Writing, photography, content creation & communications

The Writers Slate

Getting back to reality – without reality TV

By Ellen Hill

Twenty-one years ago, when people heard I was to move in to a home without a television, numerous wedding guests offered to gift one to us. Colleagues began a collection for an office present. Friends offered hand-me-downs to this poor young couple beginning a life together deprived.

We declined them all, diplomatically at first, patiently explaining that our No TV policy was a lifestyle choice just like our jobs. People believed we thought ourselves superior because we chose to shield ourselves against gratuitous violence, immorality and consumerism. In reality, we knew we were just as susceptible to the insidiously numbing forces of repeated exposure as everyone else and the best way to self-control our viewing was to eliminate it altogether.

For years we were the brunt of office jokes and labelled hippies, weirdos, freaks and luddites. Co-workers would strike up conversation in the tearoom “Hey, what about such-and-such on TV last night?’’ before petering out and fumbling for milk in the fridge in awkward silence – they had nothing else to talk about.

People were perplexed: how could journalists keep up with the news without TV. We’d explain that we continued to gather news how journalists had done for generations before us – we answered the phone, we listened to the radio, we nurtured contacts, we talked to people in the street and we sticky beaked, noticing our surroundings and were genuinely interested in other people. We went to the pub.

“What did we do for leisure after work and on weekends?’’ they asked. We read books, we ate out, we went bushwalking, lay under trees in the park and saw pictures in the clouds, we went to the movies, gazed at the stars and talked, really talked, together, soul to soul.

When our son was born, the banter and bewilderment intensified to become unveiled criticism. Some people were downright rude and hurtful. How could we deprive our child of entertainment? He’d be picked on at school. He wouldn’t know the latest trends and characters and shows. His schoolwork would suffer. He needed TV for homework research. How could we deprive ourselves of a babysitter?

The result was a child who was happy to eat what was served to him, who never asked for fast food, shiny gadgets and toys or expensive outings because he didn’t know about them. Hence, birthdays and Christmas were magical occasions of true delight. Our son has never been greedy or consumer driven and we have never felt pressured to live beyond our means to please or appease him. On my days off from my part-time job, he and I gardened together, we read books, we baked, we walked and explored our neighbourhood, we sat in cafes reading the newspaper together and sat on the front fence for hours watching trucks and trains go past our home.

Our friends and family were amused when each year for a month, we hired a screen and a video player to catch up on movies and nerdy documentaries. Then, about 10 years ago we bought a screen and a DVD player for ourselves but restricted viewing to weekend nights only.

We still don’t have TV access by choice, and from the little we understand about the medium today, it is now beyond our comprehension. Apparently there are sub channels to the major five and non-commercial stations show ads! We’re told you can even pause and rewind programs.

However, with a gnawing abhorrence, we recently realised that we had instead succumbed to possibly a greater zombification: the wonders of the worldwide web, with its endless news streams filled with useless information designed to hold us in a perpetual state of breathy anticipation, worthlessness and fear as we gorge our minds on titbits of inflated minutiae of bland people’s meaningless lives and gulp in as inspired word the wild imaginings of anyone with a YouTube channel.

We have decided to reflect on and review how we as a family juggle the obvious benefits of the digital age with personal contact communication with everyone in our lives from family and friends to commercial clients and story subjects.

* Ellen Hill is a writer, journalist, communications consultant, wife and mother who occasionally feels the need to vent about random topics that are usually of no interest to anyone else.


The power of positivity

UNEXPECTEDLY finding ourselves in the world of PR and having to adopt a customer service attitude and wear a permanent smile was an exhausting chore at first.

Then about two years after “going to the dark side’’, we made a surprising realisation: forced positivity had actually made us more positive people.

Don’t get me wrong, comments like “the partner did it’’ and bet he jumped before he was pushed’’ still pepper news bulletins in our household, my handbag is clutched to my chest in public and I take a mental note of the exact time every time I see something odd in case the police need that information later. Healthy cynicism is important.

Too many bad things do happen everywhere around us, but the world really is a wonderful place filled with myriad interesting, generous and loving people.

Here’s some behaviours that make all the difference to your relationships whether you’re a journalist or PR:

MANNERS & COURTESY

I have always told my teenage son that he would never be noticed for his good manners and courtesy but he’d be memorable if he was ill-mannered and rude. I was wrong.

Well-mannered, respectful and charming, he has just started his first job. His recruitment manager told me he was chosen above dozens of others because of his charm and courtesy. In fact, he has also been offered jobs by the owner of a trendy restaurant and the GM of a five-star hotel purely on those attributes.

RESPONSE TIME

You may not answer the phone every time, but responding to phone, email and business-related social media messages promptly could mean the difference between a journalist or a PR making you their “go to’’ person and ringing your competitor.

“CAN DO” ATTITUDE

Clients and media come to us because they know we will deliver what we promise, when we promise and how we promise.

Ending a conversation or email with Not a problem’’, ``Of course’’,  “Sure’’ or ``Will do’’ shows you are reliable, which will help cement your relationship and prospect of future work.

Coming up with solutions rather than problems will not only make you a more likeable person but boost your KPI achievements and outcomes.

ABOVE & BEYOND

I usually wrap up a media or a client correspondence with “Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with’’. Most of the time there is nothing further to do.

However sometimes, a few minutes later you might get an Actually, you wouldn’t have a picture of such-and-such, would you?’’ orI was going to ask next week, but while we’re emailing, could you write me a media release to go with my ad?’’. Win/win.

Making a quick phone call to inquire about an advertising package, sharing a social media post, putting a client forward for an interview with a journalist or shooting off a blurb for a client’s LinkedIn profile linking to your media release on their website is added value for them and kudos to you.

LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS

Don’t burn your bridges.

Remember when you switched radio stations jobs 15 years ago, only to discover the idiot producer you used to work with was now the executive producer?

The same happens in the PR world. Nightmare scenario: you phone a newsroom, only for an unmentionable from your past to answer the phone and you’ve got to convince her to carry your client’s story.

SMIILE

Think of smiling as a work out for your face.

Smiling when a difficult client or journalist is being prickly can actually feel satisfying. Besides, you know how they feel and would have done the same back in the day.

Do you agree? Can you add to this list?

  • Ellen and David Hill worked in traditional print media for 20 and 30 years respectively. In 2012 they unexpectedly found themselves “on the dark side” in PR. Today, they run a communications consultancy. When not crafting communications for high-end clients, they traipse the country in search of stories, usually in a grubby hatchback piled to the ceiling with gear, a lanky teenager and, sometimes, a pampered pet rabbit called Sophie.

What to do when the media comes to tea

By Ellen Hill

ONE of the most stressful yet rewarding tasks of my role as a communications consultant has been to design, organise and run media famils, which are particularly relevant to the tourism and hospitality industry, of which many of my clients are members.

Unlike a pollie doorstop, a police media conference or even sipping a cup of tea in a pensioner’s lounge room while they tell you the secret to long life, a familiarisation visit offers journalists a firsthand immersive experience of a business or product.

Whether it is an overnight stay in a new hotel, a spin in a new release sports car, a behind-the-scenes tour of a truck body workshop or a cellar door opening it is prudent to treat visiting media as non-financial (not free) VIP guests.

The pay-off is an expectation of editorial coverage (hopefully positive, but that is a topic for another day).

There’s plenty of excellent information out there about what journalist’s expect from a famil and how to host a successful event (one of the best is this podcast with Holly Galbraith and Emma Castle). Some PRs even specialise in visiting journalist programs (Michelle Grima of Australia PR, for example, is renowned for her awesome itineraries).

However, there’s (at least) two sides to any story, so let’s balance a journalist’s expectations with the perspective of a PR and/or a business:

No free rides

JOURNO: Although enjoyable, this is not a holiday for me. No one is paying me while I’m here. I have given up time with my family and other work commitments to pursue what I think is a worthy story. So please ensure there is an itinerary of relevant activities, meetings with staff who are authorised, articulate and knowledgeable but leave plenty of time for me to write up my notes, take photos and do some social media.

PR: This is not a holiday. If there is an observatory viewing at night or a dawn breakfast with the wildlife, I do expect you to be there. Staff have been seconded from other tasks (and paying customers) to assist you and the GM has blocked out his diary to meet you so please interview him.

Cost of a famil

JOURNO: The value of my story is far greater than the cost of a paid advertisement. Also, the cost of hosting me, my Plus One and even my teenage son, is negligible compared to the reach of my editorial story to thousands, if not millions of readers, viewers or listeners.

PR: We appreciate that. Really we do.

However, your complimentary experience costs us actual money (extra staff wages, food and beverages, the seat on the tour you’re not paying for and the bed we cannot sell at premium rates). We know you’re worth it though and welcome you.

Itinerary

JOURNO: Itineraries are not lucky door prizes. My pitch to an editor and what story I tell depend on it. They must be locked in well before arrival and include all relevant information like contact details, addresses, names of contacts, appointment times and social media hashtags. To avoid awkward situations, clarify what experiences are complimentary and what I am expected to pay for (eg: Lunch at own expense’’ orMassage for 1 x journalist, extra guests 20% discount’’).

PR: Itineraries take hours of time and effort negotiating between the client/employer and the journalist. Changing appointments or activities on a whim, not turning up or fronting up with an extra guest or dietary requirements without notice could cost the business money, damage our relationship and even affect the outcome of your story. However, I do understand that “things happen’’ so let me know what’s happening and I will work something out.

Plus ones

JOURNO: My Plus One keeps me company, is a model for my photos, takes my photos (conversely, they are the photographer and I am the model) and often doubles as my assistant.

PR: One double, queen or twin room is no big deal in the scheme of things. If the journo is happy then they write happy copy. Most businesses are even happy to feed and accommodate a younger child.

Do your own work

JOURNO: Please provide a press kit in hard and soft copy format. It should include a general media release, relevant fact sheets, graphs, case studies etc, social media hashtags and images (either links to digital collections or on USB sticks).

PR: If you attended the famil I expect you to write the story. High res images will be supplied in general media style, not to your specialist style for your niche publication.

Meals and gifts

JOURNO: Small unique, quirky or practical gifts worth up to $100 which remind me of your business and this fabulous famil are always welcome (eg: pens, classy business card holders, vouchers, umbrellas, smart phone covers).

Food and drink? Yes!

PR: A very nice working lunch or other appropriate refreshments will be supplied (unless the famil is a dining experience of course). Please do not hang around the buffet, ignore our chairman or GM when they come over for a chat or ask for a doggie bag.

Follow-up

JOURNO: When I ask for further information or images, please provide them promptly for best chance of your story being published.

When’s the story going to run? Don’t go there. Just don’t.

PR: I will send you a grateful “thank you’’ note the day after the famil inviting you to request further information and images. I will then email and phone regularly, then incessantly until you deliver the coverage you promised before enjoying the complimentary hospitality and privileges offered by my client.

Do you agree? Can you add to this list?

  • Ellen and David Hill worked in traditional print media for 20 and 30 years respectively. In 2012 they unexpectedly found themselves “on the dark side” in PR. Today, they run a communications consultancy. When not crafting communications for high-end clients, they traipse the country in search of stories, usually in a grubby hatchback piled to the ceiling with gear, a lanky teenager and, sometimes, a pampered pet rabbit called Sophie.

Positive surprises on “the dark side” in PR

FIVE years after unexpectedly finding ourselves “on the dark side’’ in PR, we have discovered it’s not that bad after all.

That’s possibly because the media landscape has shifted so much that “the dark side’’ is now filled with our own kind and it is more acceptable for the likes of us to juggle both worlds and continue to produce journalism as well as commercial content.

Here’s a few positive surprises we have discovered:

RESPECT FROM MEDIA

I’m ashamed to admit that most journalists have treated me with more pleasant professionalism than I gave to PR contacts while working solely in a newsroom.

They recognise the credibility of my information, my industry knowledge, calibre of clients, quality of the release and have come to expect editorial-style images as standard.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

Well, kind of. We still write and shoot genuinely newsworthy and interesting stories and try very hard to ensure the stories we tell are fair and accurate. It’s just that someone else is paying us.

However, we cannot deny the bias and interests that arises with who is paying when we generate PR.

NO RIGHT OF REPLY NEEDED

The publisher of a local industry magazine once complained that my articles’’ wereverbose, self-serving diatribes’’. Well yes, that’s what my clients pay me to do. She was bewildered when told it was actually her job to pick through my media releases for information and story angles of interest to her readers and get the other side of the story before running the piece she wanted. The publisher, who had never been a journalist, believed that media releases were ready-made stories for her to fill her magazine with.

Armed with knowledge of the current media landscape, we do often now write media releases as completed stories, leaving no unanswered questions for sparsely populated newsrooms and inexperienced tree-changers. They are regularly published without change.

Therefore, as PR, we can choose to submit a traditional media release or a completed story depending on the occasion yet are never obliged to provide balance.

BECOMING SOMEONE ELSE

In the past few years I have created new words and phrases, changed a client’s vocabulary, taken on several vastly different personas, made moral and political points and berated senior politicians under Parliamentary privilege – all under the guise of others.

Anyone who has met me knows that really I am more than a bit shy, not that verbally articulate and certainly not confrontational. So it is a privilege and a joy to step outside myself and be someone else when writing quotes for a media release or a speech.

Do you agree? Can you add to this list?

* Ellen and David Hill worked in traditional print media for 20 and 30 years respectively. In 2012 they unexpectedly found themselves “on the dark side” in PR. Today, they run a communications consultancy. When not crafting communications for high-end clients, they traipse the country in search of stories, usually in a grubby hatchback piled to the ceiling with gear, a lanky teenager and, sometimes, a pampered pet rabbit called Sophie.


From newsroom to PR: Welcome to “the dark side”

I always wanted to be a journalist. Never thought of being anything else. And for nearly 20 years I lived my dream, met my photojournalist husband in the newsroom and raised our son as a newshound. News and media was our life.

In those days, journos would climb the editorial ladder, go to the subs desk and become editors. Those who left media would work as press secretaries to politicians, head media teams in government departments and churn out media releases at charities and big companies. They were no longer journalists. They had “gone to the dark side’’.

PRs were dismissed outright while we scribes wrote stories from scratch, interviewed people face-to-face, attended court, police rounds, pollie doorstops, disasters and death knocks and rarely accepted submitted pictures.

So how on earth have we found ourselves on “the dark side’’?

We felt the winds of change in the mid-2000s and took voluntary redundancy in 2009. Among the first wave of the tide of redundancies which has swept through the traditional media, we didn’t realise it at the time but we were actually pioneers.

First, we wrote a coffee table book. Everyone loved it, no one bought it.

We tried our hand as travel writers. I even won an award. While we could definitely write stories and shoot images, we failed dismally at selling ourselves, pitching stories and reaching out to editors. We never had to while working for one media outlet.

We didn’t intend to go into PR. It just happened. A local organisation was restructuring and wanted to refocus their PR to communications driven by a journalist/photographer team. We would sniff out stories, shoot postcard-style images and organise travel itineraries for the occasional visiting journalist. Easy.

For the first six months I was, uncharacteristically, a sobbing, hyperventilating mess at least once a week, lost 10kg and worked until 1am most nights, desperately trying to learn the ropes and battle the shame of becoming a PR chic.

Over time, we did learn the formulae for valuing media outcomes, we built up a huge media contact list and made sure the organisation we contracted to gained media attention every single week for three years solid.

Today, we run a boutique communications consultancy offering writing skills, photography and media services. We’re also branching back into freelance travel stories, character profiles and history articles, and David has begun to explore his creativity and photographic art. We do all of that under the one banner – and we’re not the only ones.

These days, ex-journos prefer to be called communications consultants (me included). Readers, listeners and viewers now provide much of the news content. Bloggers and social influencers have emerged as the new media. Reality TV is the new reality. Media reports on media and new terms like content creator’’,multimedia’’, marcomms’’ andbrand journalism’’ have cropped up. Everyone is supposed to have a blog, social media platforms and be skilled across all mediums from writing, photography and video.

So what does it all mean for the media, for business, for politics and, the group often overlooked in all of this, the reader/consumer?

Through this regular blog, I will explore some of the challenges and pitfalls, advantages and new opportunities and encourage input, new ideas and healthy and robust (yet respectful) discussion.

One thing I know for certain is that “the dark side’’ really is many shades of grey.


Yarns around the campfire

The communal campfire at Jenolan Caravan Park at Oberon draws campers together.

The communal campfire at Jenolan Caravan Park at Oberon draws campers together.

Words by Ellen Hill                                                                           Photos by David Hill

IT might be the smoky aroma of the air, the hypnotic flame, the warmth on your front and cold on your back. Or it might be that in the flame-tinged darkness, you feel safe that no one can fully see you. It might just be the bottle of red that makes you congenial, loosens the tongue and makes you believe these people look familiar. You’re probably never going to see them again anyway.

There’s something about a campfire that causes your most intimate secrets to start flowing in a trickle before coursing out into the night air for all to hear.

You see the newcomers, the ones sitting apologetically in the shadows, legs crossed, nervously nodding and smiling towards the jokes and conversation. They’re the ones who twitch with a start when a stranger asks them where they’re from, and they answer in the most basic terms _ “Germany’’ or “the UK’’.

When pressed, they might reluctantly give their city _ “Sydney’’ or “Amsterdam’’.

Illaroo Beach 47You see the terror in their eyes as they pause, affronted by the audacity of the intruder wondering whether climate change is an actual disaster in progress or the hyped-up talk of Doomsday preppers.

They can’t help themselves. They take the bait, and before they know it the newcomer is haughtily defending the intelligence of their neighbours, the righteousness of democracy, the freedoms of their country, the weather in their land. They start crowing about how their country’s contenders wiped the pool at the Euro Song Contest this year and Ugg boots are back in fashion because of their top supermodel.

The old hats have broken another one in and sit back in smug satisfaction. Relaxed chatter and banter continues.

The campfire routine can happen anywhere.

A few years back, my husband was lolling sleepily on the deck chair next me while our son played in the pool. “Is he still alive?’’ asked an unfamiliar voice.

It wasn’t long before his wife was also chipping in saucy tit-bits about their life, family and travels. I don’t think their daughter would have approved of their proud naming her as the head of a particular government agency. “Hasn’t changed, though,’’ her proud dad boasted. “She’s still the same as she was as a girl.’’

At a communal breakfast at an obscene hour one morning, two young chaps struggled to find English words to ask where the milk could be found. It then seemed rude to take our meal to the opposite end of the room, so we plonked ourselves next to them and made mental notes of the best attractions in northern Italy while they politely ignored our seven-year-old’s table manners.

We spent the first three days of our Outback holiday trying to hide the fact that our son had contracted the highly contagious although usually harmless Slap Cheek virus. The poor child’s inflamed cheeks and ears were hard to disguise, but we managed to convince a chemist to hand over some flu relief without divulging our secret until another woman spotted the condition and loudly announced by the flickering light of a campfire that her daughter had been sick with the same thing the week before.

We first met the Belgian fellow around a campfire at an Outback station where he was bravely holding his own while being interrogated about Belgian’s cosy relationship with Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe by a less educated camper.

campfire3While asking for change for the washing machine in the foyer of our next destination, we were pleasantly surprised by an excited bellow in our direction. The Belgian had inadvertently followed our tracks and turned up at the same place, son in tow.

We gleaned much interesting trivia about wild and exotic destinations on the other side of the world from this pair during fleeting sightings in the next two days.

The campfire routine can happen in the most unlikely of places and you don’t have to leave home to test it out.

Try rolling your eyes at the nearest motherly looking woman in the shopping queue when your child announces loudly they’re busting for the loo – again. She’s bound to throw a knowing nod and wry smile your way and tell you her third child also needed to pee exactly 15 minutes before the movie finished on cheap Tuesdays and the ushers used to have the door already open in preparation.

Dramatically throw up your hands and pull a face in exasperation when two elderly people with matching shopping trolleys stop suddenly in the middle of a crowded footpath and loiter for a long-winded conversation about how poor the food is at the retirement village. You’re bound to bridge a generation gap with someone wearing a mohawk, earrings all over their head and a t-shirt that reads: “Even my mother hates me’’.

And if you mutter loudly The fruit and veg doesn’t taste like they used to'',The boss may as well just give my pay straight to the bank’ or “Oil companies are like bushrangers”, you’ll have an immediate new group of friends.

These fleeting meetings with new people have many benefits: you meet lots of interesting people and learn fascinating trivia, you realise the world isn’t such a dark place after all, and if it is at least you’re not alone.

campfire2


Channel your charge through speechwriting

Speechwriting

For two years, I have blipped between my alter-ego (a gregarious, witty, charming born leader who loves a verbal stoush) and, well, me – verbally awkward, socially uncomfortable, to be honest, a bit of a wallflower.

More recently, I have enjoyed reconnecting with a long-time political acquaintance, coaxing to the surface his warmth, generous community spirit and subtle humour others don’t often see. I can’t deny it’s also been just a little fun helping him stick the proverbial boot into his foes under Parliamentary privilege too.

Most recently, I have begun to explore two new characters, similar in personality. My challenge is to convert their tinder dry sense of humour, almost imperceptible asides and one-liners into the written word. I don’t know either of them deeply and our paths do not cross frequently. The exciting thing is, we are embarking on this journey together.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

1: It’s not about you

If you want the kudos and glory, become the boss yourself.

If not, leave your ego at home and accept that no one will know your name unless they want to complain, you will have to lug the pull-up banners to the conference and you will not be given a goodie bag.

2: Believe in the cause

To write convincingly for and as someone else you must believe in their cause, share their ideals and work towards a shared goal.

3: Get to know them

Whether you both enjoy Sudoko when travelling on the train or smashing a tiny ball against a wall with a racquet on Saturday morning to relieve stress, have kids the same age or collect stamps, guaranteed you will find something in common that will kick start your relationship.

A good relationship with your boss will give depth to your speechwriting.

4: Get to understand them

Learning what makes someone tick, why they think the way they do and their opinion on a wide range of topics will help you hear their “voice’’.

5: Get to like them

You must learn to like them. You must, after all, convince others of their message.

6: Hang off their every word

Rather than fiddling with your phone, gossiping with his PA at the back of the room or gazing at the spider inching closer to Madam Mayor’s stiletto, listen to your boss give his speech. Take note of how he speaks, what words he uses and how he uses them, where he pauses for effect and whether he thumps the lectern or points at the audience.

That will help make your speeches for him more theatrical, more alive and more believable.

7: Sweat the small stuff

It’s the details which can make a good speech a memorable one which resonates with an audience touched by the sincerity of the “voice’’.

A speaker who halts and stumbles over unfamiliar words will not come across as genuine.

So notice that your speaker uses “first’’ and “second’’ rather than “firstly’’ and “secondly’’, “each’’ rather than “every’’, “everyone’’ rather than “everybody’’; that she is a fan of alliteration; that he likes to pause and eyeball a few people in the front row after a particularly passionate line.

Notice that your charge always carefully chooses cufflinks or a tie appropriate to each function or engagement. Mentioning it in a speech might just win over that deciding voter or that crucial sponsorship deal one day.