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Avoid the “vocabulary blacklist” when communicating with journalists

by | Feb 1, 2016 | Journalism, Media database, Pitching Tips

Asked about their pet peeves concerning PR, some journalists point to specific terms in pitches and press releases that raise red flags or are just plain annoying. For example, if you want to aggravate medical reporters, try sprinkling your emails with “cure,” “breakthrough” or “miracle”—a few of the words declared verboten by veteran media-watcher Gary Schwitzer of Health News Review.

Others complain about indiscriminate use of technical jargon and acronyms, such as this lead from a news release: “SmartBIM is excited to release support for LEED v4 analysis through the ecoScorecard toolset. ecoScorecard is a cloud-based platform that allows users to search, select, evaluate and document product contributions and compliance with leading environmental rating systems. Its latest release, available immediately, now includes LEED v4 within BD+C, ID+C, EB+OM rating systems and their associated credits as well as search and product documentation improvements.” This might have some meaning for folks within a narrow industry segment, but even after scouring the vendor’s website, I have only the vaguest clue—and I’ve been writing about computer technology for more than 30 years.

Another common pet peeve is the use of superlatives—”best,” “most,” “highest,” “lowest,” etc.—without any supporting evidence. Even worse is claiming that your client’s product or service is “revolutionary” or represents a “paradigm shift.” True revolutions are rare occurrences, and typically merit that description only in hindsight: Think iPhone, Uber or Netflix.

Atop my own vocabulary blacklist is the use of “solution” as a synonym for “product” or “service.” When I began my career as a technology journalist, vendors would release products that were readily identifiable as hardware or software. But about 20 years ago, I started seeing press releases along the lines of “HyperPlug, a new power-management solution from XYZ Microsystems.” I’d then have to wade through several paragraphs of marketing-speak to figure out whether it was a gadget, a software program or some combination of the two.

From a marketing standpoint, I can see why the term has some appeal. In a single word, you’re telling me that this product solves a problem. But as a journalist, I would never identify a product as a “solution.” Instead, I would describe its form and function as clearly and concisely as possible, perhaps spelling out the problem it aims to solve and how it does so. Calling it a “solution” does not give me the understanding I need to do this. On the contrary, the word is an obstacle, albeit a small one.

I recognize that PR is not journalism, and that a certain degree of hype goes with the territory. But PR pros are still in the business of communication. The more straightforward you are, the more likely I am to take you seriously. And part of this means choosing the same kinds of words that I would use when communicating with my readers.

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Steve Beale
Stephen Beale is the editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, a publication for PR people in health and medicine. He covers media news and interviews health journalists about their preferences for dealing with PR people. Based in the San Francisco area, he previously worked as a technology journalist.

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