If you’re in PR, chances are, you’re a writer. Now more than ever, public relations recruiters prioritize writing skills. Yes, visual content is very important in what we do, and we’ve woken up to the power of podcasts, but don’t underestimate written-word content. According to USC’s 2017 Global Communications Report, written communications is second only to strategic planning in important skills for future growth in public relations. A professional communicator is arguably one of the most versatile writers around. But some just entering our profession may be surprised by what type of writing a typical PR position requires.
On any given day, we can be asked to craft media pitches, bylined articles, PR plans, or blogs posts. Each requires different writing styles, though all feature the elements of persuasion. With media pitches, PR pros must tell or tease a story to a journalist – and fast. Meanwhile, an executive byline for a thought leader must not only be a solid piece of journalism, but it should reflect the voice of the executive. A PR pro must be able to switch gears between various formats, keeping in mind the different audiences and objectives for each.
With persuasion in mind, a PR newbie may come in ready to be a salesman with plenty of hyperbole – “groundbreaking” products and “unique” announcements. It’s more useful to think about persuading and educating rather than selling. Reporters and other audiences have keen BS detectors, and overused, sensational language doesn’t persuade; in fact, it undermines credibility. Leave your “innovative software developed by a true visionary that will revolutionize the world” at home and focus on clear and powerful language. PR writing needs to be high-impact, but not overblown.
Reporters may not appreciate your clever or flowery headline in pitches, so PR writers with chops in the creative area should guard against too-florid content. The purpose of the pitch is to make them want to tell the story – with their own clever language, so a straightforward approach is wise. And when it comes to press releases or other material published or distributed through wire services, natural language is best. Distributed content needs to contain the keywords that will make it searchable, without compromising quality.
While a recent college graduate may be trained to write to reach a certain word count, at a PR agency she will need to condense, shape, and headline. The translation of unwieldy or technical matters to their simplest core remains an essential skill in PR. Even beginners understand that a press release is pure journalistic writing that should hit on the 5Ws — who, what, when, where, why. Yet many fail to apply the same rigor to client communications. It’s a paradox of business writing that shorter documents take more time to create and edit. But even more than journalists, clients deserve the time investment that results in a shorter and more concise recommendation requires. Less really is more.
A recent graduate’s research skills will come in handy on the job in PR, but unlike in academia, research plays a slightly different role in PR writing. We typically use it for insights that inform our messages, not for pouring into a white paper or press release. Demographic or psychographic data about customers based on market research, for example, can help refine story ideas, media targets, and even the wording of content aimed at consumers or business customers. The research supports and drives campaigns, but it doesn’t necessarily populate them.
A grasp of universal storytelling principles is at the core of most successful PR writing. Here is where a creative writing background can be useful — starting with the novelist’s rule of show, don’t tell. While every given memo or press release may not be a story in itself, the content calendar should serve as a roadmap for the client’s overall narrative, connecting the dots and making the case for what it does – solve customer problems, make a task easier, entertain people, or whatever it is.
PR agencies are always looking for good writers. But good writers looking for a career in PR may have to assess their skills and adapt them for journalistic content, business writing, and creative pitches. It can take work, but it’s worth it.