Learning the rules of PR writing

This is an article by Nick Rennie.
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Nick Rennie

Nick Rennie

Writing stories as a PR professional should be a doddle for an experienced journalist like me.

Or so I thought, as I prepared for a short internship in the communications office at Cambridge University.

Having completed three weeks promoting and publicising the goings on at this 800-year-old centre of educational excellence I have a very different idea of what goes into the perfect press release and corporate web story.

While many of the traditional journalistic ideals hold true – news releases have to be accurate, free from libel or defamation and basically tell us something new and interesting – there are some key differences:

The angle of the story
I wrote a web piece at Cambridge about a professor who was given a science and technology award by a women’s lifestyle publication called Glamour Magazine.

It was a straight report about the woman being honoured with background about her academic achievements and the work of her university department. In short, it was a promotional piece highlighting the impressive research at Cambridge.

Now had I been writing for, say, the Cambridge Evening News, I might have angled the story more on the absurdity of this highly intellectual professor being given an award by a magazine which is mainly concerned with Cheryl Cole’s fashion sense and the latest scandal involving a Hollywood starlet.

The professor also told me she was unhappy the magazine had not directly contacted her because she would have liked to have used the award to help inspire more young women to study science at higher education level.  Another great angle for a newspaper.

The journalist is supposed to be neutral. Whatever political, environmental or cultural views and opinions they might harbour they must not be introduced into stories. They have a professional duty to write or broadcast the most interesting story.

King's College, Cambridge

King's College, Cambridge

Because PR professionals are concerned with portraying a company or organisation in the best possible light they can never be neutral. There are obviously ethical considerations in terms of behaving legally and honestly but the basic aim is to protect and enhance reputation.

While I worked at Cambridge there was enormous media interest in unusual plans by the university to raise money for capital projects with a bond issue.

Dealings with journalists were limited to a straight press release containing basic details and quotes from the director of finance. Newspapers and broadcasters were all looking for a different angle – to re-frame the story. In the end most outlets cited the current financial climate as the reason for considering a bond issue when in the past the university might have taken out a bank loan. The limiting of information from the communication office clearly helped frame the story the way Cambridge wanted.

Editorial control
A free press is essential in any democracy. And newspapers thrive on retaining editorial control. Occasionally a company or organisation which advertises in a newspaper might object to a news story which portrays it in a negative light.  They may threaten to withdraw their adverts. But editors will always stand their ground and insist on retaining control of content.

Journalists will only be concerned that their story is accurate, that it does not offend the sensitivity of readers and that is not legally suspect.

In contrast, the communications officer has only limited editorial control. He or she must satisfy a number of other people before uploading it to the company website.

At Cambridge I wrote a piece about the Arts Society at the all-female Newnham College holding a special night to mark the 80th anniversary of a visit by acclaimed novelist Virginia Woolf.

I had to run my story past representatives of the Arts Society, who were keen to raise seemingly unnewsworthy items higher up the story and who insisted I use capital letters for job titles and nouns. I was essentially writing for them, however, so I had to forget the journalistic principles I used to live my life by in favour of following their wishes.

Balanced argument
All trainee newspaper reporters have it drummed into them that they must represent both sides of an argument.
If an old lady has tripped over a loose paving stone and injured herself, you must include quotes from the council as well as the unfortunate pensioner.

It is all part of appearing neutral – someone with no bias who can be trusted to report the news as it happens.

In public relations you cannot be neutral. As a result website stories and press releases will be distinctly one-sided.
When 30 employees are made redundant by a factory the corporate release will state that the company is being streamlined, as though those losing their jobs were surplus to requirements.

Newspapers, of course, will focus on the fact that the business is struggling and the human cost of those people who are now unemployed.

My web stories and press releases for Cambridge University were all skewed in favour of the university’s interests. As they should have been. The institution has a strong brand throughout the world and the PR professionals I worked with are doing an important job to ensure it stays that way.

This article has been re-published with permission from Nick Rennie’s blog: http://isallpublicitygoodpublicity.blogspot.com/

Photograph of Cambridge by Extra Medium (via Flickr)


  1. Thanks for your experience sharing!! I felt pity because I had no chance to do writing on press release in my internship.

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