Public Relations in the Age of the Sound Bite

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Journalists love sound bites. We ask questions explicitly aimed at eliciting snappy, one-sentence comments. We’ve all seen television interviews or press briefings boiled down to a 15-second sound bite. Newspaper and magazine articles tend to have at least one definitive quote you can imagine a speechwriter whispering into a reporter’s ear. Sound bite journalism is bold statements and witty retorts. It’s a symptom of short attention spans and media space defined by the constraints of advertising space. And if you practice public relations, you better understand how to play the sound bite game.

The art of formulating good sound bites is rather simple. The important thing to remember is that your sound bite serves a purpose. You may be commenting on an issue because you are an expert on that issue or you may just have a strong opinion. Your sound bite may be aimed at promoting your own product or service, or perhaps that of a partner. Either way, if you come off like a salesman, your sound bite may not make it into print.

While it’s difficult to tell you what to say, it’s not hard to give you some ideas of what not to say when you’re asked for a quote. You may want to print the following list and tack it up next to your phone or pass it along to your clients and colleagues.

Lies. This one is pretty obvious. Just remember, if you get caught lying by a journalist, you can pretty much expect to be blacklisted. Your press contacts talk to one another and many of them know who has been naughty and who has been nice.

Slanderous or libelous statements. A great way to be slapped with a lawsuit. This is why newspapers have lawyers and journalists call people for comment. You can say anything you want, but if you disparage someone, I have to go tell that person and ask them for a response. So even if your comment doesn’t make it into my article, the person or company you’ve talked about may know about it.

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Biz speak and technical jargon. Rightsize your paradigm-shifting, outside-the-box thinking on your own time. Unless you’re talking to a trade magazine or some kind of technical publication, stay away from any type of biz speak and technical jargon. Take into consideration the subject of the article and the audience, and you can figure out whether technical jargon is appropriate.

Buzzwords. While using the term “metrosexual” may have once made you cool with the kids, you’ll sound like an idiot using it with a reporter. I’ve seen some amazing examples of trying to be trendy by throwing in pop culture references and such. I recently heard a CEO interviewed who made some reference to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and I was left wondering why he didn’t just talk about his company.

Competitors. Don’t mention your competitors by name. Why give them the free publicity?

Cliches. We all give 110 percent. And yes, there is no “I” in the word “team.” This is not a post-game interview in a locker room. Stay away from cliches, hoary adages, and the like.

Dinner table talk. They always say you should never talk about religion or politics. Keep references to these two subjects out of your sound bites.

Honestly. When you use the word “honestly,” it probably means you’re lying. Semantics play a big role in how people interpret information. Word usage is very important in the sound bite game, because it displays an attitude. If you use passive words you’ll sound defensive; if your language is too aggressive, you’ll come off as threatening.

Promising action. Don’t say “you’ll look into something” if you won’t. This is basically lying again, but with a twist. How many times have you read a statement by a public relations firm that says, “We take all complaints seriously and we’ll be looking into this matter.” That’s probably just bull.

Jokes. Why did the public relations consultant cross the road? Who cares.

Don’t advertise. Your sound bite will most likely not be an advertisement for you or your company. Keep your ego in check and keep your inner salesman at bay. You want your quote to be used and it won’t be if you sound like a commercial.

The most important advice I can give you is to avoid being suckered into a quote by a leading question. More often than not, journalists already have an idea of what they want you to say. They ask leading questions because they have a hole to plug in a story.

I’ve been quoted once in the New York Times, probably the most prestigious media outlet in the world. And you know what my quote was? “It’s the end of an era.” Don’t blow your chance at the perfect sound bite like I did.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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