Why PR Pros Are The Most Versatile Writers

As a profession, public relations evokes images of media pitching or crisis management. But according to the 2018 USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations Global Communications Report, writing is the skill most valued by PR recruiters.  That makes sense; persuasion is fueled by artful storytelling, and despite the growth of video, many stories are still told through the written word. Successful PR people tend to be good writers; yet even more impressive than the quality of good PR writing is its versatility. From blog posts to media pitches, we shift gears constantly, adapting to many different kinds of written content.

Less is more

Media pitches and social posts require writers to pack the most punch into the lowest word count. We must convince a reporter that our story is relevant, important, and entertaining enough to publish – often in no more than three sentences. More accurately, we have to convince them in one short sentence: as most PRs know, the email subject line is critical. For more fundamentals on how to pitch the media, see this earlier post.

Bylined articles

One of the most effective engines of executive visibility is the bylined article, which B2B PR experts routinely help craft. When penning a byline, the writer must simultaneously capture the voice of the executive and adhere to journalistic style. It can come down to a compelling, non-promotional point of view in 500-700 words, with both editors and readers in mind. On top of that we must keep SEO and PR messaging in mind while trying to write entertaining prose that dazzles the reader. Bylines are harder than they look; if you want to know the secrets of byline best practices, see this earlier post.

Am I boring you?

There’s an ongoing debate about the role of the press release, which is pronounced dead every few years. It’s not the most creative PR product, but the news release is still essential for announcements – and don’t forget the power of SEO. One of the first documents PR people learn to write, press releases are ideally a single page, written in sound journalistic style (give ‘em the 5 Ws), peppered with an executive quote or two, and ending with a company boilerplate. Clearly they aren’t designed for home runs, but they’re PR’s utility player, useful for building a record of company progress. See this earlier post for more on uses for the modern press release.

The long game

The white paper has its own specific audience and purpose that separates it from other PR content. White papers offer insights in a long format and they’re generally written in a more academic style than a press release or byline. White papers are key collateral in the B2B world, as they can enjoy a long life as educational documents designed to move sales prospects toward buying decisions – while remaining overtly non-self-promotional. PR writers can afford to get further into the weeds in white papers, since they aim for an educated and narrow audience. Although often used to develop sales and marketing leads, white papers can also boost credibility and the perception of expertise or authority for company executives.

Making your case to hoist the trophy

Winning industry awards demands one of the more highly specialized type of PR writing. Most tech industry award competitions like those put on by the Drum, Digiday, and many other trade publications require entrants to compose 500-1000-word essays that persuade judges you have the best product, service, team, or software. PR pros must pivot from journalistic or academic styles, instead writing with a storyteller’s hat, detailing how the product or service solved a customer’s problem – otherwise known as a case study. See this earlier post for tips on winning business awards. PR writers often help write case studies used on the company’s website, and if the customers or accomplishments are high profile enough, can be pitched to reporters as a success story.

A blog-eat-blog world        

PR people can relax the journalistic muscles when writing blog or LinkedIn posts for clients’ owned media channels. While blogs can fulfill lots of different of objectives, some formats allow PR writers to add a little flair, be more opinionated, and even a bit self-promotional. Blog posts can be key thought leadership assets and even help reflect the personality of the executive and the brand. Further, many companies use blogs content to communicate directly with both internal and external stakeholders, requiring more carefully measured tones.
At one point or another, PR pros must write like reporters, professors, salespeople, teenagers (social media), and novelists. When not working on the types of assets above, PR pros are busy writing emails and slack messages – requiring another whole brand of finesse. Do you know a professional that demands more versatile writing chops? For some simple tips on improving your PR writing, see our earlier post.

6 Quick Tips For PR Writers

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.

PR writing may not be what you think

Versatility rules

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.

Don’t believe the hype

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.

Writing for SEO is standard PR practice

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.

Never write for word count

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.

Use research for insights, not content

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.

Storytelling is the engine of PR

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.

What Your Workspace Says About Your PR Personality

Whether you’re at a PR agency or another creative business, you know the stereotypes. Messy desk = creative mind. Neat desk = rule-follower. But it’s not that simple. We surveyed some spaces in our office to discern any patterns in design to see how reflective they are of the owners’ PR work style and attitude. Here are some workspace “archetypes” – created from iPhone photos courtesy of our amazing design intern Gloria – and what they say about the people who work at them.

TechType. Characterized by multiple monitors, the latest smartphone and all the hottest apps, it may appear that this technology PR pro (Chris) “screens” out other forms of communication, relying solely on devices to “speak” to clients and press in an otherwise unadorned office. Not only is that a strategy we discourage, it doesn’t hold true for our resident “techtype,” who is quite the conversationalist and swears by the multiple screens as efficient time-savers (build a list and media monitor at the same time!) rather than ways to avoid contact.

“Personal” space. A blend of family, vacation and work photos represent healthy work-life balance. And balance is key to thriving in the super-stressed, deadline-filled world of PR, where your workspace can be a calm oasis as you wait for a client to approve a crucial release or the last piece of an RFP to be written. Marijane is somewhere between “who works here?” (the empty, impersonal workspace) and “this is your life” cavalcade of baby and wedding and awkward family photos like this.

The fun desk. Can the owner of the desk with the candy and toys be serious about her work? In our office, the answer is yes! The occupant of this area, Lauren, has craftily used Starburst and chocolate to teambuild and bring out the creativity and spirit of others. Immediately outside our conference room, this “fun” desk is a hub for the brain-stalled or meeting-fatigued to get a much needed pick-me-up.

The zen workspace. This crisp, efficient space is also serene and a touch artsy. Yet it telegraphs “ready for business” and “writer in residence” from the helpful table lamp to the prominently placed “Elements of Style.” This desk belongs to a no-nonsense PR writing whiz Michelle, who is diligent about craft with a bit of artistic flair.

“Healthy” sense of organization. From the row of color-coded Post-its to the artfully arranged organizer, this desk assures you that its owner will let no detail be overlooked. In PR, such detail orientation is critical to the implementation of perfect PR programs. The fact that the owner, Eri, is also health-conscious (hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!) only further inspires confidence in her abilities!

8 Simple Ways To Improve Your PR Writing

The public relations profession is surely evolving, but good, persuasive writing remains a core component of good PR on both the agency and corporate side. Since strong writing is a skill to be maintained and improved, a refresher course is always in order. So whether your concern is product PR, tech, crisis management, or public policy, here are eight simple rules to help improve writing for PR.

Read it out loud. Good writing is as much about how it sounds as it is about putting words on a page. If you find yourself struggling to find the right turn of phrase, read it aloud to see how it sounds. It’s guaranteed to clarify what’s working and what’s not. (We can always tell when one of our colleagues is hard at work writing because it sounds like he’s talking to himself; he is not, he is reading aloud).

Trim, cut, and trim again. A common mistake novice writers make is verbosity; young or inexperienced writers falsely equate more words with better writing. More often, the opposite is true. A more concise sentence holds the reader’s attention because there are fewer things to distract from the main idea.

Incorporate a good quote. This one is particularly apt for public relations and journalism. A good quote will grab a journalist’s ear as much as a juicy steak will distract a hungry carnivore. Learn to listen aggressively to the way people speak. Develop a knack for hearing the quote that “sings,” and then (if you’re a PR professional) discover how to create those types of quotes yourself. It’s part intuitive, part practice, and partly a fun approach to listening.

Use varying rhythms. This is a simple trick to refining writing and making it more dynamic. If you find yourself crafting a string of long sentences full of parenthetical phrases, break one up to alter the rhythm. See what a change of pace does to the flow. Oftentimes, it’ll help you hit your key points harder.

Replace complicated words with simple ones. Relying on obtuse words is another rookie mistake. The best writing is writing that’s clear. Be confident enough with your content to say things simply and clearly, rather than resort to flowery language.

Use concrete details. Clear writing is also concrete and specific, rather than vague. Was the audience “large” or was it “standing-room-only in a 150-seat theater?” Is the new product “wildly popular” or did it “sell out of its first run of 1 million in the first two weeks?” For PR purposes, concrete numbers are definitely more likely to earn coverage than vague descriptive terms.

Show, don’t tell. We hear journalists say this all the time. “Don’t tell me your new product is innovative, groundbreaking technology. Tell me exactly what the product does, why it’s different, and how it works.” Substance speaks louder than superlatives (no matter how many exclamation points you use!)

Reread, always. Until they invent an algorithm that can churn out beautiful, intelligent prose (God help us!), writing is still done by humans, and humans are flawed. Always reread and edit before finalizing a piece, or have someone else do a final read.

7 Writing Mistakes That Make PR Look Bad

We’ve all experienced that sinking feeling: you’ve just hit send on an important PR or program document, only to realize it had a glaring — and completely avoidable — error in it. Honest mistakes are bound to happen, but some writing slipups are too common, and they simply create bad PR for PR people! We’ve flagged a few here.

1. Misused apostrophes

Using “it’s” (contraction for “it is”) instead of  “its” (the possessive) is basic, yet it happens all the time. Keep an eye on apostrophes of all kinds to avoid an inexcusable grammar mistake, as in: “they’re” and “their,” “who’s and whose,” “you’re” and “your.”

2. To Comprise

Since “comprise” means “to consist of,” it’s never OK to say “comprised of.” Yet the word is so commonly misused — and by prominent people in communications who should know better — that I fear the incorrect usage will slowly make its way into the permanent English lexicon.

3. Overused keywords

One for the digital age, keyword stuffing can be a fatal flaw for PR writing that lives on the web. And since most original content — i.e. blog posts, product descriptions and narratives, tweets, and captions — is published online, this is a mistake to be avoided, lest the search engines ignore your content completely.

4. Empty, complicated-sounding words

In grade school one could be pardoned for using big words in an effort to sound smart, but not so in the grown-up world of communications. Words like “utilize,” “subsequently,” and “implement” (instead of “use,” “later,” or “put in place,” respectively) border on jargon and can cloud the conversation. Choosing words that are more clear and concise will make you sound smarter every time, because people will actually understand what you’re saying.

5. The run-on sentence

Ever start writing a sentence so full of parenthetical phrases it’s hard to tell which verb relates to which noun? That’s a good sign the sentence is too long. Again, resist the urge to try sounding smart with complicated sentence structures and opt for conveying your message clearly.

6. Over punctuating

We are not referring to the serial comma here (for the grammar nerds out there), but rather simply dropping commas and other punctuation into language when it’s not necessary. Here the old grammar school rule does usually apply: when it doubt, leave it out.

7. Finally, overhyping anything

PR people are notorious for excessive use of exclamation points, screaming headlines, and words like “fastest-growing,” industry-leading,” “dynamic,” and “cutting-edge.” Sometimes it helps to take a page from the fiction writing mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Let’s resolve to reduce the hype in the New Year.