An open letter to whoever writes Peter MacKay’s emails

by Siri Agrell

Media, PR


First of all, I’m sorry if you’re having a rough week. Writing for a public figure is difficult work that rarely receives attention unless things have gone badly.

Few people in the public understand how many politicians, CEOs and other executives rely heavily on staff to write all of their communications, from speeches and op-eds to emails and staff memos.

It’s a difficult, high stakes job, and you’re probably not being paid enough. You’re expected to write in someone else’s “voice” even if your exposure to this individual’s actual voice is minimal. You must produce this material on demand, leaving enough time for these things to be vetted, edited, tweaked and translated into both official languages.

You may even wake up one morning with an unexpected request to write a “Happy Mother’s Day” email to staff and not have the power to say “Dude, wouldn’t it be a nice gesture if you took a couple minutes and wrote this one yourself?”

And, of course, you have to live with the constant knowledge that the words you write will undergo intense levels of scrutiny – from your boss, from other employees, and potentially from the public and media.

Your spelling, your grammar, your sentence structure will all be open for critique. (Was that a passive sentence?) But more than that, your words will be parsed for hidden meaning or suggested bias even if you have just been asked to dash off a quick note to staff.

Because of this, writers who toil in someone else’s name must hold their own work to a high personal standard. What will people think of this line? Am I making assumptions? Is this a cliché? Does this imply something that I didn’t intend?

You have to assume that every word has the potential to appear on the front page of a newspaper, and govern yourself accordingly.

It’s tempting to underwhelm, to play it safe and write the bare minimum. Resist this urge. Often the best way to avoid criticism is to say something novel, direct and sincere. Cut and paste at your own peril.

Don’t let people rush you. Take the time to vet your own work. It’s their name but it’s your ass.

Look back at similar things you’ve written for your boss to make sure you aren’t diverging drastically in tone or style. If you said three nice things about one retiring politician in about 250 words, stick to that model with the next one, lest someone think they are being snubbed by comparison.

I once read a piece of advice from a CEO that talked about applying the “Most Generous Interpretation” to your coworkers – to always assume that people are coming from a positive, helpful place. When writing in someone else’s voice, you should apply the “Least Generous Interpretation” principle. What is the worst way someone could take this line? Could this paragraph possibly offend anyone? If you can imagine it being misconstrued, write it differently.

I look forward to your “track changes” edits on this note, and hope that this experience doesn’t make you run screaming from your computer. The world needs more people who can write clearly, powerfully and with confidence – but we have to constantly remind ourselves to think that way as well.