Basic Writing Tips for PR Pros

My friend Megan Parker of Finn Partners (also an ex-coworker at a PR firm) got in touch with me over email to ask for some PR writing tips. I haven’t had a lot of time to blog lately, so I figured I’d repurpose the content (which she’ll be presenting to her office) here on the old blog.

3 Cardinal Sins of Press Releases

  • Writing without the audience in mind. There must be a rhyme and reason to the release. Too often, press releases list information without forming a cohesive narrative. When you know exactly who you’re appealing to, it’s much easier to present information in order of relevance and tie it together into a narrative.
  • Big words and buzzwords. These can kill your release quickly. Taking a long time to make your point (or making it difficult for the reader to discover the point) is the best way to publish releases that fail. Cut the buzzwords. Use small, clear words. Make your point quickly and use the rest of the release to back that point up.
  • Your release is too long. Seriously, have you ever read a press release past the fourth paragraph? How often do you get past the third? I bet a lot of you don’t make it past the headline in most cases. Stop padding your releases because you think they’re too short. Write only what’s important to your audience and cut everything else.

3 Press Release Musts

  • Always lead with announcement and benefits in the first two paragraphs. This is the timeliness/relevance factor. You’ll only get eyes on the rest of the release if you can answer the questions “Why now?” and “Why should I care?” for the reader ASAP.
  • Bullet crucial points. A lot of readers will scan your release. Splitting important content into bite-sized chunks makes it more likely that scanners will actually retain something.
  • Simplify your boilerplate. Seriously, it’s the 21st century. Your goal should be to point the reader to your (or your client’s) website. If they’re really interested in the announcement or organization, that’s where they’ll go. Otherwise, you’re just cluttering the page with more words, muddying the announcement and increasing the chances you’ll lose the reader before they actually perform the desired action.

3 Cardinal Sins of Contributed Content

  • Longer is not always better. If an editor asks for 800-1,200 words, don’t fret if you just pass that 800 barrier. What’s more important is to have practical, useful content that isn’t padded with fluff.
  • Don’t sell your product, service or brand, ever. Seven times out of 10, the author will ask for edits or ignore you. The other 3/10 times, readers who came for informative content will see through your content and stop reading. Contributed content is only useful if you get the reader through to the end. Then, he may be interested in checking out the author’s organization, product or service.
  • Burying the point. What should reader expect to learn by reading your article? Out with it already! If you aren’t clear with your intentions in the beginning, you’ll lose your reader. A “big reveal” in business writing or journalism only happens in the first few paragraphs.

3 Contributed Content Musts

  • Know your audience to a T. Who does the publication target? Ask the editor if she has a reader persona. Speak directly to them in your post, as though you’re having a conversation. It’ll ease the writing process.
  • Get good at interviewing. If you’re ghostwriting for a client, you need to infuse their perspective. You’ll also be much happier if you have all the information you need right in front of you.
  • In most cases, work with a writer. Effective article writing, especially for well-established publisher sites, takes years of practice to get even a little good at.

3 Cardinal Sins of Pitching

  • Mass pitches. Just don’t do ‘em, even if you’re making it clear that you’re blasting out to an email list. This kills the exclusivity factor and often includes writers who shouldn’t be getting the email.
  • Too informal or formal. Keep in mind you don’t know this person. But also remember that writers are wary of formal pitches because they sound canned. A writer would much rather work with a PR rep who knows the product/organization/industry well. Too many formalities can convey the opposite.
  • Too long. Establish a connection, make your point and make it pop. You shouldn’t need anything else in your pitch. The quicker you make a strong connection with the reader, the better the chance he’ll follow up for more info.

3 Pitching Musts

  • A clear understanding of the writer’s coverage and a clear indicator that you’ve read at least one of her articles. Drop that info early in your pitch to stroke the writer’s ego and establish relevance.
  • A catchy headline. The writer/editor will make a split-second decision whether to open your email based on the headline. Experiment with subject lines and see what kind of stuff gets you the most traction. And for christ’s sake, use email campaign management software that actually tracks open rates!
  • Bold your most important point. Know what will get the reader’s eye? Simplify skimming and make it pop.

Any Questions?

Having PR writing pains? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

6 Techniques for Better Press Releases

Over the past half a decade, there’s been a lot of scrutiny over press releases. Turns out many of the articles going over the wire weren’t saying much of anything at all.

Think about it: how many press releases do you see that call the company “cutting-edge” and the product “innovative”? Meanwhile, the quote starts off with, “We’re really excited…” The boilerplate offers a bunch of useless details or, worse yet, is three paragraphs long, detailing the numerous accolades of the company.

For instance: “We’re so hipster that we typed this press release on an honest-to-god typewriter.”

Keep in mind that press releases were initially intended for members of the press. Unless you’re a major player in the tech space, don’t expect many journalists to find your release and run with a story. No, nowadays, you need to consider your potential customers and clients your target audience. Your press releases are now available online and serve a drastically different purpose than they used to.

Those same five or so years have brought a reanimation of press release writing. They’ve brought about a return to simplicity. Many writers now understand that the shorter you can get in and get out while saying what needs to be said, the better. (The real problem is convincing an older client who thinks he/she knows press releases.)

Press release writing really isn’t an art. Just follow some of the tips below and you’ll immediately start improving your releases.

1. Lead with benefits, differentiators and the timeliness factor. There are three simple rules of thumb for your nut graph (and the following paragraph). I tend to follow this pretty closely for most of the releases I pen. In the opening paragraph, lead with the newsworthy (timely) element of the story. But make sure to weave in the benefits to the audience in that paragraph, even if it’s just a high-level overview. (Why should the reader care? They want to know immediately.) Finally, what makes this news different from what other organizations are doing in your space?

2. Use bulletpoints. A lot. People are busy and don’t like reading something that looks intimidating during the work day. Every chance you have, use bulletpoints to summarize crucial main points. It breaks up the narrative of the release nicely. But more importantly, it attracts the lazy reader. The ‘lazy’ reader may not always be lazy, but when several tasks are attracting her attention at once, she’ll only look if you give her the facts upfront and highlight the most important information.

3. Stay away unprovable claims. Listen, you make think your company is the best at what they do. Still, if you have no quantifiable proof of that claim, why are you labeling your brand the “leading” one of its kind? It sounds pompous. People will see right through it. Journalists will delete your release. Give us the facts only. And don’t tell us your window cleaning solution is ‘unparalleled’ in the field. That’s just silly, and it’s sensationalized. People are much more conditioned to pick that stuff out than you think.

4. Quotes should actually say something. Alright. When you describe your excitement, thank your new partner or tell the audience that something is ‘interesting’, just what in the hell do you expect to accomplish? Of course you love your new partner. That’s why you partnered with them. Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence. Tell us something useful about the announcement — something perhaps that resonates better coming directly from a human.

5. Keep your boilerplate simple. Businesspeople like to talk about their business. Hey, that’s great! You love your work and you feel a sense of kinship with your brand. The problem is that no one loves your business as much as you do. When you write a boilerplate about your company, you don’t have to put every important fact about your organization down. Keep it short and sweet, just the facts, and direct the reader to your website. There they can read up on your brand if they so choose.

6. Tie in keywords. It’s SEO time. You have control of your destiny here. Work in SEO keywords and phrases to get more bang for your buck. Link your most important keyword to your website. But make sure to follow search optimization best practices. You don’t want to get blacklisted for keyword stuffing.

5 Weapons to Destroy Buzzwords

I promise you that this innovative, thought-provoking post will create a new level of synergy in your cutting-edge copy.

Alright, so this post is obligatory. But as a man driven to help your business communicate more authentically, I have decided it is a must.

Buzzwords have no place in a writer’s toolbox. Unfortunately, good writers tend to read a lot. As a result, these painful bastards might slip into your diction. It’s the price you’ll pay for competitive research or general goofing off on the internet.

Join me next week for my thoughts on bad puns.

Digital marketing demigod David Meerman Scott helped start the war against buzzwords back in 2007. (Here’s the updated 2009 version.) For the most part, Scott aims his sights at PR folks. And we all know how much I love PR folks. But PR reps aren’t the only ones guilty of using buzzwords. It could happen to you. A good offense is the best defense.

Check out my 5 weapons to destroy buzzwords.

1. If you have no proof, nuke that sucker. We’re often tempted to make outlandish claims about our companies or products. Where’s the harm in calling ourselves leading, cutting-edge, the best, the largest or premiere? In 9 out of 10 cases, you’re either lying or including no proof of your claim. You think you can get away with it by making the claim as generic as possible. I’m telling you right now: it slows down and sinks your point. Avoid these types of words.

2. If it isn’t specific and descriptive, get out the dynamite. Your company and product may be generic. Is that how you want to present it to people? And it’s catastrophic to write generically-worded copy if your product is outstanding. Forget words like unique, customer-centric, dynamic, flexible and revolutionary.  You should even erase award-winning from your vocab. If the award is relevant to the copy, you have better options, like…

3. If you’re telling instead of showing, let the cannons rip. This tip isn’t unique to business writing. Lively writing across any medium requires you to show, rather than tell. Words that tell are usually hollow, shallow and meaningless. Many of the words we’ve discussed so far fit the bill here. If you’re the best or the only, you better be prepared to back those assertions up by showing readers why they’re true.

4. If it’s cliche, give it a swift kick in the balls. FYI — don’t drink the kool-aid if you don’t have the bandwidth to accomodate low-hanging fruit coming down the pipeline. You have an email address, right? You probably hear these kinds of cliches daily. Please, for the love of all that is holy, do not replicate them.

5. If it says nothing, get medieval on its ass. Perhaps this assertion is a culmination of the rest. Still, it’s worth saying: putting words on the page doesn’t mean you’re saying anything. Business is all about communication. Make sure you get your point across. Avoid words that say nothing.

Copywriting Is Dead

Have you ever assembled a piece of furniture? Reading the directions is like taking a blow to the head from a drunken frat boy.

Reminds me of the old days of marketing. No one talked like a human. Companies loved the sound of their own voices. Business is catching up with the world of social media, and it turns out people would rather hear from real human beings.

Copywriting is dead — at least in the traditional sense of the practice. What I hope this blog will impart on its readership is that you can all finally drop the act. Throw formality out the window and start speaking to your target audience in a voice they can relate to. And don’t be afraid to end a sentence or two with a preposition.

You’re asking, “Who the hell is this guy?” I’m just a man, like any other. I’m also a freelance writer. I’ve ghostwritten a business book, created web copy for entire websites and dabbled in writing mediums you’ve never even heard of.

I write good, and I’m here to help you write gooder. So let’s get this thing started.