Tips From a Reporter on Great PR Writing

We’ve been doing a lot of writing in PR News lately on great PR writing and as I was reflecting on this very intricate craft—a form of writing that requires immense skill—I thought it might be useful to reflect on what a journalist looks for in PR writing—not just press releases, but also corporate letters, comments from executives, and more. So here goes, more or less in the order of importance:

• First and foremost, tell a story, but remember your story is not automatically interesting to the media and stakeholders. You have to anticipate what your external constituents will view as significant from their perspective. But let’s get back to the concept of story-telling. If there’s a narrative—if there’s a sense of progress, or change, or surprise, or accomplishment, that’s what will get the attention of a reporter. Especially if the story is unexpected, or counter-intuitive, or it defies the conventional wisdom. That’s what reporters look for, because those are the things they want to offer to their readers.

• Don’t force big news out of small news. I got a press release just last week from a media company CEO, who assured me this was “big, big news.” Well, it wasn’t. Loss of credibility because of a breathless effort to turn non news into big news is hard to repair.

• Don’t lead with the “what,” lead with the “why.” It’s harder for a reporter to care that your CEO just gave a speech at the TED Conference, or that your company just won a major industry award, or even that you exceeded earnings expectations for the quarter by 4 percent. It’s much easier to care that the CEO’s presentation was really important because it generated news, or caused a stir, or that your earning would have missed except for some specific act. You get the idea.

• When using quotes, avoid “happy talk.” I’ve read 10,000 quotes that proclaim a CEO is “delighted to have Bob join the team…” Perhaps you thought we were expecting to hear that you’re “kind of bummed out that Bob is joining the team, because we really wanted Jane.” It’s better to simply lay out what Bob or Jane is expected to do, and why the hire matters.

• Avoid hackneyed and hyperbolic words. Nothing makes journalists’ eyes glaze over faster than you touting your ”solutions,” your “global” reach and your “industry-leading” position.

• Don’t bury the lead. Usually, you can tell the gist of your story in half the number of words you used. This mainly comes down to disciplined self editing, but you also have to keep in mind the fact that early drafts of writing almost always take their time getting to the point and usually back into the point.

• Don’t use exclamation points. Don’t use bold-faced words. Don’t use all-caps. You’d be amazed at how well-crafted sentences and solid choice of words actually speak for themselves, without any need to call attention to them.

– Tony Silber

On Twitter: @tonysilber

  • Public Relations in India

    Yes it is very important to put a news in a way that will grab attention. Now a days people like things that are hyped and polished. Really liked the Blog. Thanks.

  • Vera

    Solid advice. Thanks for the reminder — now if we could get CEOs and other executive leaders to understand this! Very nicely written too, I might add.

  • Ofelia Gonzalez

    Great insight! These reminders are always helpful!

  • Glenn Johnson

    Great advice. I think we have to remember the basics of what makes a news story good. There are the five Ws, but I think there should be a sixth: tell me Who cares?
    That merely means your writing needs to explain clearly why someone is going to NEED to know this.
    Is the product breaking ground, a new price point, is it going to change my life?
    If it is not, don’t pretend that it will be with hyperbolae — tell me plainly that you are hoping I will try your new product because it works well.

  • Suzanne Mannion

    As Vera points out, if we could get biz leaders to understand this! Not an easy task, but I guess that’s why we get paid the big bucks :-). But seriously, it is our responsibility to provide direction to executives so that efforts lead to results, not just “feel good” documents. After all, the boss we’ll feel really good if it leads to positive media coverage vs. ending up in the trash.

  • Davina K. Brewer

    Lead w/ WHY. ITA – it’s the closest, fastest way to hitting the target – answering the ‘what’s in it for them?” – getting to what makes it relevant, what makes it news – as in the funny ‘happy quote’ example.

    Writing a compelling story is great, it is. But often the reader – be it customer on the website or editor in a newsroom – often does not have the time. Breaking up the story w/ a few bullets, subheads, a little bold can actually help tell the narrative as people quickly scan. Ditto a short pitch or response to a media query, a little bold the key subject matter so they can see it’s an on-point response. It shouldn’t be used as a crutch, but a little formatting can go a long way. FWIW.

  • Karen Fantin

    I’ve dumped clients who don’t subscribe. Be the buffer! Keep the bad ones at bay. Reporters will respect you for it.

  • john chambers

    Tony advises: “Don’t use exclamation points. Don’t use bold-faced words. Don’t use all-caps. You’d be amazed at how well-crafted sentences and solid choice of words actually speak for themselves, without any need to call attention to them.” (To which might be added “Don’t use italics. Don’t under-score. Don’t use spot-color. Don’t use funny type-faces.”).

    Tony’s advice is only half the story if you’re writing for print media: keep all your text totally plain and simple. Leave it to the editorial teams to decide if they want any emphasis in the final copy for their readers, and where to enter it if they do.

  • Nelea Motriuc

    Thank you very much for this great article and advice! It is very important to be able to understand that targeting a handful of journalists is not enough, what is more important is to be able to write releases that appeal directly to buyers (or stakeholders/partners/beneficiaries/clients), showing that you understand their needs and you are able to offer a solution/product/service, without making advertisement but rather explaining WHY this product is good and HOW it will help them.