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.