What’s the least interesting part of almost every business press release written these days? The second paragraph. Why? Because it usually contains an executive quotation that’s as bland and insincere as it is meaningless. Let’s face it, if American businesspeople were all as “thrilled,” “excited” and “pleased” as they claim to be in press release quotes, the world would be a much happier—albeit more boring—place.
But worse than being an eye-glazing convention, generic executive quotes are actually a waste of a unique opportunity. Because they are attributed to a person rather than an organization, quotes can be used to communicate subjective ideas and context that can’t be expressed in the more objective, journalistic language of the rest of the release. And by virtue of being surrounded by quotation marks, they are usually published verbatim in the media rather than being edited or paraphrased (unless of course they’re ignored altogether for being too dull or fluff-filled).
The late Apple and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, arguably the most successful business leader of the past quarter century, was famously unafraid to be provocative in print. He was also a master at conveying bold ideas in a few sentences. While not every executive is comfortable going as far as Jobs did in flouting the status quo—and even Jobs’ press release quotes were sometimes by the numbers—we can learn a lot about writing compelling press release quotes from public statements he made over the years.
Here are a few examples of what a press release quotation can convey, accompanied by things Jobs said (or were attributed to him):
Brand personality: By using more colorful, colloquial language, a quote can communicate a sense of individuality, passion, fun and—if used judiciously—even a sense of humor, that sets a business apart from its competitors.
“We made the buttons on the screen look so good you'll want to lick them.”—On the Mac OS X Aqua user interface, Fortune (Jan. 4, 2000).
A subjective viewpoint: While it should avoid hyperbole and breathless adjectives, the executive quote offers a chance to describe the significance of an announcement in qualitative, rather than quantitative terms.
“iPod touch is the funnest iPod we’ve ever created.”—Press release (Sept. 9, 2008).
Bold statements: An executive quote can sometimes get away with provocative statements or predictions.
“We believe it's the biggest advance in animation since Walt Disney started it all with the release of Snow White 50 years ago.”—Discussing Pixar’s Toy Story in Fortune (Sept. 18, 1995)
Positioning and context: In order to help readers reach a conclusion that may not be obvious from the facts alone, a quote can “connect the dots” for journalists and the public.
“iPhone 3G had a stunning opening weekend. It took 74 days to sell the first 1 million original iPhones, so the new iPhone 3G is clearly off to a great start around the world.”—Press Release announcing sales of 1 million iPhone 3Gs in its first weekend (July 14, 2008)
Nuance: Sometimes an announcement will raise questions in the minds of more sophisticated readers that may not occur to a more general readership. The executive quote offers a way to address an issue without drawing attention to it.
“This is a good day for Apple’s shareholders—they will have even more independent representation on their Board, the addition of a terrific new director in former Vice President Al Gore and a reduction in issued stock option overhang from 23% to 16%.”—Press release announcing changes amidst criticism of Apple’s corporate governance (March 20, 2003)
Positive spin: When the news isn’t good, an executive quote can soften the blow by pointing out more upbeat aspects of the story. This has to be done carefully though: executives should avoid sounding Pollyannaish, or worse, deceitful or cavalier, by trying to put a happy face on bad news. The key is to first acknowledge the problem and then counterbalance it with an optimistic (but truthful) appraisal.
“Looking forward, we do not expect our industry to pick up anytime soon, though we’re hoping to help put a lot of iPods, iMacs and iBooks under trees this holiday season. With the stability of our rock-solid balance sheet, Apple will continue to invest through this downturn to create the industry’s most innovative products and best buying experience.”—Press release announcing an Apple quarterly loss (Oct. 16, 2002).
So whether you’re a business leader or a PR professional (or both), the next time you craft an executive quote, try tapping into your inner Steve Jobs. You might just be thrilled, excited and pleased with the results.
Andrew Hindes is president of The In-House Writer, a Los Angeles-based PR and marketing copywriting firm that specializes in creating press materials for companies in a broad range of industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @inhousewriter.