I read countless articles in the media. And I’ve been involved in drafting many, many press releases. Funnily enough, the vocabulary and tone used in most press releases rarely matches that used in articles in the publications being targeted. Does this matter?
The word "leverage", for example, features in many press releases. It appears much less frequently (except in its narrower meaning of financial leverage) in media articles. The same is true for countless other words, such as world-class, scalable, solution, facilitate and so on. These are the kind of words that ex-Financial Times legend Lucy Kellaway and countless journalists hate. Conversely, many simple words that feature often in the press (buy, hire, grab, keep, cheap, sell) don't appear often in press releases.
I'm not suggesting that press releases should ever read exactly like media articles. A press release is trying to appeal to a range of journalists to entice each to write it up in their own style and words. Journalists usually want to be accessible and aim to write for a broader audience (as defined by their publication) as much as possible.
Press releases, in contrast, often have multiple audiences and serve multiple objectives. The first is to secure media coverage. The second is to be a public record of what the company said, in the way that the company wanted to say it. Press releases sit on a company website – and often on a newswire like BusinessWire or a London Stock Exchange RNS – with the objective of informing all a company’s audiences, both immediately and over time. There can be financial, legal, regulatory or HR reasons for language used. For public companies, investor communications is king. Many CEOs and their advisors often don’t like to use excessively blunt language, and there can be good reasons for this. Extensive supply chains, complex partnership arrangements, aggressive NGOs, a litigious environment and eagle-eyed clients – there is a multitude of people who will find a reason to be unhappy with a press release from a major organisation. Hence the desire to leave no open flanks and focus on the lowest common denominator.
Companies should understand however that if press releases diverge too jarringly in vocabulary and tone from the language of the target outlets, this makes explaining the story, and thus securing editorial coverage, harder. (It can also result in informal efforts to explain a press release and overcome its inadequacies, undertaken by company spokespeople, or their PR advisors).
A useful distinction should be made between technical or sector-specific vocabulary, on the one hand, and generic management-speak on the other. Most specialist B2B publications will use highly technical and business-sector-specific language without generally feeling the need to explain terminology.
In comparison, journalists remain quite resistant to management-speak and what they see as mealy-mouthed and euphemistic language. Despite the widespread use of terms like “associates” or “partners”, journalists tend to talk about “employees.” Terms like “right-sizing” are widely mocked by many reporters. The language of publications does however evolve, with sectors like tech arguably leading the way in the use of new vocabulary such as “scalable” to describe new business realities.
Could some companies write releases differently in order to secure more coverage? In some cases, yes. Press releases about consumer products, as well as those coming from political campaigns, don’t usually suffer from the language constipation of B2B and financial releases. At their best, consumer and political releases often take the journalist reader more clearly to the punch line and show him or her the potential headline (some indeed include several headlines and pithy quotes to give more ideas to the outlets).
No template exists for how to bring press releases up to the efficient frontier for coverage. Reading similar articles in the outlets you are targeting is never wasted time. Avoid euphemisms and use jargon and management-speak sparingly. Make sure you use strong, fresh verbs, not tired ones – verbs are usually the key. Make sure you provide all the story elements journalists are taught to look for (there are either five or six or nine of these depending where you look!). And use colour, anecdote and proof points effectively.
National differences between journalists about vocabulary and tone remain, based partly and not surprisingly on language. French and Italian are more formal and colourful languages than English. German business journalists are especially dismissive of marketing language rather than facts. British journalists often have a cynicism that is not found in entirely the same way across the Atlantic.
Lastly, the dramatic growth in the importance of owned content is naturally taken into consideration by many firms. I’d argue that there should still a clear distinction between a press release whose primary purpose is to secure media coverage, and owned content which companies can distribute directly and via social media to audiences. It’s true that many press releases are now aggregated and amplified into on a multitude of sites, in a way that didn’t happen 20 years ago. Owned content you control, without the need to get the journalists to write, should in any event be written in the best way you think for that audience. Just remember that many of those business or professional audiences you are targeting with owned content may be as resistant to mealy-mouthed language, euphemisms and management-guff as journalists tend to be.