Writing for the media

[private]

Camping in front of the wordprocessor to write these articles is a valuable discipline that I’ve come to enjoy. I wrote my first column for this magazine in 1987 and now my ‘Inside Dining’ file contains 112 essays on a broad variety of management subjects — a total of 102,000 words!

Many people are curious as to the exact benefits I get from doing this, so I thought it was probably about time to share my thoughts with the world at large. It also occurred to me that the comments I’m about to make are relevant to the marketing of any business, and could be quite useful to many of you.

It all started out of desperation. I’d love to say that my business was created with perfect prescience and planning, but it wasn’t. Its foundation was my desire to escape corporate politics and do my own thing. I only had $5,000 in the kitty at the time and was forced to prioritise my spending very carefully. If you suggested starting a consulting and training business with that amount of money today, I’d probably laugh at you — but then I was too naive to know that it couldn’t be done.

My first problem was to establish a reputation as fast as possible, the same situation you would have to face if you were opening a new restaurant. Nobody knew who I was. I realised that access to the decision makers in the industry was a crucial step in the creation of a stable and profitable client base, and that I better get my marketing act together very quickly before I went broke. My lack of funds meant that I couldn’t afford marketing methods such as media advertising and promotional launches. I settled on a cheap three-pronged marketing plan consisting of: publication in trade magazines, direct mail advertising and attendance at trade gatherings.

I chose to write magazine articles because I needed to be seen as an expert and as a personality, and writing had the potential to deliver both. I’d long held the belief that people who have a high public profile are not simply lucky, but are accomplished at self promotion. Look at the celebrity Chefs in this industry, for instance. Do you think that their main skill lies in cooking? I don’t. Most of them are good cooks, but their real talent lies in public relations. They use the media as a tool for their own purposes, until they become an object of media attention themselves.

Why pay through the nostrils for advertising space when you can have all the space you want for free? All you have to do is give the magazine or newspaper editor interesting written articles that are going to help them increase circulation and attract other advertisers. Providing your material is well written, informative, relevant and doesn’t contain blatant advertising it will get published if you persist. The main thing to keep in mind is not to try to use your written efforts to create an instant customer response — write to inform, and to create recognition and a profile.

I remember approaching the editors of the trade magazines with samples of my writing and an offer to supply a regular column on management topics. They all gave me a good hearing and an encouraging response, and most of them said that they would welcome the submission of articles, but they couldn’t guarantee regular space. I kept hassling over the next few months and finally wore Carl Jetter, the former owner and editor of Inside Dining, down to the point where he relented and my association with this magazine began.

Looking back at the first columns I wrote makes me cringe in embarrassment. My writing is crude, stiff and formal — but it still got published. Like most skills, you get better at writing with constant practice. The turning point for me came when I realised that I had to write as if I were speaking; the rule is: if it doesn’t sound like you when you say it, rewrite it. I must admit, though, I’d still be in trouble without the spell checker and grammar correction program that comes with my wordprocessor — they make life very easy. Most of the business owners I deal with express themselves quite well; the only thing that prevents them from writing interesting material is the belief that they can’t do it, or fear of the computer.

It doesn’t take long to write an article. My first three hundred word column took me nearly a day; now a thousand words takes about two hours, provided I haven’t got writers’ block. Picking the subject is the hardest part — I decide what to write about when I sit in front of the computer. Every time I try to plan a topic before I start, I end-up changing my mind — so I don’t do it any more.

Don’t think you’re going to get paid for your efforts, unless you’re a celebrity. It’s a bit too much to expect an editor to allow you to occupy valuable magazine space for free and pay you as well. Settle for a discrete couple of sentences at the end of your article that tell people who you are and how to contact you if they want. I don’t think my columns have ever resulted in instant business; but they are serving their purpose — most people in the industry know who I am and what I do, and it hasn’t cost much.

Oh, and while I’m on this subject, I do enjoy the phone calls I get from people who read this column; it makes it all the more worth while.

[/private]