Wordsmith at work
Posted by Tom Gable
How to cut through the clutter and connect with the media with powerful stories they can actually use? PR University convened a master class webinar recently to answer the question: “What kind of writer are you? Newsroom vets and PR wordsmiths share power secrets of writing like a journalist in six easy steps.”
The steps outlined by Jon Greer, moderator, were fairly straightforward. The PR pros on the panel then added extensive details to each step. Some of the highlights follow below with guidance from Nancy Brenner, senior vice president, director of media relations, MS&L Global Corporate; Jeff Crilley, president, Real News PR; Rory O’Connor, senior vice president and partner, Fleishman-Hillard; and yours truly, CEO, Gable PR.
Step one: be an internal reporter
Think like a journalist. Train your ears and eyes and find ways to rise above the competition.
Become an investigative reporter. In trying to earn our media coverage, we rely on telling a good story with facts. Can we truly differentiate against the competition? In what ways and can we provide ongoing proof of principle over the next two to three years with real stories, facts and details, not vague words.
Rory said the most important thing PR professionals can deliver is great content. How to connect with your ultimate audience, not your clients?
Nancy said to dig deeper and probe for better stories and anecdotes. She said to track trade organizations and associations in your client’s industries to find supporting data. They often have trend stories that the PR pro can build upon. Tom suggested using government, independent research and other outside studies for validation. In some cases, the PR pro can then provide the journalist with additional sources for improving the depth of the
Jeff said to push back on client who is trying to get too much of a commercial message into the release. Go for the good story and you will get the commercial, he said. Go for the overt commercial message first and you probably won’t get a story. He noted that the media are overwhelmed with added online and social media responsibilities so “do the job of the journalist” and help them tell a good story.
Step two: organize your material
Think of each release as part of a series. He were building image for the long-term. You’re thinking also about how people search for topics. Check what news stories and press releases come up as top candidates in the Google news and other searches. Look for what is they are, and what is not there.
What rises to the top? What is important? What is less important? What is unimportant?
Step three: start writing
To get started, Jon said to start with the first thing you think of; don’t delay or try to be perfect.
Tom recommended starting with a great headline. Think about search engine optimization. Tell your story concisely and with strong words. Read the media you are trying to reach. How would they write the headline? Think about your target audiences and what is important to them. Get creative. How are you going to stand out from the crowd?
In addition the perfect headline and work toward it. Stick to three or four major points and paint big pictures. Go for the most important fact first. Think about the benefits to their readers, viewers or listeners. Think about relevancy to the journalist’s audience. Are you offering any new insights? Can you provide examples, facts, metaphors, quotable quotes and good anecdotes to bring your story to life?
Step four: continue adding useful information
What does the reader or viewer need to know? Look for facts and outside validation. Can you enhance their understanding with government or other data? Can you quote outside sources, such as noted critics, pundits and authors?
Step five: review and revise
Applied the “so what, who cares,” test first. This is a good way to read through copy and see what could be eliminated, edited or enhanced. Will anybody care?
Jon said to set the work aside if you can and reread with a fresh eye after doing something else. Is anything missing? Is everything in the right order? Would a typical reader be confused? Nancy said good editors strive to tighten every sentence. The best reference book to guide you on the way: Elements of Style, by Strunk & White.
On quotes, Tom said to read your material out loud. Are you communicating well with each sentence? Is your work rife with empty phrases?
Also, edit for jargon. Tom said some words, such as solutions, seemingly get dropped into news releases unconsciously, somewhat of a verbal tic. Lazy writers sprinkle the releases with jargon rather than striving to develop well-crafted, creative and compelling ideas that capture the personality of the company, its points of differentiation and the defining factors what it is offering.
On complex stories, Rory said to tell the story to friends. Have a dialogue. They will often find the holes.
Step six: work with an editor
Edit for both style and content. Is the story well told? Rory shares his copy with another former journalist at this firm. If you don’t have internal talent, turn to a friend or colleague on the outside. The outside viewpoint can sometimes be very helpful. Nancy said PR pros sometimes get too close to details of a story and produce jargon or “inside baseball” types of copy.
Nancy suggested writing for readers on smart phones, which is where more people are getting their news every day. Plan for a shorter word count, including shorter headlines. Can you edit your headline into a bright subject line?
Tom said an editor from the Wall Street Journal who made his copy significantly better said to never fall in love with your prose. Don’t take editing personally. Think about the final product. Is it really going to communicate with the audience – the ultimate test of good writing.