4 ways PR pros can write copy that journalists love

If you’re looking to entice a reporter and grab media coverage for your organization or client, consider these secrets from the product manager of The AP Stylebook.

PR is more than media relations, but gaining press coverage comprises a large part of many communicators’ daily responsibilities.

Seeking a media relations win for your organization or client? Colleen Newvine, a marketing consultant and AP Stylebook’s product manager, shared several writing and pitching secrets that you can use to secure headlines.

Consider these insights:

1. Put journalists first.

Many PR pros write press releases and pitches that focus on the organization, product or announcement they want covered. Instead, try thinking of the reporter and his or her needs.

Newvine says she remembers listening to a colleague expertly pitch journalists on the phone:

… [I]t was so obvious he understood the needs of the reporters he called. He knew what they covered and that he was offering them information that would help them do their jobs. He was their ally.

To test whether your pitch has teeth, Newvine suggests PR pros envision meeting a journalist at an event:

If you went to a party and ran into a reporter you’re going to pitch, would you tell him or her about this story? And would you expect the response to be, “Thanks, that’s interesting!” or “Can you excuse me while I run to the bar?”

Newvine says that sometimes an organization’s politics or a client or executive request can force you to write a press release “you know is boring and completely unlikely to get picked up,” but building relationships with reporters who cover your industry can help in the long run. Get to know them and what types of stories they seek, and then suggest that route the next time you’re faced with writing up a new-hire announcement or press release for a client acquisition or anniversary.

The relationships you build can give you valuable insight to strengthen your arguments and take a certain story direction, too.

Newvine says PR pros can help executives and clients let go of non-newsworthy ideas by positioning your expert advice as the way you’ll deliver exactly what they want: media coverage.

“I had a boss years ago whose advice was, ‘Don’t say no—say yes to a different question,'” Newvine says.

2. Use AP style—and cut the jargon.

For reporters, AP style is the standard—but it should be for PR pros, as well.

“AP style is the common language of reporters, so if you write in AP style, you’re speaking journalists’ language,” Newvine says. “You’re also making it easier for a reporter to cut and paste from your release without having to rework it.”

Use AP style in your press releases and pitches and stay current on AP style rules and changes. Employing it can boost your media relations’ success by making your copy more understandable for reporters.

Newvine says:

Many of us who went to journalism school can’t help but see typos and AP style errors as we read. They just jump out and grab our attention. So when you don’t use AP style, you risk having little speed bumps as the reporter thinks, “that should be p.m., not PM.” It’s a distraction from the idea you’re trying to convey.

Along with using AP style, drop the jargon and corporate speak.

“Would you speak French in Japan?” Newvine asks. “No? Then why would you speak your corporate secret code instead of the language your readers use?”

Here’s why Newvine says PR pros should write simply:

If the goal of your copy is to convey an idea, you want to make it as clear as possible and remove all the barriers to comprehension. Every five-dollar word or acronym or cliché that slows the reader down distracts from your idea.

If you’re having problems distilling complex information and finding alternatives to a jargon-laden statement your executive hands you, practice explaining the concept(s) to a layman.

Newvine is the former information officer for the University of Michigan News Service, and during her time there, she asked world-class medical researchers to envision talking to “Aunt Edna” over Thanksgiving dinner and explaining their work in words that she could easily understand.

“Picturing explaining a complex idea to someone completely outside their fields seemed to help,” Newvine says. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing for your sources or writing for your boss, so imagining a reader, a specific reader, and asking if he or she would get it can help.”

3. Take advantage of news and trends in a timely fashion.

Reaching out to reporters to offer reports or quotes that support current events, trends and upcoming holidays can be a great way to gain media coverage—but PR pros should be timely and not try too hard to draw a parallel.

“Think about the expertise and information you have that will make a reporter’s job easier,” Newvine says.

Newvine recommends offering journalists items that can help enhance their stories, such as interviews with experts within your organization, images, statistics and videos. No matter what you offer, do it with enough time for the reporter to take advantage of it. Newvine says reporters prepare holiday and event coverage far in advance, so offering extras the day of the holiday—or worse, “the day after you saw the story”—won’t win you any favors.

Don’t try to make a connection between your organization and a holiday or current trend when there’s not an obvious tie, either.

Newvine says:

Forcing an association that isn’t there, like a cocktail roundup for Passover, or aligning your light-hearted product pitch to a serious, somber event might not only fail to get coverage but could lead to #PRFail mocking on social media.

Many social media users have criticized brand managers tweeting marketing messages under unrelated hashtags and trends, and overreaching for a connection can also bring bigger backlash—such as Dodge endured after its Super Bowl commercial featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice.

“Don’t hitch your cart to the wrong horse,” Newvine says.

4. Practice makes perfect.

Even as a veteran writer, Newvine says she still writes “convoluted sentences that confuse people.” The more you can practice proper writing—including correct grammar, punctuation and story structure—the less you’ll have moments where you want to cringe reading your copy.

Communicators who evaluate their own copy as well as others’ stand to gain insights that can help them hone their writing skills, too.

“… [I]t really helps to read good writing and think about what’s so compelling about it,” Newvine says. “Is it the idea itself, the way it’s structured or the way it’s phrased?”

Along with practice, PR pros should take feedback from editors and compare pre-edited versions to the final copy to glean additional insights. Doing so can help you write lean, compelling copy.

“It’s … a gift to work with an editor you trust,” Newvine says.

You can glean more insights from Colleen Newvine as well as other communications experts from Associated Press, AMC Theaters, Condé Nast, NPR, AAA and more at Ragan’s PR & Media Conference on April 3-5 at KPMG in New York, New York. Can’t physically attend? Sign up to virtually attend the event.

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