

Back to marketing. Agencies will hand-hold clients through the process of figuring out key messages, key audience, and the best way to get the messages to the true target audience. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to participate in the discovery process as well as guide the outcome of your creative, you may be happier with virtual marketing services in the end. Because you’ll control your own destiny, save money and be present at the birth of your marketing.

Quicksand ahead.

The agency model has had to change since the traditional media outlets (print, radio, outdoor, television) that used to pay them 17.65% commissions are getting hardly any advertising dollars these days. Online marketing is now significantly ahead of traditional media spending. The vehicles through which ad agencies used to earn income are rapidly disappearing. Big-budget TV commercials and outdoor advertising are still going, but print (newspapers, magazines, journals) and radio are mere shadows of what they used to be.

Over a short time this will mean that the quality of marketing will degrade since there will be fewer ad agencies in existence, and therefore fewer opportunities for marketing professionals to learn their craft on the front lines. For the moment, there are still a good number of us out there – people who trained in agencies. The problem is that, thanks to the Internet, there are also a great many more people claiming to be marketing pros who really have very little training or background.

So, while a good many of the people who make up the virtual talent pool are former ad agency people, many others are not. Most of those you’ll find online are not, in fact, professionals with years of writing or design experience taught by the pros who came before them.

If you look, apart from experienced professionals, you’ll find both neophytes to marketing, writing and design, as well as wannabes without a clue. So this is a “buyer beware” situation. And – to further complicate matters – the Internet makes it difficult to discern exactly where in the world the self-proclaimed “virtual professionals” actually are. Some are nearby, somewhere in the U.S. or Canada, some are in Western Europe, and others – a lot of others – are in developing countries.

Passports please.

This is where things get tricky. Communication professionals have to know the language better than the average speaker – far better. That’s the only way we can create the puns and double entendres that bring humor to advertising and marketing. And humor really does matter. It’s the golden key to giving your audience a reason to pay attention your advertising.

So how exactly can someone in a foreign country, especially a developing country, for whom English is a second or third language do that? Simple: they can’t.

And this is one of downfalls of seeking virtual marketers online: they may or may not know the language well enough to do what it takes for your product or service to break through the clutter and succeed.

I experienced this challenge first-hand. My parents were Belgian and my father insisted we always speak French at home. So I grew up bi-lingual. But my parents’ French was from the 40s in Europe, and the French I was taught in school wasn’t much hipper. So when, one day, I found myself on the Paris Metro staring at a poster I couldn’t understand, I seriously considered what was going on. It was in French, but I couldn’t decipher it. I looked around at the other posters and had just as much difficulty with most of them. Then I figured it out. They were obviously clever or funny, playing with the language in contemporary Parisian ways. And I had no idea what they meant. My French wasn’t up to it.

It was very frustrating since I could easily get around Paris, order meals, book rooms, get directions – but clearly I was not actually fluent, only functional. The people who wrote the ads were able to deftly and subtly play with the language to grab passers-by. And that’s what it takes to succeed in marketing since the first job of any marketing is to draw attention to itself.

“Two with everything.”

I used to say that a lot during my Madison Ave. agency years when I was ordering grilled hot dogs from a long-gone corner shop on Lexington Ave. and 48th. They only sold hot dogs, egg creams and boxes of cigars. Some of the most successful people in mid-town Manhattan would come to that tiny corner hot dog stand where the hot dogs were cheap and the cigars were not. They probably handled more money each day than most banks. (I nearly always saw bills with Ben Franklin’s picture changing hands there.)

“Two with everything” was all it took to communicate your order. But what would that mean to someone from outside North America? Probably nothing at all until it was explained, in detail, since hot dogs are not part of their culture.

And, to a large extent, that’s who’s out there in the virtual marketing world. People who know they can make more money working with English than their own language. They charge next to nothing compared to Americans. But they also know next to nothing about how to use words and images to make magic – the magic that makes sense to this, specific target audience, your audience.

A long-time client was convinced by a new employee to use one of those off-shore providers to re-do their Web site. The client came begging to us to fix it. And, just like renovations, it can cost far more to have to re-do something than build it right the first time.


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How does marketing work in L.A.?

The L.A. I grew up in is gone. Los Angeles gave me my start in P.R. and marketing. From working in the record business at Capitol and RCA Records, to pursuing a new advertising career with UCLA extension classes in marketing, my career was formed there.

While at the record companies, I worked with the major movie studios whenever movie soundtracks required it. I got to know Hollywood pretty well. And, in many ways, Hollywood defined L.A.

I just returned from a short trip to L.A., visiting some friends I grew up with, and little was the same. First, the number of cars on the road was daunting, making it extremely difficult to get anywhere at all times. It’s certainly logical that it would be that bad since the state of California has more people living in it than the entire population of Canada … and that’s only using the official census.

More than 40 million people now live in California. And around 17 million of them are in Los Angeles. That’s one factor that has changed the character of the city. Another that’s related is the Phoenix effect: L.A. now has high humidity. When that many people are living and working in a place, running air conditioners, watering lawns, filling pools, etc., the environment has to change. The formerly dry desert environment now feels like San Francisco when the fog rolls in. Damp.

I left L.A. about 30 years ago. It’s shocking how different it has become … and how much like some of the sci-fi visions of a future Los Angeles. It’s not full-tilt Blade Runner yet, but clearly minorities and immigrants are everywhere, so the city’s accent has changed.

As a result, I’d have a hard time advising someone in Los Angeles how to manage a marketing campaign. Target marketing requires having a clear picture of audience demographics. That’s a tough call in L.A. And one of the friends I met with (who left for England when I left for New York City) said that there’s now clearly a separation between “the haves and have-nots.”

New York City has always been a melting pot. That, in many ways, has been what defined New York. Now I have to wonder if Los Angeles is heading the same way. When I left L.A., there were clear target markets: glitzy Hollywood style, upscale (or conspicuous consumption) Beverly Hills style, coastal living style, and “the valley.” Those distinctions seem to have melded and reformed while possibly being displaced by “inner city.”

According to the 2010 census, New York City has just over eight million people living there. That number swells every day with commuters, but they leave at the end of the day. Compare that to the 17 million in Los Angeles – and that’s only the official tally. That could mean 20 million or more people are there. And they never leave.

So I can only guess that marketing in L.A. is a process of “self-elimination.” You put out the message for your product or service and let the right people for your target audience find you. But even so, the level of “noise” and “clutter” that marketing has to break through seemed overwhelming.

I used to think I missed L.A. What I missed was the memories of an L.A. that is no more. What’s there now is a marketing nightmare.

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Communication: Practical Magic

The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.

That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.

The dark side is always there.

Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.

This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.

Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.

Communication makes us human… sometimes.

What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.

Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.

So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.

Can’t forget why we communicate.

Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.

In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.

The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.

Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].

That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.

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The secret to good P.R.

It’s not promotional.

Public Relations is a clear, precise, methodical communication function that innumerable people mistakenly equate with promotion. When they do, their “releases” are doomed for the circular file.  No editor will consider anything as a valid press release if it contains hyperbole or promotional language. And attracting the attention of editors is the ultimate objective of any true press release – in print, broadcast and online media.

If that’s not your objective – if you’re actually simply trying to put out some sort of announcement – you might want to rethink your communication piece, and you will definitely not want to call it a “press release.”  Because that means very specific things to very specific people.

Just the facts, ma’am.

The secret to good P.R. is relatively simple: a true press release is always written in third-person, journalistic style and is wholly objective. Its first paragraph always contains the “who, what, where, when, why and how.”  Promotional copy is the exact opposite – it’s entirely subjective, full of adjectives and frequent use of such phrases as “we’re thrilled” or “we’re very excited.”  Those are the kiss of death.

While the formula is simple, it can be challenging to execute unless you’ve been taught how.

How, then, do all those articles from your competitors end up in all those editorial pages?  Why do the publications seem to feature story after story about some company that’s not so different from yours? The  answer – as you surely suspect – is that they have knowledgeable, experienced public relations pros working for them.

What the pros know.

P.R. pros not only know how to write a release that will get an editor’s attention, they also know that relationships with those editors are key to getting both good coverage and … interviews. Yes, the holy grail of every sales effort – the interview. (Kind of like free advertising and an endorsement all in one, isn’t it?)

P.R. pros have lots of media experience and know how to select the pubs that best match their clients’ category; how to sell a story to those pubs, who to promote it to and how to work editorial calendars to your advantage.

Those P.R. pros also know how to successfully set up media interviews and tours, and how to help make trade shows successful.

Good P.R. is more than P.R.

Good P.R. means creating the right editorial climate for clients’ businesses, products and services by influencing the target audience through appropriate media. That can mean a great many more things than just the releases. Things such as:

  • Background materials/press kits
  • Editorial round-tables
  • Media relations
  • Executive speeches
  • Feature articles
  • Case-history testimonials
  • Trade-show support
  • … and News releases

Truly, the biggest problem with press releases is that so few people understand what they are, or what they’re supposed to be. I’ve frequently been provided “press releases” as input for writing projects and have just as frequently been horrified to see entirely promotional copy vs. true releases. Along with a dearth of facts (who, what, where, when, why and how). Too many people just don’t know. But editors do.

What P.R. is not.

Press releases are not ads, they’re not fliers, they’re not trade show hand-outs, and they’re most definitely not akin to wedding announcements. If you actually want something to be a press release, then it’s got to be in classical, third-person, objective reporting style. Period.

Why? So that an editor might drop it in to a publication, as is (the real secret), or use the first paragraph, as is. (The who, what, where, when, why and how of the story.) Send editors promotional garbage and it will go where other garbage goes.

P.R. has far less to do with what corporations want to achieve or say than what news outlets will accept. That’s why a true, classical press release is indistinguishable from an AP or New York Times news story. No hyperbole, no exaggeration. Ever.

Naturally, companies are welcome to put out whatever they want, even dinner napkins. But if they plan to drop something “on the wires” or send it directly to editors, it has to be in the lingua franca of the business. Anything that isn’t is a waste of both your time and your resources.

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