It’s often said that the world’s biggest companies have it unfair. They can afford the best lawyers, so they stay out of trouble. They can afford the best accountants, so they pay the most ‘efficient’ amount of tax. And they can afford the best PR companies and talent for the corporate communications department, so they tell the best stories. Nick Davies’ otherwise excellent 2008 book Flat Earth News is fuelled by this flawed premise. If only life were that simple.
The way a company talks about itself helps to establish how those outside the business think about it. It’s perfectly true that what people think of a company is also increasingly shaped by commentary from journalists, bloggers, and anyone with a pulse who’s also online. Social media channels and platforms have shifted the balance in how attitudes are generated. Nevertheless, it is in the words that a company’s wordsmiths write that have the chance to set the tone voice and register that they feel best express its spirit.
To mark National Storytelling Week, we’ve just published an analysis of how clearly or otherwise Britain’s biggest companies communicate in their news releases. The news release. If ever there was an opportunity to tell your story your way, on your terms, and in your language, it has to be the news release. No contrary opinions from competitors, no mediated thoughts from journalists, commentators, or analysts. Just pure, unadulterated thoughts and opinions from the heart of the organisation itself.
FTSE 50 fails
Our research allowed us to re-rank the top 50 companies on the FTSE into the second, annual FTSE50 Clarity Index, with companies ordered by linguistic clarity instead of market capitalisation. And what we found, largely, made for grim reading. Britain’s biggest companies routinely publish news releases that are woolly, opaque, and fail to communicate clearly. They’re often too lengthy, with sentences so long that they defy comprehension. And men outnumber women 9:1 as spokespeople. It’s as if #seeher happened and communications departments were looking the other way.
Writing good news releases is fundamentally an exercise in empathy. It’s about putting yourself in the mind of those who will read the news release – journalists, bloggers, anyone outside the organisation. This is true of all (business) writing, but it’s particularly true of news releases. It seems like those in the pay of UK plc’s biggest players could do with some help. So, here are five top tips for writing better news releases.
- Keep it simple. Use short words in pithy sentences that don’t tax working memory. Allow your message to stay in the mind of the reader. Don’t confuse them with abstract, Latinate words.
- Beware the curse of knowledge. When you know a lot about a subject – as corporate communicators and their agencies do – it’s incredibly hard to unknow what you know. Imagine you’re writing for an audience who know nothing about your specialist subject area.
- Obey the cocktail party rule. This states: “If you want to be boring, talk about yourself. But if you want to be interesting, talk about what matters to those who are listening.”
- Know your audience. Understand who you’re trying to influence and write for them, not you.
- Talk human. Adopt that rarest of corporate dialects, human.
Written by Sam Knowles, founder of storytelling consultancy Insight Agents and author of Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data
Download the FTSE50 Clarity Index 2019 report here.
Article wrtitten by Sam Knowles, founder of Insight agents
If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe for free to our twice weekly event and subscriber alerts.
Currently, every new subscriber will receive three of our favourite reports about the public relations sector.