How to write press releases in plain English

Bernard Simon of Kingsdale Shareholder Services offers advice on reader-friendly writing

Which of these two recent press releases are reporters and shareholders more likely to read and understand?

Port Elizabeth, South Africa ‒  January 8, 2013: General Motors is consolidating its sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa operations into a new unit, GM Africa, effective immediately….

Calgary, Alberta ‒ January 8, 2013: BACANORA MINERALS LTD (TSX VENTURE:BCN) (the ‘Company’ or ‘Bacanora’) is pleased to announce the completion and filing of its previously announced Preliminary Economic Assessment (‘PEA’) on the Company's Cajon Borate deposit in Sonora, Mexico….

The difference between the two highlights a sad fact: while corporate executives are fond of insisting that customers come first, that philosophy all too often does not extend to the communications side of the business. Many senior executives and their advisers – including IR and PR professionals and lawyers – prefer to put the emphasis on what they want to say rather than what their target audience wants and needs to hear.

The Q&A section of shareholder circulars is a case in point. The purpose is to give retail shareholders clear, easy-to-understand information about a transaction. Yet the answers (and sometimes even the questions) are often almost unintelligible, except to lawyers and accountants.

Below are some hints for user-friendly IR writing I gave to Kingsdale clients recently:

1. Give the pen to a communications specialist with authority to override changes that obfuscate key messages with legal mumbo-jumbo.

2. The first sentence is key. Keep it short – preferably one verb and no more than 30 words.

3. Use plain, simple words and grammar: ‘use’ instead of ‘utilize’; ‘start’ or ‘begin’ rather than ‘commence’; ‘help’ rather than ‘assist’, ‘decide’ rather than ‘make a decision’, and so on.

4. Avoid so-called ‘defined terms’ like ‘the Company’, ‘the Meeting’. They serve no useful purpose, add complexity and slow the reader down. There is no legal requirement for them.

5. Avoid passive voice whenever possible.

6. Try not to start a press release with ‘announces that…’ or ‘is pleased to announce that….’ Get straight to the point (see General Motors example above).

7. Avoid unnecessary capital letters. As The Economist style guide advises: ‘If in doubt, use lower case unless it looks absurd.’ Words such as board, chairman, chief executive, meeting and circular should normally all be lower case.

8. Avoid meaningless, cliché-filled quotes, such as: ‘We are committed to maximizing shareholder value going forward,’ John Smith, the company’s chief executive, said. The more original and punchy a quote, the more likely it is to be used by media outlets.

9. Consider using bullets to highlight key points. This is especially useful to give readers a quick summary of financial results or a complex deal. Similarly, use bullets in the body of the release as an alternative to a very long sentence.

10. The best way to tell the difference between good and bad writing is to read it aloud. Give it a try using the two examples above.

Bernard Simon is vice president of communications at Kingsdale Shareholder Services in Toronto, and a former Financial Times correspondent in Canada.

2 comments

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  1. CollinsIR
    CollinsIR|

    Bravo Bernard! You nailed it!

    Have you been listening to what we tell our clients?!

    You provide great advice on an issue of huge importance. But the war is won or lost even before the first sentence: in the headline, where your advice is also on point.

    The challenge is to get the reader to "click through" to read news - and in small-cap IR where we play, the audience of those that do NOT know the company is always far larger than those who do. What works for GM, won't work for you.

  2. Phil Conkling|

    Surely, Bernard, you could have found a far better example of plain-English release writing than the GM example you cited, available here:
    http://media.gm.com/media/u...
    No way of knowing what "consolidate" means or whether the consolidated entities survive. Nothing about closing offices or employment effect.
    Why is GM doing this? The pertinent quote is a clear violation of your Hint #8: "it will enable us to take advantage of synergies," and "It will put GM in a strong position to expand..."
    Ugh.

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