PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Effective PR writing focuses on the audience, not the words
© 2014 Michael Turney Return to
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People are not persuaded by what we say
but rather by what they understand.

-- Insight from a Chinese restaurant fortune cookie --

Clear, crisp, and vivid writing is imperative for anyone who hopes to succeed in public relations. Year after year, and survey after survey, those who hire entry and mid-level public relations professionals cite "strong writing skills" as one of the most important traits they seek in potential hires since all public relations practitioners are expected to consistently produce punchy, powerful prose that resonates with their target audiences and achieves desired results.

However, they don't have to produce great literature. In fact, some of the best public relations writing has few, if any, literary qualities. It may not even be grammatically correct. Nor stylish. Nor sophisticated. It may not even be entertaining. And, it certainly need not be self-expressive.

Success in public relations writing depends on goal-seeking, not wordsmithing.

Public relations writing is not done for its own sake, or for the gratification of the writer, or as an art form. Public relations writing is purposeful writing intended to trigger a desired reaction in a specific target audience so the relationship between that target audience and the person or organization that initiated the public relations effort is enhanced. From a public relations perspective, anything else is wasted effort. Regardless of how beautiful a piece of writing is, or how many literary awards it wins, it is NOT successful public relations unless it positively affects the client's relationship with the target audiences.

This is not to suggest that great literature cannot serve a public relations purpose. It can and has done so.

To a lesser extent than novels, some notable speeches have also been acknowledged as great literature as well as effective public relations. John Kennedy's inaugural address and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech most readily come to mind, but are many others. Some, decades or centuries in the past; others more recently. Even Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" is sometimes placed in this category.

But, public relations writing doesn't need to be great literature to be effective. Nor does it need to be long or detailed. Some of the best examples of public relations writing -- the most effective in moving people to action, or the most memorable -- are mere slogans.

What's critical in writing for public relations purposes is to reach your target audiences and resonate with them. Literary quality may be nice to have, but it certainly isn't essential. And, brevity or length is a secondary consideration. So is complexity or simplicity. And, sentence structure and syntax. It may not even matter if you use faulty grammar, or slang, or vulgarity. Sometimes, you can even get away with being politically incorrect as long as your target audiences receive, understand, and respond to your message in the ways your client wanted. And, yes, there is often only a very fine line, or sometimes an actual overlap, between effective public relations writing and effective advertising copy writing.

With that in mind, consider the fortune cookie observation quoted on the top of this article.
      "People are not persuaded by what we say but rather by what they understand."

If you're not attuned to your audience, it won't matter how much time you spend crafting and polishing what you write.

But, if you know about and understand your audience and focus your writing so it resonates with that audience's values, beliefs, interests, and aspirations, you're on your way to successful public relations writing. When you can connect with audience members on an emotional level, they'll often overlook, or forgive, your less-than-literary-quality writing efforts.

The point to remember in situations where you have only a limited amount of time available to complete a public relations writing project is to put enough time/energy into thoroughly understanding the target audience before you start putting anything in writing, even if that means you might end up with a less-polished final product. Although it may be of lower literary quality, it may well be more effective.

Public relations is not about writing press releases or writing speeches ... or any of dozens of other message construction tasks. Public relations is about helping people solve problems.

Robert Dillenschneider    
PRSA Annual Conference (Cincinnati; 1989)    

Table of contents Additional reading on
Preparation and Education for Public Relations
How-to tips:
Writing for public relations
Practicing Public Relations
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6 Jan 2014