Lose the Hype to Get More Ink

Lately I’ve been paying a lot more attention than usual to the language companies use to describe themselves when trying to attract the attention of customers and the media. That’s because words are my business.

But it’s also because I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by the hype that some PR practitioners think passes for effective communication. The problem has always been there, but it has found new life in a high-tech sector that seems to specialize in hyperbole.

As my frustration with this trend grew, so did my curiosity. So I took a random look at various company web sites and news releases. The upshot: Anyone who writes information about a company should take Journalism 101 and learn to chant the old “who, what, when, where, why” mantra before he or she gets near a PC. It’s no wonder that so many journalists think so little of PR people.

Some examples of what I all too often found:

Buried messages. I don’t know about you, but when I go to a company’s home page, I expect to get an idea pretty quickly of what the company’s products or services are. Instead, I often found language like this: “We use the Internet to help our clients break through the clutter, deliver an experience of real value to their customers, and realize stronger, more profitable relationships.”

Huh?

Is this company an Internet search engine, does it sell tech infrastructure services, or does it build web sites? Or… what? I actually found some language that made sense, but it was way down at the end of the company profile.

Hopping to another site, I found “a revolutionary company at the intersection of new media and entertainment.” Nothing in the text told me what is revolutionary about the company. And again, I had to read the entire profile to find out what the company does.

Convoluted language. One company claims that it is “a leading web site for consumer decision-making.” Boy, that narrows things down. This is in the lead of its news release. A whole seven paragraphs later, there is a boilerplate with specific details about the company’s products and services.

A few other examples of high-blown language that says next to nothing: “a global leader in enabling the emerging age of visual communications,” “a leader in e-commerce solutions,” and “a leading provider of information management solutions.”

Buzzwords. Speaking of the word “solutions,” in the high-tech sector it seems to be one of the most overused words around. (I’ll ignore “leader” and “leading” because this column doesn’t have enough space.) I recently read about a reporter who wouldn’t even look at another announcement by a company claiming that it offered “solutions.” He was sick and tired of the word.

If there are that many solutions out there, you might wonder, why does the world still have so many problems? If a survey were done, I think the word “global” would also rate as one that has been beaten to death.

Gimmicks. Some really goofy news release headlines also turned up on my random tour of company information on the Internet. One writer thought putting an exclamation point at the end of the headline was a good idea.

Take my word for it, journalists hate exclamation points. (When I was director of communications for the Los Angeles Times, I was once chided by an editor for putting an exclamation point in an email.) And if you think that by using one your “news” will be more likely to get attention, you’re wrong.

Another company’s headline claims that it delivers “more, and more, and more…” Well, one “more” might have done the trick — if it had been accompanied by information in the body of the release to support the claim.

The Internet Press Guild recently issued a report called “The Care and Feeding of the Press.” Full of good guidelines for working with the media, it suggests that PR people write as if they’re working for Joe Friday: “Just the facts.”

I also suggest that they write as if they are trying to get the attention of someone thinking the following:

    I don’t know who you are.
    I don’t know your company.
    I don’t know your company’s product.
    I don’t know what your company stands for.
    I don’t know your company’s customers.
    I don’t know your company’s record.
    I don’t know your company’s reputation.
    Now, what was it you wanted to sell me?

A friend found those words about 25 years ago in an article about effective company positioning. Substitute “tell” for “sell,” and you have a valuable lesson for PR practitioners today. If more of them learned that lesson, there would be less hype and more substance in the world.

Hey, they might also find journalists more receptive and get more ink for their clients.

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