The Elements of Press Release Style

A guide to concise obfuscation for public relations professionals
by Gary Klien, from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
September-October 2011
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1. Omit needless words.Vigorous writing is precise. A press release should contain no unnecessary words, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

BAD 

“The company regrets its role in this major environmental catastrophe, and we are fully committed to making the community whole.”

BETTER 

“This environmental catastrophe is regrettable.”

 

2. Avoid the use of qualifiers. 

“Rather,” “very,” “little,” “pretty”— these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of press releases.

BAD 

“The chief executive officer’s quite reasonable salary and benefits package reflects the rather challenging economic climate, and the highly competitive market for top-flight management talent, under which the compensation committee was forced to operate.”

BETTER 

“The chief executive officer is undercompensated for the market.”

 

3. Place yourself in the background. 

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the substance of the press release, rather than to the mood and temper of management.

BAD 

“This wrongful death lawsuit is nothing more than a publicity stunt by bloodsucking extortionist trial attorneys for the benefit of their shiftless enablers in the news media.”

BETTER 

“While our thoughts and prayers are with Timmy’s family at this difficult time, their claim is baseless and without merit.”

 

4. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. 

BAD 

“Aggressive outsourcing resulted in a 90 percent reduction in operating expenses, but after-tax profits still fell 37 percent year-over-year.”

BETTER 

“While profit fell short of expectations, our proactive restructuring initiative nearly doubled productivity.”

 

5. Do not overwrite. Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating. It is always a good idea to reread your writing later and ruthlessly delete the excess.

BAD 

“The leadership is confident that its careful and prudent approach to the issue will increase prosperity for more American families in the long term.”

BETTER 

“We gutted the job-killing entitlement.”

 

6. Do not overstate. When you overstate, the press will constantly be on guard, and everything that preceded your overstatement as well as every-thing that follows it will be suspect in their minds.

BAD 

“The local news and commentary site receives an estimated 2 million page views per minute, making our $400 million investment a veritable bargain for our stakeholders.”

BETTER 

“The blog deal is a stock play.”

 

7. Revise and rewrite. Revising is part of writing. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your press release ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.

BAD 

“Our internal investigation has pinpointed the blast origin to a defective part slated for replacement in 1975.”

BETTER 

“We are investigating the possibility of sabotage by eco-terrorists.”

 

8. Avoid fancy words. Do not be tempted by a 20-dollar word when there is a 10-center handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one’s ear must be one’s guide.

BAD 

“We are carefully monitoring the FDA’s response to widespread Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes contamination in our products, and are deeply troubled by reports of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhaging.”

BETTER 

“We stand by our line of organic, free-trade products.”

 

9. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity. Do not use initials for the names of organizations or movements unless you are certain the initials will be readily understood.

BAD 

“We are postponing our IPO in light of the SEC and CFTC investigations.”

BETTER 

“We are proud to be a privately held concern.”

 

10. Do not affect a breezy manner. 

The volume of press statements is enormous these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it. The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric person who imagines that everything that comes to his mind creates high spirits and carries the day.

BAD 

“Mission accomplished.”

BETTER 

“We are confident the humanitarian intervention was constitutionally sound, and deeply regret the civilian casualties resulting from our inadvertent annihilation of the farming village.”

 

Reprinted from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a daily humor website operated by the San Francisco publishers of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, WholphinDVDmagazine, The Believer, and many books. www.mcsweeneys.net 

cover-167-thumbHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.


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