by Linda Descano, CFA®, executive vice president
Clear, compelling writing is a fundamental PR skill and one I’m particularly passionate about. So I was delighted to be a panelist at a recent PR News writing workshop at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., titled “Common PR Writing Mistakes That Bury Your Message—And How to Fix Them.”
Along with fellow panelist Barbara Delollis, director of media relations for Marriott International, we got to share some of the best PR writing advice we’ve learned over the years.
Here are some of my recommendations:
Plot a story
“Storytelling” is one of the biggest buzzwords in PR, but for good reason: Stories speak to us on a deep emotional level that we seem to be hardwired to understand. So how do you transform tired marketing jargon into something that will truly move people? These are a few places to start:
- Look for the arc. All stories follow a basic structure of setup, struggle and solution. Don’t always jump to the end; instead, put your audience in the picture, and make the struggle seem personal and real. Show a bit of vulnerability if it’s appropriate.
- Look for an “enemy.” Emphasize how the company or product helps to defeat an adversary—sleep apnea, wasted time, bad hair days?
- Look for a quest. Transform the company’s mission into a heroic journey about doing something good for the customers (or, better yet, for the world). Show what your client has learned, how its work solves problems, how its leaders gained new perspective.
- Look for surprises. A plot twist or a shock ending makes your story not only fun but newsworthy.
Nuance your pitches
It takes a lot of homework, and legwork, to find the right targets for your pitches, and to build trusting relationships with media and influencers. So when you’re writing something designed to get their attention, leverage those advantages. Rather than copying the same generic pitch to a dozen editors and reporters, personalize each one thoughtfully. Consider your relationship with that person, as well as their personal interests and past coverage.
I come from a financial services background, and when writing about investments, you have to weave in a ton of caveats and qualifiers. But there’s a totally different (and frankly refreshing) mandate in PR: Get right to the point! Never write overly clever, hyped-up prose that sounds like an ad, and don’t make the opposite mistake of getting bogged down in corporate-speak or passive construction. Say what you need to say, directly and concisely.
Match the tone of the client
Havas PR, like many agencies, has its own unique internal communications style. But that’s not the voice to use when you’re writing on behalf of a client. Take the time to immerse yourself in your clients’ work, and their internal communications, so you can use their voice when you’re writing on their behalf. Mimic each company’s vocabulary, tone and even format; when you send an email to your contact, they should be able to forward it to their colleagues and managers without any revising.
Structure for clarity
Compelling writing is only half the battle; if you want your words to be read, they have to look good, too. And that’s not just a job for a graphic designer.
As a PR writer, structure your prose so it can be quickly scanned—so the most important concepts will leap off the page. That means keeping paragraphs and sentences to a manageable length and supplementing them when appropriate with something to break up the gray: subheadings, bullet lists, sidebars and fact boxes.
Get the mechanics right
This is so basic that it almost goes without saying, but it’s so important that I really can’t close without saying it: Grammar, spelling and punctuation are vital. At Havas PR, we write in programs such as Microsoft Word or Pages to take advantage of their built-in spelling and grammar checks—always remembering that those are no substitute for careful reading and peer review. And we never let a client product, pitch, new-business presentation or even social post out the door without professional copy editing.
Nothing distracts from your message faster than sloppy mistakes; do everything you can to make sure your written materials are flawless, on behalf of your clients and your agency.
Check out PR News’ coverage of the writing workshop here.