PR Writing Tips from a Former Journalist

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XKCD Kerning

Comic from xkcd.com

By Bill Greenwood

Before I came into the PR world, I worked in the journalism industry for more than five years. I started off as an editor at my college newspaper, became a staff writer at a local newspaper after graduation, and ended up as an assistant editor at an information-technology trade magazine before heading to grad school and winding up here at Jaybird Communications. When it came time to write my first press release, I was excited to try out a new style of writing that didn’t have quite as many rules as what I had done previously. Of course, I came to discover that PR writing doesn’t necessarily have fewer rules, just different ones. But I also learned that applying some of those old journalism standards could actually improve the quality of my releases considerably. So, here are some simple tips from the journalism world that you can use to improve your own writing.

Strive for “Objective” Reasoning

No press release is objective, nor should it be. But it is important to avoid insulting your audience’s intelligence, and that’s where a bit of journalistic restraint can come in handy. When writing a news story, the goal is to put forth the facts, organized so that the most important are at the top, and let them speak for themselves. Similarly, when writing a press release, try to let your structure do the talking as much as possible. Put the most interesting information at the top and let the facts sell it to your audience.

As a journalist receiving press releases, nothing turned me off faster than hyperbolic adjectives that were backed up with little to no evidence. Touting “the world’s most delicious cup of coffee”? My first response would be, “Doubtful.” But did it win a prestigious taste test? Is it brewed using an original Colombian recipe? Tell me that, and I’ll be much more likely to believe and write about you. And as a bonus, your writing will come across as much more genuine due to the “objective” nature of your argument. No journalist will believe your news is “game-changing” just because you say it. You need to show it, too.

Write Natural-Sounding Quotes

To any journalist who hasn’t figured this out already, you might want to sit down. Many quotes from company officials in the press releases you receive are actually written by PR professionals. Shocked? No? I didn’t think so, and that’s a problem. When you’re a journalist, creating a quote from someone is absolutely forbidden, so you develop a pretty good ear for the way people talk vs. the way they write. This means most journalists will be able to see right through your featured quote, and the artifice could turn them off from your press release completely.

So, the next time you’re carefully putting words in your client’s mouth, take a minute to think about whether a normal person would actually say that. Read the quote aloud to see if it feels natural. Eliminate long sentences, as speakers need to take breaths in real life. And most importantly, don’t be overly formal. Quotes are like rock music, they’re at their best when they’re a bit raw. Polish it up too nicely, and it becomes painfully obvious and extremely uninteresting.

Get Your Grammar and Punctuation Right

Most journalists I know, myself included, are absolute grammar Nazis. They pick up on typos and other mistakes everywhere, from billboard advertisements to the novel they’re reading. In fact, when I was attending a grammar boot camp at Penn State, one of our tasks was to go into town and pick out the one store with a grammatically incorrect name. (Answer: The End Result.) So make absolutely sure that your releases are spotless grammar-wise. Ask a colleague to read it over with fresh eyes, or if you’re a sole proprietor, get your release to a “final” state, then go on a 15-minute walk. When you read it again, you’ll be more likely to catch mistakes you wouldn’t have found before.

There you have it! Three lessons from the journalism industry to you. As I’m sure you know, there is a world of difference between reporting the news and promoting a company, but you should not keep the two completely separate. By taking the best ideas from both worlds, you can craft great press releases sure to pique the interest of those who can give you the coverage you need.

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