The Benefit of Learning from the Best

I often remark how social media is not a new set of behaviors, but just a new set of tools. We’ve always just wanted to talk to each other, and social media makes that easier than ever. As a professional communicator, social media has provided me with a myriad of new outlets—and challenges—but I believe the basics remain. In order to be an effective member of any social media community, your communications must be clear, honest and transparent.

There is no one that fits that description of communication better than my good friend and mentor Joe Fuentes. I learned today that Joe is fighting for his life against cancer, and it caused me to pause and reflect on the many lessons I learned from Joe while working for him at what was then Adolph Coors Company. The things Joe taught me honed not only traditional communication skills, but his constant example as a warm, caring and open person set the stage for understanding how to use social media 20+ years before any of us had so much as a Facebook page.

It was Joe that told me—again and again, until I got it through my head—that a great editor makes the writing better, not different. An ego is an editor’s worst enemy, he would say. You don’t change it because you can, you change it because your change makes it better.

I remember the first news release I wrote for Joe. I was in my early 20s and, of course, I knew everything. Back in those days, we typed our drafts and handed them off for editing. Joe walked the draft back to my office, literally covered in red ink. No sentence seemed beyond the reach of Joe’s pen. I must have had quite the look on my face, but Joe just smiled and said “oh, don’t mind that… this was pretty good, actually! Let me show you what I did.” And he sat and shared freely more than 20 years of experience as a writer and and editor at the Rocky Mountain News along with another 10 years or so of public relations experience with Public Service Company of Colorado. And consistent with his own advice, there was not a single mark on that page that didn’t make the piece better.

Working for Joe was an ongoing lesson. Long before Google wanted headlines to be less than 22 words, Joe asked what every word was doing there, what role it played, and challenged you to make sure it was the best possible word for the job. If there was to be a drop head, it had to play a part in telling the story. And leads (or ledes, as Joe, ever the newspaperman, would write) had better be strong and to the point. Show up in Joe’s office with a normal PR lead/lede filled with buzzwords and braggadocio regarding your company’s leadership in some area and you were sent back to start again. It was Joe that demonstrated that PR was better for everyone—from company to client to reporter to reader—when the tenets of journalism were followed. “Don’t write puff,” he’ll say, “it won’t get past anyone worth getting past.”

While Strunk and White might have written it first, it was Joe that drove it home for me: “Omit needless words,” he would say, often followed by “I’m pretty sure we don’t get paid by the word around here!”

I’ve had the opportunity to introduce several of my employees to Joe from time to time at different events, and they’d often say, “Oh, you’re the AP Style guy.” And Joe will always smile. “If you want to communicate with someone, you’ve got to speak their language, and AP Style is the journalists’ language,” he’d remind us. Even today, when news releases are more often than not read directly by the general public, it’s maybe more important than ever to have your writing look and sound as professional as any news outlet. It helps give the story credibility. I learned that from Joe.

I remember working on a news release one day, typing feverishly (yes, typing on a typewriter!) when Joe asked me what I was doing.

“Working on a news release,” I answered, a bit incredulously.

“I’m just impressed that you memorized the entire AP Stylebook, since I don’t see it on your desk while you’re writing,” he said. “Make sure it’s all correct when you send it to me.” Joe knows the Stylebook better than anyone I’ve ever known, but his was always within easy reach. Now, I never really put mine away. Like Joe’s, my AP Stylebook is within arm’s length at all times.

But even more important than the writing, Joe is always the professional’s professional. His standards are high and he expects your best work, but rather than yelling or chastising, Joe simply makes you want to do your best because you never want to disappoint him. I’d do anything to meet a deadline for Joe, not from fear, but from respect. Joe and I worked together in a large department that could be difficult at times with office politics and turf battles. Somehow, Joe stayed above the fray, did excellent work and set an example for his staff. Without exception.

I remember one day, Joe got very, very angry with another manager on the staff.

“Darn that guy, he really makes me mad sometimes,” he said in a pretty even voice—and that was pretty much the end of it. I honestly don’t know how Joe put up with my high-strung mannerisms all those years, but he did, and if it drove him half as nuts as I now fear it might have, he never let on. He just continued to show me through example that there was another way to get things done.

In many ways, Joe is a true old-time newspaperman, but at the same time, he has always been years ahead of his time. You see, Joe understands the importance of clear, honest and transparent communication as being the foundation upon which everything else is built. It doesn’t matter if you’re chatting with a friend, writing a news release, completing a column for a major daily or a launching your very first blog, it all begins with clear, honest and transparent communication.

Despite what you probably thought all too often, Joe, I was listening to every word. My very best to you today and every day, my friend.


Photo by ra2 studio/