“So what? Why now?” Those four words were central to presentations during PR News’ Writing Workshop at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Friday (March 15, 2019). The first mention came from Barbara DeLollis, director of media relations at Marriott International. The former USA Today reporter said keeping those questions in mind is the biggest lesson she took from journalism. “Asking, ‘So what? Why now?’ gives me a lens to craft a compelling and relevant story” to pitch to media, she said during a session on common PR writing mistakes.
Another panelist, Linda Descano, EVP, Havas PR, had a variation on ‘So What? Why now?’ When sending a pitch or a release, she asks “Why that reporter?” PR pros should “contextualize” their pitches to specific reporters, she said.
Grammar and Spelling Still Count
While DeLollis and Descano agreed sloppiness in grammar and spelling are rising at a time when resources for proofreading are declining, Tim Teeman, senior editor at the Daily Beast, emphasized the continued importance of grammar for PR writing. “Grammar is so important,” Teeman said when editors and reporters decide whether or not to follow-up on a PR pitch. Added DeLollis, “When I was a reporter, I’d toss pitches with typos” and poor grammar.
Frequent errors these PR pros see include: misuse of the apostrophe and possessive and confusion of words such as “affect” and “effect” and “their” and “there.” And there's the problem when PR pros fail to use the correct form of words such as steel and steal and isle and aisle. This sometimes happens when the writer uses spellcheck instead of proofreading the material herself, they said.
“There’s no substitute“ for proofreading…”you’ve got to spend the time” or have a colleague read your work, DeLollis said. “We urge clients to compose emails in Word,” or another program with spellcheck, and then cut and paste the text into an email message to reduce misspelled words, Descano said, adding her shop has proofreaders on staff.
DeLollis, Descano and Teeman argued against PR writing that’s excessively long. “If it isn’t scan-able, it’s less likely to be read,” Descano said. She also urged PR pros to make liberal use of bullet points and keep paragraphs short. “When I was a reporter,” DeLollis said, “I asked for talking points” from PR pros. “I didn’t have time to wait for them to write press releases.” Reporters, she said, will appreciate “an economy of writing” in PR pitches and press releases.
'Know Your Audience'
And don’t assume everyone is reading your material on a mobile phone. Switching the focus to serving clients, Descano said some executives print their email. Some may lose links when they do that. When you know a client prints email, make certain you add a summary line next to each link. “Know your client,” she said.
In addition to espousing brevity, the three emphasized the importance of clarity in PR writing.
Please be Specific
Teeman touted the importance of including “specifics” when pitching reporters. Tell the journalist exactly why your pitch is important and whether or not it’s an exclusive. If it’s not an exclusive, make sure your pitch “moves the story,” he said. There are “lots of ways” to advance a story once it’s been broken, he said.
Another tip: Know the headline you want to elicit before you write the pitch.
Turning to storytelling, DeLollis urged communicators to use data to pry out interesting angles in what might seem an esoteric or dull story. She pointed to a pitch about double- and triple-brand hotel properties, where a hotel company puts multiple brands under one roof to appeal to a wide range of customers. To make the pitch more interesting, DeLollis included data about how many double- and triple-brand properties Marriott has and is constructing. She also added a customer angle, noting that such properties often include unusual features, such as a bar in the sky.
Descano noted her shop uses a three-part device for storytelling: setup, struggle and solution. The setup describes the situation, the struggle outlines unmet needs and conflict and solution discusses how a brand created a solution to the problems.
Seth Arenstein is editor of PR News. Follow him: @skarenstein