Thoughts on Writing in the Arena of Public Affairs
If you can write, you can do any job in public relations. So says Rich Dalrymple, the highly respected vice president of public relations and communications for the Dallas Cowboys.
It’s certainly true that the ability to write clearly, directly and persuasively is the stock-in-trade of communicators plying their craft in my professional field of play – the arena of public affairs. Whether the deliverable is a position paper, legislative testimony or talking points for an editorial board meeting, the most effective advocacy communication is writing that demonstrates a solid command of fundamentals, both grammatical and rhetorical, and a thoughtful balance of science, art and perspective.
Years of experience working with lobbyists, lawyers and clients communicating with policymakers and those who influence them, have taught me a few useful lessons that are every bit as essential to my daily work as the tried-and-true trinity of “keep it simple,” “focus on benefits (or risks)” and “put a human face on the issue.”
Convince yourself first.
You are your own first audience. You need to convince yourself of the merits of your position before trying to convince anyone else. That’s the science of advocacy writing – building a solid knowledge base through study, thought and practice.
Writing clearly and compellingly about complex public policy issues in areas such as tax, energy or healthcare requires understanding the specific issue and the facts associated with it. You may be thinking, “Well, of course, that goes without saying.” Trust me – it needs to be said. My personal standard is this: Be prepared to explain every sentence you write – what it means and why it’s there. If you can’t, it’s likely your readers won’t be able to either. If you need help understanding something particularly dense or legalistic, as we all do at times, go back to your subject matter experts and ask them to explain it to you again – as many times as necessary – until it does make sense.
Consider more than one approach.
Let’s say you’re tasked with explaining the potential electricity price suppression benefits of bidding energy efficiency savings into regional capacity auctions (as I was recently). Your first thought on how to tackle such an assignment may in fact be the best way to go. But it’s just as likely not to be. One idea begets others; it’s best not to cut off that kind of intellectual alchemy too soon. That’s the art of advocacy writing – making intelligent choices about ideas, emphasis and expression.
Besides, it’s perfectly reasonable for a client to ask, “What other approaches – organizationally, rhetorically, metaphorically – did you consider?” You should always be able to answer that question by describing at least one or two different approaches and a clear rationale for embracing the one you ultimately put forward. More often than not, you’ll produce stronger, more nuanced advocacy than you would by simply running with the first idea that pops into your head.
Respect alternative points of view.
Never forget that on matters of public policy, there almost always is more than one defensible point of view. Rarely is any policy or regulatory matter a simple question of black or white. Understanding not only the weaknesses, but also the strengths of your opponents’ arguments will serve you well in the long run. Perspective provides, well, perspective.
A common temptation in advocacy writing is to paint with heavy brushstrokes, applying thick layers of rhetoric and hyperbole. There’s nothing wrong with occasional over-the-top language, but a healthy measure of respect for alternative points of view, seasoned with a sprinkling of humility, will help ensure your advocacy materials are credible with audiences comprising the ultimate target for most policy communications – the undecided public in the middle.
While not likely to resuscitate my childhood dreams of playing in the NFL, these lessons help me tackle complex writing assignments in the public policy arena. How do you approach similar assignments in your world?