By Katrina Olson
This article originally appeared 9/21/2015 as an Exclusive Feature on tedmag.com.
Remember your mom saying, “If Billy jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it, too?” Almost every company, organization or small business writes news releases; and many of them are atrocious. Just because you’ve seen others writing a certain way doesn’t make it good, or even acceptable.
Following are some common mistakes that you can readily find in many news releases.
Glittering generalities. Using vague, value-based wording to invoke emotion. For example, “These are confusing times. Everywhere you turn you hear a different story. Someone is making another promise. Who can you believe? Candidate Bob Forthright is the man to trust.” We don’t know specifically what is confusing, what stories are being told, or what promises are being made.
Lack of purpose. Every news release should have a strategy and goal—a purpose. Who are you trying to reach? What do you want to happen after people read it? In a future article, we’ll discuss how to find news when it’s in short supply.
Not written in Associated Press style. Journalists and public relations professionals write in AP style, which provides specific guidelines for punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation and much more. You can buy a (hard copy) AP Stylebook, subscribe online, buy an AP app for your phone and even an interactive s-book. Here’s the link: https://www.apstylebook.com
Poorly written. Even one grammar faux pas, spelling error or typo threatens your credibility; several will destroy it. This also creates more work for the journalist. They’ll remember you next time, and your news release will go right in the trash.
Not including the 5 Ws in the first paragraph or two. The most important questions a journalist and a reader want answered immediate are “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why.” You should also include “how” if applicable. Readers don’t want to have to read the entire story to (eventually) find out what your release is about.
No news value. Is your news timely, unique, significant, important, interesting, relevant, unexpected, mysterious, exotic, threatening, revealing, previously unknown or unsuspected? Does it involve conflict, striving, tension, mystery, failure, success, surprise or marvel? If not, you probably shouldn’t send it.
“We’re proud to announce.” Firstly, no one cares if you are proud, happy, excited or thrilled. Secondly, a news release by definition is an announcement; so writing that you’re “announcing” something is redundant.
Wordiness. Especially in print and in most media, it’s important to be clear and concise. Concise does not mean brief or short—it means not using any more words than necessary. And sometimes, you need more words to be clear.
Not following format. Does it have a headline? Is it written using the “inverted pyramid”? Is it written in third person? Does it follow Associated Press (AP) style writing guidelines? Does it include a boilerplate (company bio)? All of these and more are necessary for a properly formatted news release. (More on that in a future article as well.)
Too much fluff. This isn’t high school or even college literature class. Journalists have highly refined BS meters. They are also excellent writers and editors with a low tolerance for long-winded writing, unrelated information and blatant filler copy. Be concise.
Inaccuracies and untruths. Double-check everything. Use accurate quotes that have been approved by those quoted. Never, ever lie. Facts must be checked or vetted by the experts who provided them.
Unsubstantiated claims. Avoid making claims that aren’t supported with facts, citations or research. “According to experts, most American children are obese.” While this may be true, don’t assume readers will take your word for it. Cite a credible source such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Clichés. Avoid tired, overused phrases like, “The children are our future,” “In this day and age,” “above and beyond,” “when it’s all said and done,” “at the end of the day,” “first and foremost” and so many more.
(Over)using superlatives. Avoid superlatives like dynamic, leader, innovator, best, top, biggest, exclusive, premiere, groundbreaking, state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, most technologically advanced, extremely, outstanding, world-renowned.
A disguised ad. Don’t try to pass off purely promotional information as a news release. Journalists will see right through it and you’ll lose credibility with the media. Avoid promotional or “salesy” writing.
Not including complete contact info. Include an email (or two) and phone number (or two) and make sure that someone can be reached ANY TIME of the day or night. Some journalists work overnight and may have a last-minute question. It’s not unusual to list two or more contact people from your company.
Using non-specific, time-related words. Never use “today,” “yesterday,” and “tomorrow” in a news release. Even though you should have included a dateline, you don’t know when they’ll run the release. And using these words requires journalists to make corrections.
Acting like the media “owe” you. The media are under no obligation to run your news release. Don’t expect coverage, but be happy when you get it. Your mom may have also said, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Never complain to the media for not running your story or news release.
Technical or complex writing. If you have to write about a complex subject, make it simple, digestible and easy to understand for the reader. Assume your reader has an eighth-grade education.
Most people are only interested in information that affects them personally or is genuinely interesting. Of course, we all send news releases to announce employee promotions, new products and special events. Our challenge as marketers and public relations practitioners is to make it interesting.
Olson is a marketing and public relations consultant, and principal of Katrina Olson Strategic Communications. She has written for tED magazine’s print edition since 2005, judged tED magazine’s Best of the Best Competition since 2006, and emceed the Best of the Best Awards ceremony for a total of seven years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at katrinaolson.com.