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The Language of Your Utility’s Press Materials

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Editor of a specialty publication, former public relations practitioner, Freelancer

I hold 34 years of experience in communications, mostly in journalism, with a decade in public relations, too.  The first 17 years were spent in print journalism, where I covered, at various...

  • Member since 2016
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  • Jun 9, 2022
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There are days at my editing job where I get upward of 200 press releases. I take at least a cursory look at all of them, but if you’re trying to attract my attention, you need to do a good job of it – and quickly – or you’re going to get deleted.

You may get deleted later anyway, but at least you made the first cut, which means I might consider the pitch for coverage.

Unfortunately, most PR practitioners do a lousy job of this, even professionals from large businesses or operations like a utility.

Although the advent of USA Today led to the trend of increasing brief and informal writing fostered by Twitter and other social media outlets, the ability to properly communicate remains important.

If your utility’s PR people write badly, it reflects badly on everyone involved and greatly reduces the chances that you receive coverage.

It’s fair to say that if whatever you are pitching is important enough, it’s going to get covered – no matter how badly the press release is written.

But a good chunk of the time, coverage is purely a judgment call by an editor. That means editors (who are bombarded with pitches) usually are looking for reasons to disqualify a potential story.

Don’t make it easy for the gatekeeper to eliminate your pitch because you’re explaining it poorly. There are plenty of cranky editors out there (myself included) who let their inner grammar nerd take over and choose a well-written pitch over a poorly written one.

Fear not: You don’t have to be the second coming of Joan Didion or John Steinbeck to write an effective press release.

Begin by religiously using Associated Press (AP) style, the stylebook that most news organizations follow. While there are some quibbles with it, it’s usually practical and follows common sense rules of writing. It’s worth ponying up for an online subscription at apstylebook.com.

When it comes to writing, keep your paragraphs short. A sentence or two is usually all you need per paragraph. Long paragraphs are hard to follow and send the would-be reader’s eye skipping down the page.

You also should vary the length of your sentences. You can improve the overall readability by never letting the reader get into a pattern of brief or long passages. It also improves comprehension. (Notice how this paragraph contains two shorter sentences and one longer one.)

When it comes to most things, less tends to be more. How often have you watched a 2-hour, 15-minute movie that would have worked far better in a brisk 90 minutes? The same principle applies to press releases. Stick with the important stuff and don’t worry about being comprehensive. Reporters will contact you if they have questions.

Remember that a press release is not supposed to be a book. Keep them as short as possible — no more than two pages in most cases. If you can fit it onto a single page, all the better.

Now let’s talk about quotes.

A cardinal sin in many bad releases is several boring, repetitive and self-serving quotes. I know every C-level executive wants to make an appearance in a press release, but resist when you can. Maybe only the CEO and one executive should be quoted. Paraphrase when possible.

Even then, note that any reporter worth his/her salt isn’t likely to use a canned quote and will ask to interview the executive to get something more interesting.

One final note on quotes: Avoid a quote that rehashes what’s said in the prior paragraph. I often see something like this:

XYZ Power and Light reported that 12,000 homes were without power following Sunday’s storms.

“We have about 12,000 homes without power after the storm and are working to get everything up and running,” CEO Joe Jones said.

Let’s consider some other common blunders:

Exclamation points! Known in journalistic jargon as “screamers,” they tend to be annoying and accomplish little! You aren’t in high school anymore! Don’t use them!

Speaking of jargon, avoid using utility-centric terms; the rest of the world won’t know what you’re talking about. Plain English is fine.

In the same vein, avoid using big words when a small one will work. People may understand that “purchase” and “buy” mean the same thing, but always go with the shorter work for readability’s sake.

As for capitalization, a couple of bad trends have commonplace.

Using the aforementioned AP style, titles are only capitalized if they go before a person’s name. So, it’s XYZ Power and Light Senior Vice President Mary Smith or Mary Smith, senior vice president of XYZ Power and Light.

And for the sake of all things holy, don’t fall prey to the Random Capitalization trend. You do NOT add Emphasis to something by Randomly CAPITALIZING it.

The same goes with flowery terms and adjectives. Yes, add some life to your writing, but don’t make it breathless. Journalists see through that.

And don’t put nonquotes in quotes, again as a lame way to add emphasis.

Moral of the story: Remember how your fourth-grade English teacher taught you how to write, and follow those general guidelines.

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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