Say it ain’t so

Reporters don’t like news release quotes

Say it ain't so

What’s that you say? If it doesn’t sound conversational and substantive, don’t expect journalists to pick it up. Image by Isaiah Rustad

“Most quotes in news releases sound like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons: ‘Wah wah wah wah.’”
— A frustrated PR pro

What’s the least important element in a release — less important even than the dateline or the boilerplate?

Quotes, say one in four reporters surveyed in a 2014 study by Greentarget. According to Greentarget’s research:

  • 13% of journalists never use quotes from releases.
  • 31% rarely use quotes from releases.
  • 28% use quotes from releases only when they’re on deadline and can’t get an interview.
  • 28% use quotes from releases regularly.

What’s their beef?

  • 50% complain that the language doesn’t sound natural.
  • 34% say the quotes aren’t substantive enough.
  • Only 9% have no complaints about the quotes.

“Please don’t make me wade through a bunch of boilerplate, taglines and patting-ourselves-on-the-back quotes to find out if the news release is relevant,” begs one journalist surveyed by Greentarget.

Another writes: “I dislike press releases that have ‘spin.’ I just want the facts. Not a sales pitch, not canned quotes about how fantastic the person/company/event is.”

‘Don’t sound natural’

These aren’t unreasonable complaints, considering the wah wah that passes for quotes in releases these days.

Here are three quotes from releases posted on PRNewswire recently. (I could show only one in my PR Tactics column, because these suckers weigh in at more than 100 words each — 20% of my word count. Think about that for a minute.)

“My partner Rick Sullivan and I are thrilled to announce the addition of MSDP to our portfolio,” said Tom Callahan, Managing Director at Lincolnshire. “Under the leadership of a talented management team, MSDP has developed into a world-class performance automotive business managing great brands and boasting key strengths in both ignition and electronic tuning technologies. MSDP provides the ideal partner for Holley, a Lincolnshire portfolio company that is the leading manufacturer and marketer of performance fuel and exhaust systems. Together, these two iconic franchises, Holley and MSDP, will serve future generations of brand conscious street performance enthusiasts, hot rodders and racers with innovative new products and category-leading lines of refreshed, rejuvenated and improved versions of existing products.”

Z Capital Partners Announces Sale of MSDP Group to Lincolnshire Management

“We are pleased to begin collaborating with NESI, a comprehensive solar developer, and believe that together our companies will drive the adoption of BIPV and agricultural solar applications in China,” commented Mr. Gang Wang, Vice President of Sales of Yingli Green Energy. “Our new partnership with NESI exemplifies Yingli’s strategic effort to expand relationships with China’s leading private enterprises, which has resulted in 350 MW of supply agreements with cash before delivery in 2015. With demand expected to grow in China through the second half of 2015, Yingli is focused on expanding our domestic footprint by strengthening our customer relationships and continuing to supply our high-quality products to this key market.”

Yingli Supplies 130 MW of Solar Panels for Projects in China

“Operating results were in line with our expectations for the seasonally small quarter. We were pleased with the solid growth in our trade business, both in the U.S. and internationally, confirming the expanding market for quality children’s books,” said Richard Robinson, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. “As we begin the new school year, educators and families are still adapting to higher standards and more challenging tests, and are more focused than ever on independent reading as a critical tool to help young people develop higher level thinking skills that lead to success. The need for more books that kids want to read is a key growth driver for all of our businesses, including our Education segment which delivered first quarter gains in classroom books and summer reading book packs. With its closely aligned core businesses, Scholastic is in a unique position to offer customizable, comprehensive literacy solutions, including books for independent reading delivered through clubs and fairs, classroom magazines and instructional reading and writing programs, along with consulting and services for Professional Learning and Family and Community Engagement and Learning Supports, in tailored offerings to meet the specific needs of its customers.”

Scholastic Reports First Quarter Fiscal 2016 Results

Wah wah, indeed.

Transform the wah wah.

How do you get the wah wah out of your release quotes? Make quotes:

1. Short. While PR quotes measure in the triple digits, journalists use much shorter quotes. In fact, the average length of a quote in a recent issue of The New York Times, not including attribution, was between 19 and 20 words, according to a 2015 Wylie Communications analysis. The most common length: seven words.

So “peel the quote back to one great sentence,” counsels Jacqui Banaszynski, a chaired editing professor at the University of Missouri.

How about:

“Hot rodders, racers and other street performance enthusiasts will now be able to do something better [we can’t figure out what from the release], thanks to our merger,” Callahan says.

2. Rare. Don’t use quotes to convey basic information:

“The program curriculums are currently being designed and prepared to launch first class this fall with all classes online in 2016,” stated Pierre Voltaire, the Educational Program Coordinator Consultant.

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Instead, paraphrase.

3. Personable. Clearly, no human ever uttered the words, “MSDP provides the ideal partner for Holley, a Lincolnshire portfolio company that is the leading manufacturer and marketer of performance fuel and exhaust systems.” Just as no human has ever sought “customizable, comprehensive literacy solutions.”

Write quotes that sound human, not like a computer spit them out. Here’s one to model, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Daily News about the declining health of 9/11 rescue workers:

“I’m begging for someone to help me,” Valenti said. “I do not want to die.”

4. Creative. Quotes should sound like more than just the most basic parts of human speech. Make your executive seem eloquent — even interesting. Here’s a New York Times quote by former New York mayor Ed Koch on political consultant David Garth:

“I said, ‘Listen David,’” Mr. Koch recalled, “‘You want me to kill my mother? Tell me what time and where?’”

Now, that’s a quote that reporters won’t shoot down.

  • Write Killer Bites

    Turn lame-ass quotes into scintillating sound bites

    Half of reporters complain that quotes in releases don’t sound natural, according to a 2014 Greentarget survey. Maybe that’s why 78% of them don’t regularly use quotes from releases.

    Write Killer Bites: Turn lame-ass quotes into scintillating sound bites

    No wonder! As one of my clients says, “Quotes in news releases sound like the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon: ‘Wah wah wah wah.’”

    Transform your quotations from bleh to brilliant.

    At NOT Your Father's News Release — our two-day hands-on PR-writing master class on Sept. 6-7 in Atlanta — you’ll learn how to transform your quotations from bleh to brilliant. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Write tight bites. Even a lame quote will sound better when you use our quote length targets.
    • Put a quota on quotes. Steal a trick from The New York Times to avoid overquoting.
    • Write quotes that sound human — not like a computer spit them out.
    • Avoid the worst PR clichés. PR Newswire sees 1,284 of these in a single month.
    • Steal techniques from Silver Anvil winners. Make your sound bites sound better.

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