Writing For Journalism And Writing For PR: How They Differ

Fun fact about me: before getting into PR, I wanted to be a reporter. More specifically, I wanted to be a sportswriter. I was a journalism major, so most of my writing experience in college had a reporting angle. Whether it was through classes, writing for the school newspaper, or my personal blogs, my writing involved reporting facts, interviewing subjects, and taking down their quotes. Once in PR I quickly learned that, while similar in some aspects, writing for PR and writing for journalism is also very different. 

People who enter PR from other backgrounds need to adapt quickly. Here are some ways in which writing for PR differs from being a journalist, how to make it work.

What are you writing about?

For the most part, journalistic writing is straightforward. You report the facts. Often you’ll get quotes to support it, but all you’re doing is giving them straight to the people. In PR, there is room to be more subjective, adopting the client’s voice to promote their brand or products. Often you’ll see press releases that proclaim a company is “proud to announce” something, which is a big no-no in journalism unless it’s in a quote. In fact, in PR, writers will often create quotes that they attribute to client executives (who then approve them, of course.) So someone with a journalism background will need to make that adjustment. One way to do that is to look at press releases and compare them to news articles that follow the releases to get a sense of the difference. 

For example, compare Apple’s official press release announcing an expansion of its self-service repair with coverage of the announcement on The Verge. The Apple announcement is fairly detailed, but the Verge story incorporates questions, speculates about Apple’s motivations, and offers more detail and quotes gained through follow-up work. It’s also largely positive but includes criticisms. The initial press release offers only the basics, while the reporting fleshes out a story with real context, both pro and con .

What kinds of things do you write? And whose voice do you use?

One of the main ways PR writing differs from news journalism is that PR writing is more varied. Our work includes not just press releases, but pitches to journalists, bylines, blogs posts, op-Ed pieces, and more. Journalists use their own voice, and it’s typically a neutral one, though it depends on the outlet. In PR, we adopt the voice of our clients. This especially holds true for bylined articles, when we “assume the role” of a client executive and write a piece that promotes their point of view. in a way that they would. 

Your clients are your editors

With journalism it’s very simple – you write something and send it to editors who may make changes before finalizing it. In PR, your clients – whether internal or external – are your editors. They will make sure any content created represents their brand and that a quote accurately reflects their message. There’s also the matter of what kinds of stories you’re telling. Unless editors are very strict, reporters are usually given a certain amount of freedom when it comes to story angles. In PR we only have that flexibility within certain limits. Our main goal is to represent a client company within brand and messaging guidelines that are created in advance or developed jointly with the organization. We may have what we think is a great idea for an announcement or a media pitch, but if it doesn’t fit with the brand strategy, it’s not a great idea. We can still be inventive within a messaging framework; it just takes extra research, effort and creativity. 

PR writers keep it simple

Certain types of journalists, like feature reporters, may pepper their work with interesting word choices, human-interest examples, or elaborate descriptions that paint a picture and catch the reader’s eye. But in PR we’re more likely to do that in a blog post, a piece of contributed content like an opinion piece, or a video. Journalists prefer that press releases be as straightforward as possible. They don’t need any funky words that could distract from the main point.  So you have to get in, say what you need, then get out.

Writing as a journalist vs. writing to a journalist

Press releases are meant to be the basis for media articles, which makes writing for journalism similar to PR writing in some ways. But one of the most common forms of writing we do in PR is, well, writing TO a journalist. Pitching is a major aspect of the job, and when sending pitches to specific reporters, we adopt a different style. It’s still straightforward, but it boils the story down to its essence – – short, punchy, and to-the-point. And just as journalists hook readers in with a catchy headline, we aim to hook journalists with an eye-grabbing subject line. Keeping in mind that reporters get hundreds of pitches a day, we do everything possible to stand out.

While journalism and PR are linked, and the writing for each may seem similar, there are plenty of nuances that could make a transition more time-consuming than expected. 

Here’s a useful exercise for PR people: go back to the first things you wrote in PR and see if they can be trimmed. Compare then and now. What have you learned that makes a difference? It’s the same reason why letting copy “rest” for a day and reviewing it with fresh eyes will always improve it. A little perspective goes a long way.

Improve Your Public Relations Writing With These Tips

Writing is one of the most important parts of  a successful public relations campaign. To quote Malcolm Gladwell, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.”

People with the skills to write a wide range of content – from bylines and features to blog posts and pitches – are invaluable to their internal teams and business partners. Writing for public relations differs from other types like newspaper, magazine, essay or novel writing. The main purpose is to gain positive exposure, or get a message across to the public.

And no matter how well you write, there’s always room for improvement. Let’s take a look at some tips that can help you become a better public relations writer.

Open with a strong, compelling lead. When writing any type of PR copy, the first step should be coming up with an engaging lead that grabs the reader’s attention. A good lead will set up your copy in a way that doesn’t overwhelm a reader but offers just enough insight to make them want to continue. We strive for brevity, unlike this overly wordy version. So devote some time and attention to your lead and make sure you get it right – it can make or break your piece.

Read your copy aloud. You can spend hours editing and proofreading your copy but still manage to overlook grammar mistakes, run-on sentences and awkward phrases. While many public relations writers often skip this step, reading your copy out loud before submitting to your editor or client is a helpful way to catch any errors that you might have missed. Following this step will help you avoid gaffes like these.

Say more with less. Sometimes, PR bylines and articles come with strict word counts. That’s why writers often feel the need to add unnecessary words to their copy. Instead, try tightening up the copy to give it a clean, natural flow and make it easier to read. Some things to look for include empty phrases and words that don’t add any value to the piece, simpler ways to get your points across, and wordy sentences.

Immerse yourself in written content. The best writers are usually the ones who are obsessed with the written word and love to read. Reading content from other writers is a simple way to help you improve the way you write. Whether you prefer books, magazines, newspapers or any type of online content, any type of reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary and enhance your overall writing skills.

Eliminate passive voice. If you’ve ever submitted copy to an editor, you know that use of the “passive voice”  is one of their biggest pet peeves. Passive voice – “The Phillies were beaten by the Mets” conveys less than active voice – “The Mets beat the Phillies.” It’s good practice to use active voice throughout your copy to make it cleaner and less wordy.

Let your copy breathe. Reading the same thing over and over again can cause you to miss mistakes. Try stepping away from your copy for a few hours, or even a day, and coming back to it with a fresh mindset. This strategy can help you spot any extra words that don’t belong and allow you to trim and tighten up your copy.

Keep writing. The last tip to help better your PR writing is an obvious one, but it’s just as important as the others — practice. From driving a car to learning a sport to perfecting an instrument, the more you do something, the better you’ll be at it. No matter how much advice or feedback you get, repetition is the easiest and most efficient way to improve your copy.

Why Writing Skills Are Still Crucial For PR Pros

How important is writing in public relations today? A PR Week editorial has sparked a fresh discussion about the value of writing skills in today’s PR agency or corporate communications department.  In the op-ed, University of South Carolina’s Shannon Bowen, Ph.D. argues that as PR has evolved into a management discipline, college communications curricula must shift to make room for the teaching of skills like critical thinking and ethics.

Strategy must drive communications tactics, and critical thinking is a vital skill in our business, but I take issue with the thesis that advanced writing skills are no longer crucial for “real-world” PR jobs. PR has surely evolved, but writing skills are more important than ever. Here’s why:

Writing is at the core of persuasion.  The creation of compelling content is a fundamental communications skill, and honest persuasion our goal. If you’ve crafted an op-ed about a business-critical issue or written a keynote speech for a C-level executive, you appreciate the power of the written word to convey ideas, evoke emotion, and build influence. Written and spoken words are still our number-one way for business and government leaders to communicate.

PR is content marketing. Bowen asserts that, “The days of writing news release after news release have given way to the cleverly-worded 140 character snippet.” But social media posts are merely the entry point into a whole new world of content marketing. Today’s PR campaign incorporates a much wider variety of written (and visual) content than in the days of press releases, much of which is longer-form content or brand storytelling. In a given day we may be called to write web copy, a white paper, or a strategy document.

PR ethics must be instilled in the workplace. Bowen makes the case that “PR writing style can be easily taught in the workplace,” but that ethics must be part of a core communications curriculum. But the reverse may be closer to the truth. The very diversity of today’s PR practice and the integration of paid, earned, and owned media means that there is no such thing as “PR writing style.”  Communications ethics, on the other hand, must be institutionalized in the agency and corporate environment, to ensure good practice and train future PR leaders.

Bowen is absolutely right about the high cost of university education and the importance of ethical decision-making for PR and communications pros. But excellence in writing is more than “wordsmithing.” The PR practitioners of the future will be far better prepared to support clients, counsel senior management, or marshall a cogent argument in the face of a reputation threat if they can master not just “PR writing style” but know how to craft and use language for clarity, authority, and impact.