When writing news stories, editors advise young reporters to do the following: stick to facts, don’t opine, place important/newest information high, answer the five Ws, have a solid lead and conclusion, spell names correctly, use conversational language, meet deadlines and hit the word count.
It’s a formula for success that reporters of all ages rely on. More than that, however, the tips speak to the professional evolution of storytelling found to be most effective at getting points across, with a 150+year history.
Seems like a simple formula, right?
Then why do so many press releases I read -- and some I am required to write -- fail to meet these standards? What’s changed in the communications industry that allows for the writing and distribution of such abysmal drivel? And why don’t the rules governing quality storytelling apply to many of today’s releases?
PR is NOT the Dark Side of Journalism - But Some Clients Might Work for the Death Star
Whoa. Three questions in one paragraph -- and a possible clichéd Star Wars reference subhead. That, too, may violate a writing essential -- that a story can be about one thing and should avoid clichés like the plague (cliché intended). Coming from a public relations angle, I can tell you that it’s not as simple as pitting agenda-pushing poor-writing PR professionals against reporters.
Too often the challenge lies with our clients and their expectations. Yes, as their communications team, it’s our job to direct conversation, to craft proper messages and distribute that message through the media in a concise, accurate and compelling manner. But like journalists, we too can’t always claim the moral high road. Clients pay our salaries, just as advertisers pay (or used to pay) journalists. Sometimes we just have to do what we’re told. Most times, we just have to “make it work.”
Press Release Dos and Don’ts
Of course, “making copy work” is not like making copy sing -- a nod to the lyrical and rhythmic flow of quality writing. An off pitch release (Not the PR pitch) “creates” news rather than telling something newsworthy. Ask yourself -- if you didn’t work for company X, would you read it? If the answer is ‘no,’ then you’re already in trouble. The solution: clients need to be honest about their announcements. Writing a release about something that may happen in six months is not newsworthy. That’s about as useful as someone planning to be rich by summer.
At most, that’s the kind of company “news” that meets Twitter post standards or a short email blast to client investors. It does not require an 800-word release that causes journalists’ eyeballs to glaze over or public relations professionals to struggle through 17 drafts of a document that has failed to capture the “essence of the company story.” Sometimes what clients say just isn’t that important. Clients need to have the humility and presence of mind to know when to shut up -- or at least respect when their PR staff tells them to.
Press releases also fail because of their language. If you’re writing a release in English, then write in English -- not gibberish. Is some jargon necessary? Yes. But too much and a press release can bury its own newsworthiness.
Print This: PR Professionals and Journalists Play the Same Game on Different Teams
How’s that for a newsworthy press release? But even if we play on different teams -- journalists dig for the news while PR professionals push what they’d like to be considered news -- the rules of the writing game should not change.
Modern journalistic writing evolved from the rigors of changing technology – the telegraph. At a penny a character, brevity was far more important than expressive prose. Combined with the fear of technology failure, reporters were taught to write and report news as if readers only read the headlines and first paragraph. (Sound familiar?)
Today’s hyperactive news cycle and extreme mobile connectivity is the outgrowth of these technological realities. PR professionals, emerging some 50 years after Samuel Morse’s invention, really do know what good writing and storytelling is about.
If only we can teach clients that same lesson, perhaps the PR vs. journalism professional stalemate will be broken –- and great press releases will equal great journalism.