How to Turbocharge Your Writing for Public Relations

How to write press releases and make other media contacts that get noticed


How To Turbocharge Your Writing For Public Relations

Robert Wynne

Robert Wynne Contributor

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I’m a public relations professional based in Manhattan Beach, California. I’ve consulted for large firms, startups and leading universities. I write about public relations and marketing with targeted advice on how to contact reporters, how to make your story attractive to the media, how to produce events and how to work with PR firms to increase your profile. I can be reached at Contact Robert Wynne

The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

How To Turbocharge Your Writing For Public Relations

Public Relations is the persuasion business.

You are trying to convince the media, the public, your employees, your vendors, shareholders, someone, to do something — change their opinion, reinforce their attitudes, write about or film your client, vote for your issue or candidate, or purchase your service or product.  Sometimes this is done in person, sometimes over the phone.  But the majority of communications are done via words, whether in email, Twitter or online media.  It all starts on the page or screen. With words.

Forget taking a cute photo of yourself at the coffee shop wearing a trendy fedora holding your product and making a silly face and posting it on Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr or Facebook — hoping it goes viral, making you famous and landing your client on the front page of all the tech blogs before you finish your pumpkin spice almond latte.  This never happens.

Unless you personally know the important media and can pitch them in person, how you write, and how well you deliver your message, can be the key factor for success,.  You must understand your story and know how to deliver that message in as few words as possible.  If you can write press releases, pitch letters and editorials well, and you possess the barest of people skills, you will never go hungry. Let’s assume most of us know the basics, so we can focus on turbocharging and fine tuning our efforts.

PRESS RELEASES. These are official documents to announce something, usually to the media, and meant to be posted or read somewhere in the public record. The top reasons are announcing a new product or service, a new location or management, promoting an event, releasing a study or white paper, introducing changes to your business, promoting a court victory, bragging about winning an award, etc.  An old saying claims press releases save time for you and the reporter.

Polski: Newsroom Gazety Lubuskiej (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most press releases are drier than bone.  Sometime by necessity, such as when public companies have to report earnings or management changes, sometimes by people who don’t know how to write well, or many times, because a committee makes “improvements” and with each draft, more juice is sucked out of the orange until only the rind is left. Let’s assume we all know the basics – Headline, Sub-Headline, For Immediate Release, Date, Location, Inverted Pyramid (most important information first) and the basics of storytelling.  The most important section – by far — is the Headline.  It frames your story and often it’s the subject of your email.  If it’s not interesting, you don’t need to worry about what follows.  It will be deleted and ignored.

Imagine you represent an author.  She’s speaking at a public school.  Riveting?  Not yet.

Draft 1. – Local author speaks in front of Elementary School.

Draft 2. – Local environmental author speaks at Elementary School.

Draft 3. – Local environmental author speaks at Elementary School on Earth Day …. And teaches kids how to reduce plastic use by 30%.

Keep searching for better and more inventive and specific “hooks.”  Some other good headlines found on the web:

“News Report Ranks Top U.S. Cities for Bedbug Infestations”

“Cooking with Quinoa – Delicious and Healthy Recipes for All the Family to Enjoy Now on Amazon Kindle”

“World’s Strongest Beers – Houston Bar Reserve 101 BrewDog Tasting March 29”

“New Evidence Links BP to the Controversial Elimination of Protected Wild Mustangs from Federally Mandated Land in Several Western U.S. States”

More good tips can be found here where they advise imagining your headline as a tweet.  “Keep in mind — these headlines don’t only appear in Google News. Headlines are tweeted, shared on Facebook, posted on news sites, (and) added to bookmarking sites. They have to pique interest and tell a story all by themselves. They have to tell people what they’re going to get out of reading the release. If you want your headline to go viral, you’ve got to write something that people will be motivated to share. People that use social media live to share. They WANT things to share. Sharing great information helps THEM to be viewed as a helpful resource. But if you want them to share it, you need to give them a headline to share that packs some interest.”

NOTE:  avoid “echo headlines” where the headline says the exact same thing as your first sentence.

When I moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s, I wrote for Newsweek magazine for a year.  The first week on the job the bureau chief, Stryker McGuire, said he looked for three things:  detail, detail, detail.  Find your specifics and make them newsworthy.  Dig deep.  Do your homework.  More good advice on sharpening your narrative from Eric Brantner suggests avoiding jargon such as “ubiquitous mindshare” and “frictionless technologies,” stop selling too hard and “ditch the sales speak,” and being subtle with keywords when trying to increase your SEO effectiveness.  Using quotes from your expert source or, even better, a prestigious third party, almost always helps your release, but as a rule, no more than one paragraph from your source, and one or two sentences from the outside expert.  Unless it’s a highly complex technical research paper, quotes should be used sparingly so you don’t interrupt the flow.

PITCH LETTERS. When you need to reach a particular reporter at a specific publication, write a pitch letter.  Where press releases go wide, pitch letters are targeted.  Pitches are more specific and informal.

The three most critical questions you MUST know before crafting a pitch letter

  1. What’s the story?
  2. Why is this important?
  3. Why now?

Don’t answer “because we are opening a new hamburger stand and my boss told me to get us on the front page of the local newspaper.”  That’s your goal, not the reporter’s.  Some of the “don’ts” of pitch writing were covered in a previous column specifically on pitch letters.

Put yourselves in the journalist’s seat.  Instead of saying “please write about us, I need to keep my job!” offer some new and interesting information that makes the reporter look good.  Former Forbes Editor Brett Nelson, who writes a fantastic blog on this site notes “solving someone’s problem” is the #1 tip for pitches.  Good articles inform and entertain. The best also solve readers’ problems—typically by way of tangible examples showing how, say, a company navigated a partnership with a larger firm, or finagled creative financing in a tight credit market, or turbocharged its growth by building a strong management team.”

Nelson’s second note advises nailing down the news peg.  “A news peg without an engaging tale or business lesson is a press release. If that’s all you have or bothered to come up with, don’t bother calling.”

A good subject Line is crucial.  Here are two examples where subject lines in pitches led to major stories.  When pitching a story for a former higher education client, our task was to promote a sustainability project in India.  A PhD student worked with a major chemical company to introduce soybeans to the local diet.  Seems dry.  But where do you grow soybeans in the slums of India?  On the roofs.  Which led to the pitch that attracted the reporter which resulted in this story in the Wall Street Journal, “In India, How Do Rooftop Gardens Grow?”

For a law firm client, we pitched a young real estate attorney for a major “rising stars” list.  These honors are extremely competitive, so the challenge is to make your client shine.  In a sea of emails how did we sparkle?  We emphasized not just the list of deals, but the total amount.  So the headline, “Billion Dollar Dealmaker” turned into a successful pitch, a good story and the cover of the magazine, which also called our client, “The Billion Dollar Dealmaker.”

A current pitch on a computer program developed by a university professor using artificial intelligence to promote math and science skills for middle school students has only generated one response out of 100 so far.  The problem? Too complicated.  Is it a tech story, higher education, K-12, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or a hybrid?  The reporter who responded, but has not yet scheduled interviews, hails from the hometown paper. Which leads to a bonus tip for pitches:  when in doubt, go LOCAL.  The mission of a local newspaper, TV station or website is to give their audience local news they can’t find in national publications.

EDITORIALS.  Whether you call them Opinion-Editorials, content marketing or something else, columns written by you or your clients are excellent vehicles to establish credibility and raise visibility.

As the New York Times states, “The name ‘Op-Ed’ is derived from ‘opposite the editorial page.’ The Op-Ed pages feature opinion pieces written by outside contributors and The Times’s own team of columnists … Editorials are written by individual New York Times editorial board members in consultation with their colleagues and editors and reflect the opinions of the diverse, 16-member Times editorial board.”  In other words, the Op-Ed includes the opinion of someone outside the publication.

An Op-Ed is much more prestigious than a letter to the editor, which comes in response to something already written.  Whenever possible you want the Op-Ed to set the agenda and be proactive rather answering the Op-Ed with a letter to the editor, which is reactive.  The National Recreational Park Association (of all places) produced a great summary on how to write an Op-Ed that advises writers to “strengthen your message by citing national trends that show support for your issue,” “localize the story,” and “highlight the success of congressional support for the issue.”

Some of the writing advice was covered in a previous column  that advises writers not to view Op-Eds as advertisements.  This is not the place to trumpet your product as a solution, it’s a more subtle form of publicity.  Here are tips from seasoned media professionals on writing editorials.

Be Sharp. “Before making a point, you have to have a point,” says David Whitley, a national sports columnist. “A good way to find one is to write the headline before writing the column. Even if you don’t have to write your own headlines, do it in your head. This will sharpen the focus on what you want readers to take away.”

Be Opinionated. Hence the “Op” half of Op-Ed. “I want an opinion, not a ‘how-to’ or an ‘explainer, says Charles Crumpley, the editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal. “A lot of times I get product or service pitches that are packaged as an Op-Ed. Lawyers send stories about a new law and they ask you to call them at the end of the article. For the most part, those get rejected.”

Be Controversial. Adrienne Selko, who manages the editorial content for, invites provocative prose–so long as the assertions are well argued. “Headlines pull readers in,” says Selko. “I welcome submissions that are somewhat controversial.”

Be Helpful. Grousing without resolution (or at least a general road map) won’t get you very far, either. “Readers like action steps about what can be done, says Selko. “Offer a solution of some kind.”

If these solutions don’t work, and you have the time, I highly recommend these free audio files found on iTunes, “Writing for Public Relations” by Sam Dyer, an associate professor who teaches public relations writing at Missouri State University.

I’ve never met Mr. Dyer, but after listening to his well-organized lessons, I’d like to buy him a pumpkin spiced latte.


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