Last Wednesday I arrived at my new job to discover that I was not dreaming and in fact I was working in the PR department for a major NGO. And there had been an earthquake in Haiti.
The rest of the week is a long string of 12 hour days, working with a team of talented, extremely smart, people; booking interviews via Skype and text message with our staff who were on the ground in Port-au-Prince; fielding media inquiries here at home; and, something that became my favourite and most hated thing all at once, writing lots of press releases.
I’ve written press releases as part of other jobs but it was as part of a broader portfolio, so it was something I did every so often. This week, I wrote sometimes one, often two, occasionally three a day.
Whereupon I made a discovery. Media releases are hard to write well.
No, really. Take 250 words, take a bunch of disparate, sometimes informative, sometimes boring pieces of information and create a narrative that is compelling and makes some bored editor at a great metropolitan newspaper or TV station want to read it all and assign someone to contact us. Oh—you have 10 minutes. Good is preferable, but doing the heavy lifting so another person can finish it off can be good enough.
When I wrote them before as an occasional thing, I used to agonize over them. This time, move!
The first one I had to write, I nearly whined “This is too hard. Don’t want to.” I asked colleagues to help me to figure out how to structure a release that had to say 4 equally important things and come up with a compelling quote, but they were all busy. So I went into a conference room, sighed, grumbled, sighed some more and then took the lid off my pen, pulled up my canary legal pad and wrote down three words.
“WE ARE READY.”
And suddenly the whole thing flowed. I knew what needed to be said for a quote, and from there I was able to puzzle out how 1 connected to 2 connected to 3 connected to 4.
In that moment, I remembered why I love being a writer. How much I love making pictures with words, how I love solving puzzles in the process of that.
I wrote many press releases over the past week. None of them were as good or as epiphany making as the first one. A couple were lousy but saved by talented colleagues. One was absolute rubbish that I re-wrote because I respect my Director’s instincts as an editor so much. A couple were okay. They’re just press releases. But I came out of the week realizing that I can write fast and write well even far from my comfort zone.
I work in the non-profit sector because I want to use my skills as a storyteller, as a writer, to try to do some good. I don’t really know if I can succeed at that writing pithy phrases that reflect institutional messaging and telling what good we were able to do in impossible circumstances. But, you know what, if what I and my team accomplished helped to create an environment where the public donated to my NGO and enabled us to do some good in Haiti, then maybe we did okay.