Monthly Archives: January 2010

Lead sentence stretches from Houston to Sugar Land

Public Relations Tactics newspaper published a January article, “Outlook 2010: PR trends,” that predicts that press releases will be packaged like news stories. I reviewed a few releases on Business Wire today to see if this trend is taking hold.

I don’t see it but I’m not a trend spotter either. I am no Bianca Bartz.

What I did see is a bunch of wordy, insignificant, self-flattering announcements that any editor would toss in one to five seconds. I say five seconds because it took me that long to speed read a 73-word lead sentence in a press release issued by a multibillion corporation in our state.

The lead reads, “As government and healthcare leaders invest billions of dollars in healthcare information technologies (IT) to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of healthcare for their citizens, hospital datacenters may not be ready for the demand that more patients and digital information will create, according to a survey of hospital IT executives at small and medium hospitals in the U.S., U.K., Canada, China, France and Germany conducted by the HIMSS Analytics, sponsored by (name withheld).”

For fun, read that as an announcer would. I am a jogger with good aerobic functions, including lung capacity, and I recited it all on my second try after sucking in several cubic feet of air. (Yes, I know that sentence lengths for the eye are longer than for the ear, so no blog responses on that, please.)

Newspapers articles are written at an eighth-grade reading level and so are press releases as a general rule. The supersized lead has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade level score of 14.

It scored 19 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test. The lower the score, the harder to read. The Harvard Law Review has a readability score in the low 30s.

The lead sentence registered a Gunning Fog index measure of 16.25, just under 17, a university graduate level. An eighth-grader wouldn’t make it past the first couple of lines without tweeting, “OMG, this smarticle hype is an endlessbummer.”

Granted, writing on technical subjects aimed at college graduates can exceed an eight-grade level. But certainly, that lead—long enough to reach from Houston to Sugar Land if put in 36-point type—doesn’t effectively isolate the kernel of the message.

The stripped-down version is hospital datacenters are not prepared for the coming influx of more patients and digital information, indicates a company-sponsored survey.

My blog was written for high school sophomores if you cut out the datacenter lead sentence that I quoted. That one sentence increases the reading difficulty one grade level. LOL.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston Board Member

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Minimalist PR: Where less is best

A corporate PR type a few years ago told me that he was paid to keep his company’s name out of the press.  In an age of Web 2.0 and the information explosion, I don’t know how a company crawls under a rock.

Evasiveness and declining comment can backfire.  Just ask Tiger Woods.

I have always fought to comment.  But lately, I have learned not to trust well-meaning journalists to get it right.  And without trust, mum’s the word. 

Call me jaded but at least, hear me out.

Recently, I provided backgrounders to two seasoned journalists writing for respected publications.  And twice the information was maligned. 

The first reporter worked from a draft with “embargoed” stamped on it in big letters.  I cautioned her not to use it yet.

Consequently, we found a mistake in the draft, corrected it and sent her the final approved version under her deadline, pointing out the error in the previous version. 

Despite our best efforts, she plugged the error into her article draft.  As a courtesy, she provided the article to us before it went to press.  We caught her mistake and she corrected it before it went out. 

Or should I say that we caught our mistake?  Perhaps, giving her a draft subject to change was our miscalculation.  For sure, the incident caused friction and finger pointing and most likely, mildly damaged our relations with the journalist.

The second journalist received highly technical background information from us that was intended as a primer.  The problem was that the reporter used too much poetic license in his article and misapplied language in the backgrounder to a specific case involving our company’s product. 

The reporter also failed to interview our product developers despite an opportunity to do so.

The article, unseen by us in draft form, went to press and is now a problem.  We will ask for a published correction that readers rarely notice. 

Did the reporter make the mistake?  Or was it ours for providing information that was misused?  

Certainly, our company has benefited from being proactive with the press.  So the answer is that providing backgrounders to journalists is a judgement call.  The upside for us has usually been better than the downside.

But never overlook the wisdom of a minimalist approach.  Sometimes to say less is best, especially in cases where the company is not familiar with the reporter.

Now you can call me jaded if you must.  That is, if you can find me.  I’m under a rock now.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston Board Member

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