Site logo: John Lister writing.com

Public relations: Print

With six years' experience running Plain English Campaign's press office, I am particularly qualified to to produce clear, concise copy with an appropriate tone for the intended audience. My work included a quarterly magazine, a weekly e-mail newsletter and numerous press releases.

If you are interested in commissioning me for a project, please contact me to discuss the details.


Magazine

I wrote, edited and designed more than 20 editions of Plain English, the Campaign's magazine. As well as producing a lively, engaging publication, I had to take particular care that the magazine reflected the Campaign's commitment to clarity.

Please click on any of the covers below to view a sample copy in PDF format. (Note that the original font is not available in these files, meaning there are some layout quirks that were not present in the printed magazines.)

Plain English issue 42Plain English issue 46Plain English issue 47Plain English issue 52


Newsletter

I launched a weekly electronic newsletter sent to the Campaign's supporters. I wrote around 250 editions and built up a readership of more than 10,000 people in 80 countries. The newsletter was designed to be informative and entertaining in a concise format. Since leaving the Campaign I have ghostwritten newsletters for several businesses.

The following is a sample edition of the PEC newsletter:


The Office of Fair Trading has proposed tighter rules governing ticket agencies to make pricing and conditions clearer. They want:

According to the OFT, ticket information should answer five questions.

  1. What is the face value of the ticket and how much will I pay in total including additional fees such as booking fees, transaction charges and postage?
  2. Can I get a ticket elsewhere - will I get it cheaper by shopping around or going direct to the box office?
  3. How will I receive my tickets and what happens if they don't arrive?
  4. Will I get a refund, including additional fees, if the event is cancelled, changed or I cannot go?
  5. Where is the seat and does it have a restricted view?

The Government has announced the wording for the referendum expected to be held next year. It reads:

"Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?"

We think the question seems reasonably clear, and follows the general principles of asking the voter to say "yes" or "no" to a single proposal (without any potentially confusing negatives or double-negatives), and avoiding any debate of the merits or drawbacks of the proposal. Of course, the question does assume that people will understand what is meant by a constitution, but that will depend on the campaigning rather than the question itself.


You may remember that football manager Glenn Hoddle broke through the traditional laws of time by explaining that, "at this moment in time I did not say them things." This week another footballing figure showed that mixed metaphors don't have to abide by the usual principles of the human anatomy. Craig Bellamy spoke of his disappointment with manager Graeme Souness, complaining that he had "gone behind my back right in front of my face".


We have now booked the date for our next 'Plain English in legal agreements' course. It takes place on Monday 12 September in London.

The morning session looks at the principles of plain English and the conflicts with legal writing. The afternoon session covers the advantages and pitfalls of drafting in plain English. The course is led by Peter Rodney, the senior law draftsman for the Gibraltar Government.

Each place costs £225 plus VAT (including lunch). To book a place, or get more details, please phone Heidi Selkirk on 01663 744409.


One of our supporters reported an interesting conversation with a railway sales clerk this week.

Customer: "Can I book a seat?"

Clerk: "We operate this train on a walk on reservation basis."

Customer: "What does that mean?"

Clerk: "You get on the train and find a seat."


Press releases

I have extensive experience of writing press releases for a wide variety of markets. Effective press releases were a key part of Plain English Campaign's publicity, to the point that I was soon able to remove the need for any form of paid advertising. Given the nature of the organisation, producing clear, concise and effective releases wasn't just a necessity for effectiveness: it was the only way of avoiding a charge of hypocrisy! Since leaving the Campaign, I have used these skills for other organisations.

The following examples contain only the body text (including explanations of the context where appropriate) and do not include any of the standard contact details, background notes and so on.


(This story led to front page coverage in The Times, which in turn led to weeks of national and international coverage across radio, television and print. The release was praised by John Foster in Profile magazine and featured in his book Effective Writing Skills for Public Relations.)

At the end of the day... we're fed up with clichés.

Plain English supporters around the world have voted "At the end of the day" as the most irritating phrase in the language.

Second place in the vote was shared by "At this moment in time" and the constant use of "like" as if it were a form of punctuation. "With all due respect" came fourth.

The Campaign surveyed its 5000 supporters in more than 70 countries as part of the build-up to its 25th anniversary. The independent pressure group was launched on 26 July 1979.

Spokesman John Lister said over-used phrases were a barrier to communication. "When readers or listeners come across these tired expressions, they start tuning out and completely miss the message - assuming there is one! Using these terms in daily business is about professional as wearing a novelty tie or having a wacky ringtone on your phone.

"George Orwell's advice from 1946 is still worth following: 'Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.'"

(A full list of all the terms receiving more than one nomination followed in the notes to editors.)


Children offer clear foundation for cosmetics instructions

Nine of the youngest campaigners for clarity have offered advice to help cosmetic companies avoid alienating new customers.

The suggestions come from a group of Liverpool girls, aged between 12 and 16. They tested cosmetics instructions as part of a project led by 12-year-old Rebecca Brown, the granddaughter of Plain English Campaign's founder-director Chrissie Maher.

'It's natural for girls our age to experiment with beauty products,' Rebecca said. 'And the magazines we read are full of adverts for make-up. But the manufacturers seem to forget teenagers use their products and need clear instructions.'

Rebecca and her friends have the following advice for manufacturers:

'We're not asking for everything to be written in baby talk,' Rebecca explained. 'We just want the people writing the instructions to remember that not everyone is an expert on how to use the products. We think it would make sense to put the safety information first because this affects everybody. Then you can go on to explain clearly how to use the product. People who already know this can stop reading at this point, so there's no need to worry about saying things that may seem obvious.'

Rebecca says manufacturers shouldn't dismiss the suggestions just because they come from children. 'We're the customers of the future. If a manufacturer gives us clear instructions, we're more likely to get good results from a product. And that means we're more likely to buy that manufacturer's products when we get older and start spending wages instead of pocket money.'


Jargon-busters applaud Straw's call for plain English in European constitution

Plain English Campaigners have welcomed Jack Straw's call for a European Union constitution written in plain English. But they warned that the document should be tested on the public to make sure it can be understood.

Mr Straw said today that the constitution should be a 'simple set of principles [which] sets out in plain language what the EU is for' it would help to reconnect European voters with the institutions which act in their name.'

Spokesman John Lister said Plain English Campaign was not taking a political stance on where power should lie in Europe. 'However, we do believe everyone in an EU country deserves a clear account of how the EU affects their lives. This 'constitution' shouldn't be bogged down in legal details. Instead it should give people a general idea of the main points that affect their daily lives.

'If anything comes of Mr Straw's call, we hope the constitution will be tested on the public for clarity. It's no good churning something out through a system of linguistics sub-committees and then declaring it to be crystal clear without proper testing. If ordinary people can't understand a constitution that the EU claims is in 'plain language', then they will quickly lose any interest in the whole affair.'

Plain English Campaign recently set up a department dedicated to European Union issues. The department is headed by Peter Rodney, senior legal draftsman for the Government of Gibraltar. Launching the department, the Campaign's founder director Chrissie Maher said the department was needed because of the growing influence of European issues. 'I've lost count of the times I've been told that you 'must do this because of the EU', or 'the EC won't let you do that'.

'We're not concerned with the rights and wrongs of each political issue. That's for the political system and democracy to decide. But we demand plain English explanations of every issue that affects us.'

The need for clearer official documents to explain European issues was shown in 1992 when article 41 of the Maastricht treaty won the Campaign's 'Golden Bull' booby prize. It read:

'Simplified amendment procedure

'41.1. In accordance with Article 106(5) of this Treaty, Articles 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 17, 18, 19.2, 22, 23, 24, 26, 32.2, 32.3, 32.4, 32.6, 33.1(a) and 36 of this Statute may be amended by the Councll, acting either by a qualified majority on a recommendation from the ECB and after consulting the Commission, or unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the ECB.'


(This is an example of taking a complex, statistic-filled story and presenting it in accessible terms to which a tabloid newspaper audience could relate.)

Government doesn't give a ha'penny for information on Europe

A minister has admitted the Government spends less than half a penny a year for each person to keep the public informed about the European Union.

The figure was revealed during a debate in the House of Lords this week on a proposal to send a plain English leaflet explaining the Treaty of Nice to each home in Britain. Foreign Office minister Baroness Symons said the idea was impossible because of the 'budget for public diplomacy on the European Union; in other words... what we have in the kitty for informing the public on these issues. We have £250,000, with which we manage to fund a huge range of projects - targeting those who know the least about the EU, giving them information, and trying to stimulate debate.'

According to the latest government statistics, the population of Britain is around 59.8 million. This means the £250,000 budget represents just 0.41 pence for each person.

Our founder-director Chrissie Maher said it was no wonder the public feel out of touch with European issues. 'I'll leave it to the political pundits to decide why this budget is so low. All I know is that without plain English information, ordinary people don't stand a chance of having an informed opinion.

'Our supporters, both for and against closer involvement in Europe, tell us that the subject should be one of our top priorities. We will do whatever we can to make sure that everyone, from members of the European Parliament to Tony Blair himself, makes the effort to give the public plain English information. But even if we win the battle for hearts and minds, the Government are going to have to crack open the piggy bank.

'We are all affected by the European Union. We all need clear information about it if we are to have a democratic voice. In my opinion, that little bit of democracy is worth more than a ha'penny a year.'


(This was an example of a fresh angle that did not simply repeat the Campaign's core message.)

British Telecom - confusing consumers

British Telecom's baffling price structure means an average household could pay any of 36 different totals for the same set of calls, a new study shows. And the quarterly bill could be anywhere between £83.06 and £287.27.

Plain English Campaign made the study after a barrage of complaints from BT customers about a letter from the firm that contained almost 40 footnotes.

'People were coming to us asking how on earth they were meant to work out which of BT's various deals was best for them,' the Campaign's spokesman John Lister said. 'We tried to work out why the footnotes were so complicated and realised it was because the range of BT packages themselves is so tortuously confusing.'

The study saw Campaign researchers take an imaginary household spending a set time each week on local, national and international calls, and spending a set time using BT's Internet services. They then tried to work out how much the quarterly bill would be under each possible combination of BT's packages.

'I've filled in a self-assessment tax form,' John Lister said, 'but I think this calculation may have been even more mindnumbing. It was bad enough trying to work out that a 'PSTN line' was just a normal household line, and that there was a difference between 'BT Together' and 'BT Talk Together'.

'But when we went to BT's website for clarification and had to try and work out why there was a difference between 'Geographic Inland Direct Dialled PPM Prices' and 'Inland National NTS Direct Dialled PPM Prices' it nearly brought us to tears. Then we had to work out why something that cost £3.20 a quarter and got you 11% off calls was known as Option 15''

In all, the research produced 36 different possible totals for the same set of calls. And the Campaign openly admitted they couldn't be confident the totals they worked out were the right answers.

'After almost four hours trying to do all the sums, our brains turned to mush,' John Lister said. 'It was starting to feel like a mathematics exam.

'Customer choice is one thing, but with this many options it's no wonder people don't trust BT. Maybe some people are getting the best deal. But if it takes an entire afternoon's calculations just to get a vague idea of which package really works out cheapest, it's impossible to have any confidence that you're not paying too much.

'We'd like BT to provide crystal-clear explanations of their packages to customers. But with a system this complicated, that's like trying to explain the quickest route through Spaghetti Junction.'


(This release went out eleven hours after the polls closed.)

Confusing voting form may swing presidential election

Plain English campaigners have discovered that a baffling voting form may mean the American people do not get the president they wanted.

The form was used in Palm Beach County, Florida, where each county designs its own ballot papers. American voters make their choice by punching a hole rather than ticking a box. But the punch hole by Al Gore's name was actually for third party candidate Pat Buchanan.

The confusion came about because Palm Beach election officials decided to put the list of candidates across two pages. An arrow ran from each candidate's name to their punch hole. But many voters found the form too confusing to be sure who they were voting for.

At the first official count, Pat Buchanan won 3407 votes in Palm Beach County. Latest reports give George Bush a 224 vote lead over Gore in the entire state, which will decide the national election. This means that if just one in ten of Buchanan's votes on the controversial form were meant for Gore, the mistake could put the wrong man in the White House.

Plain English Campaign's founder director Chrissie Maher described the mix-up as stunning.

'It just goes to show how serious a confusing document can be. We've all been irritated when we get baffled by our video recorder instructions and tape the wrong channel. But it hardly compares to a confusing form deciding the most powerful position on the planet.

'I hope this mistake doesn't cheat the American people of their democratic choice. But if it does, perhaps people will finally learn to test forms properly before unleashing them on the public.'


(This is an example of a release tailored specifically to a local market.)

Liverpool youth get on the ball to shoe children of Ghana

Former Anfield great Alan Kennedy is joining local schoolchildren to raise money for orphans in Ghana ' and their fancy footwork will help buy desperately needed shoes.

The children of St Teresa's Catholic Junior School are holding a sponsored ball-juggling event this Wednesday (24th) at the school in Utting Avenue East. The event, kicking off at 1pm, will see pupils attempt to keep the ball in the air for longer than Reds legend Alan.

The event is being supported by insurance firm AXA's football in the community project. They have donated a new kit for the school team as well as sweatshirts and tracksuit trousers for the children to use on the day and then take home.

Carol Brown, a founder member of Plain English Campaign, and mother of three St Teresa's pupils, is co-ordinating the event. She explained why this event was such a worthy cause:

'These aren't rich kids - they come from pretty tough backgrounds - but they got together to try and do something for other children in Ghana.'

Plain English Campaign's connection with Ghana started in 1996 when they were giving a series of lectures in the capital, Accra. They came across an orphanage in a village called Akorabo with no electricity, income or water supply. Immediately dropping work, they launched an appeal to drill fresh water wells for the village.

'The saddest thing was when, after everyone's work collecting clothes for the orphans, there wasn't enough to go around,' Carol explained this week. 'There was just enough for every child to walk away with one shoe and one bare foot.

'When the children at St Teresa's heard about this, they said they had to do something. It might not seem like much, but giving every child there a pair of shoes is a big thing. Once they got talking, they decided football was the most appropriate way of raising the cash.'


(This release came after the channel asked me to find a clear and comprehensible way of explaining what could easily appear as a complicated series of changes to their schedule.)

British TNA fans get dream Christmas gift

The Wrestling Channel (TWC) has brought viewers the perfect Christmas gift by signing a deal to broadcast up-to-date TNA Wrestling shows just seven days after their original US airdates.

The deal takes effect from Saturday 21 January 2006 with TNA Impact, while the Final Resolution pay-per-view airs the following evening, both on just a one-week delay. All Impact shows and pay-per-views from that point on will continue to air just a week after their original US broadcast.

Although TNA programming currently airs on a five-week delay on TWC, viewers need not worry about missing any shows because of the new deal. TWC will broadcast a double-bill of Impact on Saturday 7 January, while the usual Sunday Supercard slot on Sunday 15 January will feature four episodes to bring viewers up to date.

Sean Herbert, director of programming at TWC, said viewer response was the driving force behind the deal. “When we ask viewers what changes they'd like to see at the channel, the most common response is up-to-date TNA. This deal means fans will now find it far easier to avoid reading results or reports from the shows before they air on TWC, meaning they can enjoy TNA programming with an 'as live' feel.”

TWC broadcasts on Sky Digital channel 427 and is available without charge to all satellite viewers, regardless of their viewing package.


(This release was intended to explain a complicated set of government rules. It was specifically written to try to overcome the stereotypical media view of fraud and false claims among people who are too ill work. I also prepared a standard background note for the organisation involved.)

New benefits rules will cause "chaos and misery".

New benefit rules governing people with disabilities will lead to misery and chaos according to a benefits expert.

Steve Donnison, of the independent website Benefits and Work (www.benefitsandwork.co.uk), says the new system will falsely label many severely disabled claimants as fit for compulsory ‘work-related activities’ such as volunteering or attending employment skills classes.

“It would be perfectly reasonable to fairly assess people’s physical and mental capabilities,” Mr Donnison explained. “But this system is so flawed that many people who cannot work will instead be classed as if they simply don’t want to work.”

The new rules, in the Welfare Reform Bill, introduce a test for Limited Capability for Work-Related Activity (LCWRA). This test applies to people who have previously been judged unfit for normal employment. However, according to Mr Donnison, the test criteria are so specific and inflexible that many people will slip through the net.

“By the way the criteria are worded, a blind and deaf person who can’t stand, sit, bend or kneel, can’t climb a single stair, can’t dress themselves, has epileptic seizures every day, and is unable to wash their own hair would still be classed as capable of the compulsory activities. The rules assessing mental incapacity are similarly inadequate.”

The flaws in the rules will cause problems for all concerned:

According to Benefits and Work advisor Holiday Whitehead, a barrister and disability specialist, people being falsely assessed as potentially capable of work will be unsure whether they should disclose their full physical impairments at interviews. “The scene is set for confusion, litigation at employment tribunals, and misery all round.”

The Welfare Reform Bill is still going through Parliament, and Steve Donnison urged everyone involved in the benefits system, from claimants to advisors to administrators, to lobby politicians on the issue. “Earlier this year John Hutton said the new rules were ‘not about forcing people back into work where it is not appropriate.’ But that’s exactly what will happen if the rules remain so inflexible and unrealistic.”

Ends

Note to editors: A full briefing note on the new rules is available on request.

Background: Benefits and Work is an independent website providing clear, detailed and accurate information to allow benefits claimants to get their full entitlements. The membership-based site is entirely funded by subscriptions, meaning it can remain independent from official pressures and free to comment and criticise where necessary. The site is a full-time project run by Steve Donnison, who has more than a decade’s experience as a welfare rights worker.


(This release promoted a major rebranding for the channel. The operators needed to explain a lengthy series of changes and reassure several different types of viewers that their needs would be met.)

PRO WRESTLING PLUS MMA PLUS TV = TWC FIGHT!

From Monday 4 December, The Wrestling Channel becomes TWC Fight! (www.twcfight.com): the world’s most diverse professional wrestling and mixed martial arts TV channel. It will continue to air free of charge across the UK and Ireland on Sky channel 427.

The rebranding marks several new programming agreements:

But pro wrestling fans need not worry as TWC Fight! brings more good news:

TWC Fight!’s head of programming Sean Herbert said the new programming reflected the diverse audience built up by the channel. “We know there are a growing number of crossover fans, but that our viewers also include wrestling diehards and MMA purists. TWC Fight! is our way of making sure we suit all tastes, with up to 35 hours of original programming each week.

“We’ve taken great care to expand the MMA output without detracting from our wrestling coverage. TWC Fight! now features a wider variety of promotions than any other channel worldwide.”

The channel is also relaunching its online shopping site at www.twcfightshop.com. The new site will be easier to use and feature a much wider range of wrestling and MMA merchandise.


British fundraiser to walk to North Pole

A British man is walking to the end of the earth to help improve the lives of disadvantaged children.

Adrian Hayes is part of a four-man team which will try to reach the North Pole on foot - the world’s only such attempt this year. He is raising funds for Childrens Hope Foundation, a London-based charity which helps meet children’s social, educational and medical needs.

In almost a century of polar expeditions, just 120 people have reached the North Pole by foot. The voyage will involve climbing, swimming, skiing and pulling 100kg sleds, all in temperatures as low as minus 60 centigrade. Life coach and motivational speaker Adrian is an experienced adventurer who has conquered Everest, but this is his first polar expedition.

According to Adrian, “My suffering for two months on the Polar ice cap will be very painful indeed, but it pales into insignificance compared to the pain suffered by the children who will benefit from donations.”

Tom Doran, the Chief Executive of Childrens Hope Foundation, said “This is the most spectacular fundraising effort we’ve ever heard of. It’s no exaggeration to say this trek is the planet’s ultimate physical challenge. The more donations we get, the more lives we can change, which will be the true legacy of this spectacular undertaking.”

Adrian is funding his own expedition costs with the help of corporate sponsorship, meaning all donations will go straight to the charitable work The easiest way to donate is online at http://www.justgiving.com/adrianhayes. You can also send postal orders or cheques to Childrens Hope Foundation, 15 Palmer Place, London N7 8DH.

Adrian is joined on the expedition by two fellow Brits, Ray Middleton and Iain Morpeth, and led by Canadian Richard Weber. The party leaves for Canada on 13 February and will begin their trek from Ellesmere Island (the most northerly part of Canada) on 5 March, aiming to arrive at the North Pole by 30 April. The combination of total darkness in winter and melting ice in summer means there is only a short period each year during which such a journey can even be attempted.

ends

Background: Children’s Hope Foundation is a registered charity (number 1060409) formed in 1997 which works to improve the lives of children who are disadvantaged through illness, disability or poverty. It does not aim to cure conditions or relieve poverty, but rather provides practical assistance to meet social, educational and medical needs. The charity’s philosophy is to do whatever it can to give disadvantaged children the same opportunities in life as any other child.