Maybe I’m spoiled. As a young adult I realized I had some native English writing abilities (generally doing quite well in school papers), but I wouldn’t really face the question about journalistic writing competence until I wandered into the newsroom of The Ubyssey student newspaper at the University of British Columbia in 1973.
There, I learned there are certain rules and conventions in news writing style, as patient student editors worked over my tiny “news brief” stories over and over until I got things right. I’d say it took about six to eight months, working perhaps 30 hours a week, to achieve competence — and six years to truly master the profession.
My academic marks collapsed, but I realized that if I could succeed at this, I would have a path to my dream career as a working journalist. The reason: The senior student editors had followed tradition and been hired for summer and part-time jobs at the city’s two daily newspapers.? Although I didn’t know it initially, I had landed a place at one of the best journalism training schools in North America.? But it still wasn’t easy to learn how to do it well.
Six years later, and after my successful experience living through the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war’s conclusion as a journalist, I was ready to hang up my journalism hat and become a public relations/communications person.
Certainly other former journalists make this career transition — there are many more career opportunities in promoting the news than writing it directly. But the important thing (and the relevance to readers seeking publicity for their own businesses) is that only a small portion of people writing news releases as media relations/public communications experts have actually had solid field working experience and training in real-world journalism.
Frankly, the inexperience shows loud and clear in the writing quality of most of the material I receive. I cringe at the sentence structure, the “puffery,” the excessive wordiness, the unattributed superlatives. In other words, far too many PR writers can’t write well, and even if they can string the words together well, they fail to appreciate the news judgement that sets a good story from one that deserves to be ignored.
There are exceptions. One writer represented a union. Instead of news releases, he wrote news articles. He was careful to follow journalistic conventions. He never overplayed his hand even when the story was intrinsically weak. I looked forward to his content and almost always would publish it (properly attributed) without question.
Only recently did I learn that before becoming a PR person he had a senior editorial position with a major construction publication (and we may hire him for a future project requiring intense and reliable journalistic writing.)
I doubt most readers here will want to go through the process to become a truly competent journalist/writer. After all, if you are in the AEC community you are probably more interested in designing and building structures than writing words. So you’ll need to hire/contract with someone to do the job. But as you can see here, it isn’t just a matter of working with a public relations/communications agency, because you want someone who really understands the journalistic mind/values and will write accordingly and most people in the PR field just don’t do it that well.
So what can you do?
- Check the credentials of anyone who purports to be able to write news releases. Ask for samples, and see if they have worked in the field for any length of time as a journalist/writer;
- Consider contracting with someone currently working for a business publication to help you with your news releases. In many cases, publications don’t object to their writers taking on side jobs. (However I doubt you will find a New York Times or Washington Post writer ready to do your press releases.) And because they are still connected to the publishing world, they may help get your news release published.
- Put as much care into the selection process for your writer as you would for any other important assignment. And of course be aware of the risk that if you work with a large agency/organization, the writing will often be subbed to a junior without that requisite journalism experience.
It’s a challenge, I realize. There is a fourth option, if you want to work with us. Buy some advertising (you can reach Chase at 888-627-8717 ext 212 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org), and we’ll guide you along the way (and either turn your turgid news releases into solid prose, or help you write them effectively).
Outside of that self-serving message, however, the point here is simple: Really good writing is hard to find — but if you can make the connections to find the right wordsmiths, you’ll benefit from true, positive, and effective publicity.