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Using Plain Language in Public Relations

Using plain language to communicate with journalists is not considered bland but effective. Whether your public relations campaign targets community or business publications, it is unlikely that reporters reviewing your press kit will be familiar with specific industry jargon. Providing them with information in plain language is the surest way to get your point across, significantly improving your chances for media coverage.

“Unless it’s a particular trade magazine, press releases full of technical jargon and business acronyms are more likely to be passed over by editors,” says communications consultant Danna Yuhas. “Your purpose is not to impress them with big words but to clarify why your message is important, and has news value.”

Yuhas says plain language keeps messages simple, but not simplistic. It neither talks down to the reader, nor “dumbs down” content. It structures information logically, in familiar terms. Doing so, she says, creates immediate benefits for both the editor and publicist.

“When editors or producers understand your message the first time they read your material, it reduces:

1.) Misquotes and factual misinterpretations.
2.) Telephone discussions to clarify content;
3.) And their revision time (e.g., they will use your material ‘as is’).”

Yuhas continues: “Editors and producers appreciate receiving concise content about your company, and will welcome your story pitches in the future. Making their job easier will ultimately lead to additional media coverage, improving your company’s long-term image and top-of-mind presence.”

Writing press releases in plain language requires planning. Yuhas says the process begins by identifying the purpose of the message (e.g., what do you want to achieve?); the editorial audience; and the media’s audience.

When determining the audience, you should study the following:

1.) What is their general knowledge and/or industry expertise?
2.) What background information do they require?
3.) Why are they reading the publication or tuning into the program? What are their needs and interests?
4.) How will they benefit from reading or hearing your story?

“The message must bring value to the audience to achieve desired results,” she says. “Readers should be able to quickly understand the key messages, and explain content to others.”

When drafting press releases, break down complex concepts into manageable parts. Use short sentences that each communicate one idea. Remove words that do not improve understanding. Keep paragraphs to three or four sentences. This will keep comments in context, avoiding misquotes.

Use definition, help, or side-box resources (‘sidebars’) to complement the main text. These will provide necessary background information, without interrupting your message.

Avoid exclusive language, the kind of extraordinary wording or terminology that only a minority of readers will understand. “Popular phrases like ‘leading edge technology,’ or ‘proactive approaches’ are vague, and open to interpretation,” Yuhas says. “And because they are overused, they fail to differentiate your company.”

Never make assumptions about the reader’s knowledge. “It can differ in social, geographic, and cultural contexts,” Yuhas says. “For example, is a 1-877 telephone number chargeable or toll free? It is necessary to clarify.”

Press releases should not be an alphabet soup of acronyms. Explain each term fully the first time it is used, followed by its abbreviation. For example:

– generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP)
– initial public offering (IPO)

“Even ‘PR’ should be stated as ‘public relations’ the first time it is used,” she says.

Before sending press releases to the media, have others read your material for clarity. “Use their feedback to test the message’s effectiveness and efficiency, and ask them to explain what they have just read. This will determine if your message is clear, and if you have achieved your communication objectives.”

Plain language resources on the web:

Plain Language Association International (PLAIN): http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org

Plain Language International Conference: http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/program2002.htm

Plain Language Action Network (for U.S. government employees): http://www.plainlanguage.gov

Resources on wording and capitalization are available from news-gathering organizations, such as the Associated Press (AP) and the Canadian Press (CP). “The Elements of Style’” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White summarizes the rules and principles of composition, and the use of words and expressions. A web version is viewable at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

This article, written by Adam Bello, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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2 Responses

  1. Chris @ Reviews says:

    Hello,
    What public relations problems may be evident when a community turns down a Bond issue to improve school?
    Really great post, enjoyed reading it. Thanks

  2. PR Fuel says:

    The Bond could have been written in an unfriendly, hard-to-understand manner. It could also have been poor timing as most local and state municipalities are struggling with unprecedented unemployment and a dwindling tax base including plummeting property values.

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