Rob Swystun, Pristine Advisers
This post is about being a better PR writer. I just like alliteration so that’s why the title is slightly off.
A lot of people in PR consider themselves to be good writers. But being a good writer means different things. A masterful story teller might be able to create vivid universes inside top-selling novels, but they may not be the best person to ask to write a software manual or to write a press release that’ll capture the attention of media outlets.
Back on March 18, PRNews held a one-day boot camp for emerging PR practitioners starring Lynne Farber, assistant professor at Florida International University, and John Forrest Ales, director of global brand public relations at Hilton Worldwide, who talked about ten ways to think like a journalist within your organization or for your client to better spot news that would be good for sharing. Here are their tips.
Discover stories: News outlets and people in general are bombarded with a lot of stuff vying for their attention nowadays so in order for something to garner any sort of attention, it’s gotta be a bit unusual or be seen from an unusual angle.
“Sometimes things that are usual to you are extremely unusual to others on the outside world,” Ales said during the bootcamp. “A simple new piece of equipment can be a big news item and provide some story angles.”
This is true. While a new piece of equipment may not catch the attention of general news outlets, it could be of interest to the people within your company or be of interest to trade magazines that cover your industry.
The most interesting stories are found with people, however. Yes, I’m interested in why one of the guys in your mail room is building a life-sized castle out of Lego. That is highly unusual, and therefore highly readable. That’s an extreme example, of course, but the point is companies are made up of people and it’s the people who hold the truly unique stories.
You can also use gimmicks, as demonstrated by Ales, as he explained how Hilton came up with its “12 Drinks of Christmas” campaign to help generate some buzz during the normally slow holiday season. Hilton sent out a press release and got to social mediaing (no, that’s not a typo, I’m coining that as the world’s most awkward verb) about it with videos showing how to mix the drinks. The promotion was a hit and Hilton got itself some viral social media attention for no cost.
“That’s a result of being in touch cross-departmentally and putting writing and media behind an internal news story to make it compelling,” Ales said. (And it’s a result of having a great gimmick. He just forgot to add that part.)
Make business data compelling: People who find business data in its natural form to be a fun read are a bit like sasquatches in that they don’t exist. Almost no numbers based stories are ever good. They are dry, mundane pieces that … zzz. Oh, sorry. I dozed off there for a sec. Even writing about writing about business data is boring.
So you’ve gotta make it interesting to read. How do you do that? Well, going back up to the previous point, we see that it’s people who make stories interesting. So your company’s revenues went up by X% last year? Great news! But interesting news? Uh, no. If you can find some of those new customers, though, and ask them why they chose your brand, that might lead you to some interesting stories to share.
How you gonna find these customers and their stories? You could just get them to come to you. Have a write-in contest. Tell us in X words how ______ has changed your life. Boom. Done. #yourewelcome.
Milk those milestones: We all have milestones. Once per year I like to kick back and celebrate the day I was founded (some people call it a birthday) and maybe your organization does, too. PR should be able to get behind any kind of milestone for your organization. Of course, today that means celebrating how many followers you have on Facebook or Twitter but those things count and should be celebrated.
When Hilton got to one million followers on Facebook, the hotel chain took the opportunity to launch an internal communication campaign about social media best practices. The company also released press releases about it that allegedly garnered interest from various media sources. (Must’ve been a slow news day.)
Listen to customers and employees at all levels: Farber said at the PR boot camp that “you need to be in touch with the CEO, but also the one in the trenches getting the info up to the CEO.” This is sound advice.
And a hotel chain is the perfect example to use to illustrate it. The CEO of the Hilton chain or whatever other chain you wanna use likely isn’t going to be speaking to customers on a daily basis (or, more likely, at all) but there are hundreds or thousands of people who do just that as part of their jobs. These people know the customers and likely have some really good stories to share.
Know when something is not a story: Repeatedly sending out press releases for things that are unimportant or uncompelling is going to earn you the reputation of a “wolf cryer” (not an actual thing people say) and will have people rolling their eyes at your efforts. So try to be a little discerning.
Go multimedia: Anything that will give people information that they don’t have to read is welcomed. Don’t load up your copy with stats. Put those boring ol’ numbers into a graphic. Don’t load your copy with cheesy emotion and fake urgency. Produce a cool video instead. Don’t load up your copy with canned testimonials. Put some photos in instead.
SEO: Writing for SEO is much more nuanced than it used to be, back when it was just a matter of placing keywords in a keyword filled document as much as you could possibly fit those keywords into that keyword filled keyword document.
Google has cracked down on things like keyword stuffing so it’s better to concentrate on having high quality content that people actually want to read.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep keywords in mind. But it’s more about using them with a bit of tact now and placing them strategically.
Farber offers the following advice; “Improve writing quality by removing content that is duplicate or not relevant, and watch your Google ranking and reposition/modify words as needed. Use strong and relevant keywords in headlines and leads and consider visually what accompanies your words—a wall of text is a death march for a reader.”
That last bit after the dash is important. Use paragraph breaks even where you wouldn’t normally use them if you have to but don’t present people with a huge block of text. And don’t forget subheadings and lists. They will help break up your text, too.
Write for social media: “Consider the informal nature of social channels,” Ales offered for social media writing. ”Grab their attention and keep it—remember brevity, be relevant, consistent and use first person.”
Brevity is probably the most important thing to remember out of all that. A 500 word post shouldn’t find a home on Facebook. Just put it in your organization’s blog and link to it from the Facebook page.
Some places, specifically Twitter, have their own unique ways of communicating. If you know how to use ‘@’ and ‘#’ on Twitter and a url shortener, you should be okay. (Although, on that note, there is way too many tweets that are just simply; “Hey, click this link.” on Twitter. Companies are really bad for this.)
The place for jargon: While you can probably get away with a lot of industry jargon with internal communications, external communications should be as jargon free as you can make them.
Personally, I find that acronyms are the most relied-on and frustrating jargon. Find a stone and carve this into it and put it by your desk; “When I use an acronym, I will always write out what it stands for in the first reference to it.” You will save a lot of people a lot of frustration.
Revise, review, edit: You might use Associated Press style rules or you might have your own internal style rulebook (that’s the thing that will tell you if you are supposed to use “percent” or “%”) and you should learn it and follow it to keep things consistent.
And don’t fall too much in love with your writing because when it comes to PR, the more clever it is, the more likely that it should be cut.
Now go check how many Facebook followers you have. It might be time for a press release.