October 4, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

When It Comes to PR Writing, Only One Thing Beats Talent…

When It Comes to PR Writing, Only One Thing Beats Talent…

**…and there ain’t much talent around.**
What’s wrong with PR writing? To borrow a phrase from poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways. But I don’t have that much time, so allow me to offer a few ideas based on some 30 years in the public relations profession and almost 20 years teaching business writing in professional workshops and now on campus and online. Most PR practitioners, especially the youngest among us, haven’t been well-trained as writers. At best, they’ve taken one PR writing course in college. More often than not, they’ve gotten their writing experience by preparing class plans and presentations. This is useful but inadequate. For one thing, class plans and presentations are long and longer. They’re written to impress the teacher and well they should. Teachers teach; they need to assess their students’ grasp of the subject at hand, they need to assess their students’ understanding in depth. But in business, government and not-for-profit enterprises, the writing has to be tighter and more to the point. In many respects, this has always been the case. But today it’s an imperative.
Increasingly, audiences want PR news and information as short and sweet as possible. Let’s face it, we’re not writing New Yorker pieces so why so much verbiage in most of what’s written? In addition, we’re not writing to be published word for word or even close to it. We’re engaged in, or should be engaged in, writing news and information that our audiences, the media in particular, can use as is or edited for their purposes. We are the facilitator not the end user.
And the terms and conditions that have been set for us are pretty clear, not only for the press but for anyone who receives our stuff. These “standards” have evolved from a long history of experimentation, especially in the media and among journalists. Any writing primer will give you the specifics. PR writing should be:
• Simple (unadorned language, common sense logic)
• Direct (to the point, say what you have to say and little more)
• Credible (believable, what you say is true)
• Factual (5 W’s – who, what, when, where, and why)
• Insightful (useful takeaways that go beyond the conventional)
• Actionable (you can do something immediately with what’s presented)
As to actual style, PR writing should have:
• An inviting lead (nothing fancy but something that makes you read on)
• Short sentences (built on straightforward, uncomplicated phrasing)
• Short paragraphs (much easier to read than long paragraphs)
• Lots of nouns and active verbs (keep the prose lean)
• Few adjectives (minimizes unintentional editorializing)
• Few adverbs (ditto what occurs with adjectives)
• Few connectives (however, moreover, although, also and other transitions usually add unnecessary complications)
• Accurate syntax (watch out for misplaced modifiers, dangling participles and other mistakes)
• Concrete language (say “lie,” not prevaricate, “said” not “opined”)
There are all kinds of guidelines but the simplest are the best. The rest is up to the writer – namely, you. If you don’t follow what’s suggested, your writing will suffer. And practice is what makes perfect. Think about theater, sports, politics, the military. You don’t get good at any of these pursuits if you don’t practice, practice, practice. Why should it be any different with PR writing? It isn’t.
So if you really want to write better as a public relations practitioner, get in the sweat. Start exercising in earnest. Take a writing course at your local university. Take a workshop. Put one together for your own office. Join a writer’s club. Create one for your colleagues. Maybe in your local PRSA or IABC chapter. Do something to put your desire in action. If you don’t, you only have yourself to blame.
*Don Bates is the director of the Master’s Degree in Strategic Public Relations program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.*

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  1. ahh445@aol.com'
    al horowitz

    Right on! Critique: what about using appropriate tenses, and you know that many research facilities are not libraries, and reading materials are not books.

  2. skayser@cincom.com'
    Steve Kayser

    Dear Don:
    Thanks for the post. Informative. Helpful. Good Insights. Some additional tidbits for consideration though – from a couple different perspectives. I’m in charge of PR for a software company. We distribute over 100 press releases per year globally to give you a reference point..
    I have had PR employees work for me right out of college, and found most were woefully unprepared for the real-world new PR environment. Not because of any inherent deficiency in the school they came from, but more by the frenetic pace of change in the PR industry. Blogs, social media, SEO, SEOPR, Tags, Social media press releases and on and on and on. The technology changes alone can be daunting or intimidating.
    But the writing … the writing, that is a skill and art that’s the absolute foundation of being able to effectively use all the new technologies and communication tools. It’s a skill and art that is complex, under-appreciated and frankly, as far as I can tell, not a lot of emphasis is put on it in schools or companies.
    It’s complex to write simple these days.
    Hemmingway had a clear understanding and vision of it when he discussed the 4 rules of writing he learned as a journalist at the Kansas City Star.
    Hemmingway’s 4 Rules (well, not really, they were the Kansas City Star’s actually)
    1. Use short sentences.
    2. Use short first paragraphs.
    3. Use vigorous English.
    4. Be positive, not negative.
    `Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,'' Hemingway said in 1940. “I've never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.''
    These rules still work. They’re rarely used. But still work. However, Hemmingway didn’t have to contend with the New PR. SEOPR. Google News. Yahoo News. Etc.
    “Having your press release at the number one spot on Google or Yahoo News is the same as a front-page article in print.”
    – PR WEEK

    From Their Eyes
    For a second let’s step into the shoes of a new PR practitioner, right out of school, or even an experience practitioner, who has not kept up with the rapidly changing online PR communication tools and processess.
    The first thing (and it would be super if it happened) they might hear about is the Hemmingway rules above. Great start. Or, they might hear something like “to effectively use all the new technologies and communication tools in the “New PR,” you have to be able to write “simple.” Let’s start with the simple. A simple press release.
    What’s simple? Well that’s simple. Easy-to- read, easy-to-understand., with specificity and authenticity. Elegant simplicity will build trust and credibility for you and your organization.
    Wow- that is simple. Sounds simple anyway. However, I forgot to add …
    Make your headline 3-10 words (ideal 6-8 words) with an imperative verb, try to keep it around 64 -65 h charactrs so it’s not truncated (cut off ) in the news search engines. Oh — include a key word or key phrase (avg. search term is 2.67 words long) in that title, for the search engines, and not just the web search engine – the “news search engines” which have different algorithms than the normal web search engines.
    Amplify the title – try to include a keyword or key phrase if possible. Test it for effectiveness. How strong is your keyword – your key phrase?
    BUT … also make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling … simple, and easy-to read, and easy to understand.
    Got it? Next …
    Include a keyword/phrase in the first 50 words of the release ( because you’ll be lucky if most journalists will ever get that far so give it your best shot). Embed Hyperlinks in your press release to help draw your audience (prospects/media) into your story – visit your website, respond to a call to action.
    Boring. But you will use them. Hardly anyone will ever read them (except the Frankequoted person). Here’s some text below you can use –– just insert your company or Executive’s name.
    We’re Great!
    “We’re Great.” “Our company is great.” “Our customers love us.” “The industry analysts love us.”
    Remember the rules though – make it interesting, funny, mysterious, appealing, compelling … simple, short, easy-to read, easy to understand – and use keywords/keyphrases that are specific.
    Does anyone ever read this? Hardly ever – except maybe by The smart-arsed yet truly percptive Beaver in the Rozerme sleep-aid commercial. But the boilerplate is one undervalued piece of PR real estate. Don’t repeat the Frankequotes above. Do use the 4 Hemmingway Rules to answer the 4 questions that any reader wants to know;
    1. What do you do?
    2. How do you do it?
    3. Why are you different?
    4. Why should I buy from you?
    Re-inforce those 4 questions with embedded links back to your web site with specific and credible information to back up your atements.
    Simple is Hard
    That’s very hard for do. Can you imagine a kid coming out of college trying to grasp that? It’s extremely hard if you’re in a technology company trying to explain what you do and not become a victim of corporate gobbledygook that’s a high-value badge of pedantic faux gravitas
    But writing is THE KEY to effectively communicating within this whirling dervish of a new PR world. A good writer can adapt/ learn and flex with the technology. An unskilled, or bad writer with a great knowledge of the new PR technologies can trash your credibility to a worldwide audience quicker and more effectively than a supraluminal tachyon ( a hypothetical particle that never travels below the sped of light … I told you I worked for a tech company)
    Part Skill – Part Science – Part …
    Writing for the new PR world is part skill, part science and part art.
    The Art Part
    The “art” part is putting the pieces above together so they’re interesting, appealing, compelling … easy-to read, and easy to understand in ….
    1. Short sentences.
    2. Short first paragraphs.
    3. Vigorous English.
    4. Positive, not negative tones.
    Simple isn’t it? And that was just the press release – we ready to move on to the social media news release???????
    Once again,
    Thanks for the post.
    Steve Kayser
    Blog: http://writngriffs.blogspot.com
    Ezine: http://www.cincom.com/ea
    PS – Below is a link to the Star Copy Style Sheet that Hemmingway referenced.

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