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Crisis Comm

by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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Are you changing how you write for the web?
November 15, 2012
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With all the focus on social media and how it is impacting crisis and emergency communication, an equally significant issue may be ignored--and that is the changing styles of communication. I was asked by a client to prepare and present a training program on writing for the web. This was a public agency, not a private company, and the class gave ample opportunity to highlight what is happening to writing and communicating, particularly for digital communications. I asked the participants to bring in examples of what they were writing for the agency's website. Almost without exception, the examples showed just how much web writing has changed--and how we as communicators are not keeping pace.

Then, an example of great web writing popped up--the Seattle Police Department's blog post informing Seattle citizens on what they can expect in marijuana enforcement following the legalization of marijuana in the recent election. I blogged on this over at crisisblogger, so won't repeat the points. But I found it very interesting to view this excellent piece of writing in light of the five key points I tried to convey to those in my training class.

The five key points:

- picture your target reader
- tell upfront what's in it for them
- have a clear purpose
- use the right voice
- be brief 

One of the things I emphasized was the difference in age between most of us in the training class and most of our audience. I asked the group the average age in the room. I would say mostly late 40s to early 50s. But the average age of Americans is now 36.8 years. Since that includes all ages, chances are most reading your website at early 30s or below. They are the ones dictating the changing styles. 

In looking around a bit at websites, particularly government websites, I see some struggles with these changes. It's hard, when you are representing an official agency, and maybe a stuffy and self-important elected official, to let loose and communicate in the highly personal, sometimes snarky style that is evolving. I'd like to hear from you. Is this a big issue? Do you find yourself adapting to the new styles only to have it shot down from above, by those less sensitive to the changes? Is it much easier for you to write in the somewhat officious and stuffy style that characterizes much of government writing? Do you chafe at the butchering of formal written English seeing in it a decline in literacy and sophistication? Is there need for more training and education about how to write for today's audiences?

(By the way, you might notice me using more bullet points and highlighting of text. That's because in the research I did for the class I found most don't actually read web articles, they scan them, speed read them, and bullets and key points highlighted make it much easier to scan.)



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