I’ve decided to pick on the students in my “Media Relations and Publicity” class this week. I know they’ll be good sports about it, and I won’t call them out by name.
The problem: I’m unhappy with some of the news releases they’ve been writing this semester. It’s not the writing quality or mechanics that bothers me. The target of my ire is fluff — the fluff that oozes into their work in the form of vacuous, self-serving quotes.
Take last week’s assignment as an example. Students were asked to write a news release to draw local food writers to a story about a restaurant opening. While the story is one I made up for the assignment, it’s based on a real place.
For most assignments in this class, students are free to “craft” quotes they believe will add substance and color to their stories. All quotes are subject to client approval. Unfortunately, too many of those developed by my students read like marketing fluff and happy talk, and all they add to the stories is length.
A few examples:
“I’m excited for Cleveland residents to experience Murray’s Falafels,” Newman said. “It’s a great restaurant that will attract people from all over Northeast Ohio.”
“Cooking is so much fun,” Fishbein said. “Cooking and eating is the best way to spend time with your children and family.”
“I’m excited to bring the taste of the Mediterranean to Cleveland,” said Fishbein. “I enjoy sharing our unique cuisine with new people.”
“I can’t wait to see how the city welcomes the new addition to the community.”
My personal fluffy favorite:
“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to continue the Murray’s brand here in Cleveland.”
I wish I were that “excited” and “thrilled” about writing this post.
Sure, my assignment isn’t perfect. Students can’t interview the mythical Murray Fishbein or Howard Newman. But they do have access to the story of Murray Allon, the man upon whom this assignment is based. His website offers a pretty thorough character sketch and a nifty backstory.
News media love to criticize our news releases, and fluffy, contrived quotes are a primary reason for that criticism. Where do students get the notion these quotes are appropriate? From PR pros, of course. Students seeking guidance turn to the Internet, and what they find are thousands of news releases filled with the same worthless crap.
If you want to produce effective, on-point news releases, don’t read other news releases. Instead, read the stories produced by the journalists or bloggers you’re trying to influence. Mimic their style, not the style you find in online newsrooms. And do some reporting. You need facts to create a compelling story, and you can’t make those up.
Quotes should add substance, not fluff. When a source speaks in a news story, he/she must add information of real value. Quotes should broaden the reader’s understanding; they shouldn’t sound like advertising copy.
I’m not worried about my students. I’ll beat on them ’til they get it. But as a teacher, I can only impart so much knowledge. Until students and consistently read news stories by trained professionals, they won’t learn the writing style that serves this vital public.
If you don’t read good writing, you don’t produce good writing. And the teacher can’t make you do either.
Feel free to review and/or download my notes on “Using Quote Effectively.”
Two post-scripts, since I know what some of you are gonna say:
The news release is dead. I’ll skip that lecture if you don’t mind. This post is about good writing. I just happens that the context is a news-release assignment. I teach news-release writing because it’s a vital tool of PR. A professionally crafted news release serves news media well, provided the PR professional knows how to write it. Most do not.
Bad news releases deserve to die, and I’m doing all I can to ensure their demise. You should, too.
Crafting quotes is wrong. Spare me the lecture on this one, too. PR professionals craft quotes all the time. We also ghost write articles for internal and external publications and we write speeches that others deliver. We’re professional communicators, surrogates for clients who don’t have the time or skill to produce their own messages. So long as quotes present truth and are blessed by those who “speak” them, there’s nothing wrong with the practice.
There is something wrong with bad quotes. That’s how this whole thing got started.