Student news releases offer more fluff than a marshmallow factory: This week’s teachable moment

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.

11 Responses to Student news releases offer more fluff than a marshmallow factory: This week’s teachable moment

  1. Tim Massie says:

    Just found your blog. It’s as if using the same syllabus. Thanks for this piece. I’ll use it on Monday as a follow-up to the Wednesday discussion I had with my group. You’re right on the mark.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tim. I spend the first 5 weeks of the semester focusing on the tools of media relations. Then we move into media relations strategies, applying the tools to story pitch packages (4 in all). We wrap up with a project on Pitch Engine, giving students expose to the social-media news release, which gets them thinking about how our releases must now serve more than just media. Still trying to get a handle on Twitter as an MR tool.

      Don’t be a stranger. I’m working to create more content that applies to PR students and young professionals. Suggestions welcome.

  2. John Herbkersman says:

    I’ve seen this for years, whenever I ask an intern or new graduate to write his/her first press release. Knowing how to write a persuasive story in a coherent manner is critical. While our use of press releases may have decreased over the years, they are still a relevant tool in helping us accomplish our objectives.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      John: Thanks for the comment.

      We had this discussion among our PR faculty just last week. Our students take two fairly intensive journalism writing/reporting classes before they hit the PR “skills” courses. So they know the basic format, AP Style, etc. What they lack, at least at the outset, is ability to write from an organizational perspective. We’ll be working on that for 11 more weeks!

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: Writing about fluffy quotes that make our news releases trash-worthy. This week’s teachable moment.

  4. Dave Armon says:

    My rule of thumb, both as a reporter and then as a PR pro: Unless a quote adds perspective that cannot be accomplished with a paraphrase, leave it out. In Murray’s case, the link to his NY eatery’s site shows this restaurateur uses food to build bridges between cultures and faraway lands. His daily (except Saturday) mission appears to be gastronomical when it’s actually to bring Jews and non-Jews closer together through travel, friendship, community and, of course, food. This guy is a mensch with a penchant for hummus.

    BTW, Murray’s antithesis is an Israeli dude named Ezra, whose Azuri Cafe (W. 51st Street near 10th Avenue) is the grouchiest man you’ll ever meet. His falafel is incredibly good, but you may leave angry after watching Ezra berate customers in English, staff in English, and everyone else in Hebrew. He’s an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

    Good post, Bill. (Fix the spelling of marshmallow in your headline)

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks, Dave. It’s funny how the most glaring errors — such as that on in the headline — are the ones we often miss. I’ll be sure to hit both of these eateries on my next trip to the city. I love falafel almost as much as I love curmudgeons.

  5. Suggestion Bill: When having your class practice writing press releases, have them write them with SEO in mind. A good side exercise in determining and working in effective search keywords.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Good point, Steve. And we do get to SEO once they’ve learned the basics. You know I have mixed emotions about SEO. I’m all for it, so long as it doesn’t lessen the impact of the story, and that takes a little practice. I’d much rather write for a reader than an algorithm, but if I want more readers…

  6. Rich Becker says:


    Given your post-scripts, I won’t say a word about those items and stick to the topic. Promise.

    Yep. As someone who tends to have ample entertainment and hospitality public relations folks in my classroom every year, fluff is the stuff I tackle the most.

    Generally, I work with students to test themselves, looking for subjective content. Good writers do not have to assert anything if they are skilled enough to provide the right details that help readers draw those same conclusions.

    By the way, infusing some SEO into the release is always a good idea, given how many find their home online. Just keep in mind that SEO continues to come closer to how people read content and less to do with algorithms. But you probably already know that.


  7. Nothing more to add than what those above have said. Other than I really would like a falafel right now…

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