Daney Parker, Editor, PRmoment.com
Many people think they can write, but the truth is, it takes hard work and lots of practice to use words effectively in PR. Below, PRs who know how to string a sentence or two together, offer words of wisdom.
1. Start with the basics
Richard Bailey, editor of PR Place Insights and public relations lecturer: “Good writing isn't easy, nor is it common. In fact, it's becoming less common, a trend that may only be reversed when AI finally takes over from us.
“So what's required? Consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. You first have to master the basics (the 'food and shelter' bit). This involves fiddly details like spelling, grammar and punctuation. You're allowed to break the rules - but you first have to know the rules and justify why you're doing so.”
2. Find the purpose
Richard Bailey: “Next, you have to consider the 'safety needs' in your writing. Why should anyone care about your words? What's in it for them? We care about 'the things [we] could eat, mate with, or be killed by' as Narrative by Numbers author Sam Knowles puts it.
“In other words, being able to write isn't enough. You need to find your purpose for writing. You always need to answer 'why?' Why does this merit a news release? Why would a journalist or editor find it newsworthy? Why should customers open and read our newsletters?
“This search for 'why' forces you to think creatively and to be honest about how the organisation is seen rather than how it would like to be seen.”
3. Think about SEO
Richard Bailey: “The final test of your public relations writing is that the most important reader may not be a human, but rather the bot that indexes your web pages and ranks them for search engines such as Google. You still need to observe the previous stages, but you also have to be prosaic enough to make sure that you've covered the keywords you want to be ranked for. Encouragingly, Google is looking for expertise, authority and trustworthiness (E-A-T), which should be a given for all PR writing.”
4. Train juniors properly
Paul Maher, founder of marketing agency Positive: “In our case, we do have a couple of journalists on the team and we find this super-helpful to coach others, which we do every week in a dedicated session. Writing in PR is about 'miles on the clock' and there is no way around the fact that practice, and hard editing by team members who care about your career progress, makes perfect.
“We spend the time to personally review by several managers all content which 'leaves the building'. It may be a slower process short-term, but for our junior staff it is an invaluable way to go.”
5. Think like a journalist, write like a copywriter
Catherine Allen, head of content at PR agency Tank: “One of the big challenges is getting sales messaging into a story - and this is where it helps to have the mind set of a journalist and the skills of a copywriter. Thinking like a journalist means you can determine the most compelling angle and avoid anything overly promotional or jargon that will either be stripped out, or lead to the press release being rejected outright.
“A good copywriter can subtly weave in sales messaging in a way that drives action - usually by demonstrating the expertise and ethos of the company, rather than referring to specific products. Our PR team and in-house content studio are made up of skilled copywriters, PRs and former journalists, so our copy benefits from sharing these skills across the agency.”
6. Read, read and reread
David Alexander, MD of agency Calacus PR: “PR requires a variety of different writing skills, from minutes and corporate reports to opinion pieces, features and even tweets.
“Whilst there are many skills PR consultants can have that are beyond writing - and there are plenty of people working in PR who are not great writers - the ability to write fast, crisp copy for time-sensitive press releases and statements is invaluable for many PR clients and organisations.
“There are apps such as Grammarly and Hemingway which can certainly help those who struggle to write, but my best advice for those struggling is to read, read and read more and always read your copy out to yourself before sharing to give yourself the opportunity to sense check it.”
7. Trigger an emotional response
Jo Willey, director of Jo Willey Media and media strategist at virtual healthcare agency The Difference Collective: “Writing in PR is a tricky balancing act which must tread the fine line between what a client wants to talk about and what will resonate with the media or other audiences you’re trying to reach and influence. That’s why human storytelling which triggers an emotional response is essential.
“Immersing yourself in the news, looking at how journalists write their stories (and how the angles for the same story differ in rival newspapers), how they use language to create impact and how they use human storytelling is a great way to improve your PR writing skills. Writing to a tight deadline comes with practice, but having all your facts, information and quotes ready and a clear idea of the story you want to convey will all help ease the under-pressure writing process.”
8. Do your background research
Liz Churchman, client services director at agency EC-PR: “Researching your topic thoroughly beforehand is key, as well as establishing a core structure for the article early on. Speaking to the subject matter expert is also a vital piece of the puzzle - they are the experts after all.”
9. Use your people skills
Flick Hudson, senior associate at PR firm M&C Saatchi Talk:: ”The biggest challenge I have found is capturing the range of spokespeople whose voice and opinion you need - from CEO founders of start-ups to chief data officers at huge global businesses, to a longstanding member of a retail store team or cybersecurity expert - and the variety of topics this brings with it.
“Most importantly, I think you need people skills. The key to getting good information out of spokespeople is to quickly build rapport, make them feel at ease, and show interest in them as a person beyond the role they hold. I think this has to come from a natural empathy and curiosity. For me, the opportunity to speak to such a wide range of expert people so regularly is one of the most energising and enjoyable parts of the job. Even more so when you can turn that insight into a powerful blog post, or brilliant profile pitch for media. Of course, sometimes you have the luxury of time, but is there anything more exhilarating for a PR person than writing copy under pressure...? The key here is to keep the brief and audience front of mind - and personally - noise-cancelling headphones!”
10. Get through to content consumers
Ellen Mallernee Barnes, vice president of content at PR agency Red Havas: “The challenge is to write in a way that successfully breaks through to today’s content consumers. They’re distracted and distrustful of the news media. They want to know what’s in it for them and what brands are doing to make the world a better place for all of us. Because they’re heavily filtering content, the first challenge is to write something that earns their attention - perhaps a surprising headline that holds an exciting promise. Then, that piece of content must earn their trust by delivering on that promise and providing them with a personal or collective benefit.”
I hope you have found the above top tips as useful as I have. Even if you have been writing for years, it is always useful to be reminded of the basics and also, how audience needs are evolving.
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