Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Do PR People follow AP Style?

The issue inevitably comes up almost any time a PR person writes a news release or some other form of content.  Style.  Or, writing style to be more specific.

One of the more common areas where this arises is when a PR person writes a news release and decides not to capitalize the title of the individuals mentioned in the news release.  Or the PR person decides to refer to the individual on second reference by last name only.  No first name.  No “Mr.” or “Ms.”
Usually these issues are settled quickly with a simple rationale.  “I’m following the AP Stylebook.”  

So what does this mean?

It means that most PR writing, even that developed for digital applications tends to follow journalistic roots, using the AP Stylebook as the arbiter for the full range of writing decisions.  Not only does this help the writer meet most audiences’ expectations for quality, but also, it helps to ensure consistency in all of the organization’s content.

By committing to a specific style of writing, no matter who authors the content, the organization is better enabled to speak professionally in one voice.

I haven’t seen a survey recently to know whether most PR people currently have an actual AP Stylebook in their offices and use them, or whether they picked up the style through osmosis, just imitating what they’ve read and perhaps have been taught in school.

Still, it’s hardly old-fashioned to have the reference nearby if you are in PR.  One sits on my desk for precisely those rare occasions when I run into something that’s atypical and requires a precedent.  Usually, when I need it, it ends up saving me a lot of time and wrangling over which way to go.

Does this mean we need to uncompromisingly adhere to AP Style?  That’s not my call for you, but I have to admit that there are some areas where I’m more likely to compromise than others.

 If the client wants to capitalize the title of a new “Human Resources Manager,” I’ll do it even though AP Style tends to lean against capitalizing it.  To me, it’s not a battle worth waging, and oftentimes, it actually helps in a news release to distinguish between a person’s proper title and other descriptive language in the document.

At the same time, I never use a person’s first name on second reference in a news release.  That’s not journalistic and is often perceived by editors and reporters as amateurish.

Yet, if the content under development is for a blog, a social media post or an internal memo, using the first name may be the best way to go throughout.  In that context, it’s less formal and more accessible for the audience.

Here are a few other guidelines from the AP Stylebook I tend to find helpful:

  • Percent – One word.  It takes a singular verb when standing alone or when a singular word follows an of construction.  The teacher said 60 percent was a failing grade…  It takes a plural verb when a plural word follows an of construction: He said 50 percent of the members were there.”  No matter what, AP Style does not use a “%” sign.
  •  That, which – Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name.”
  •  Contractions – Contractions reflect informal speech and writing.  Webster’s New World College Dictionary includes many entries for contractions…Avoid excessive use of contractions.”  Duly noted.

And then there is one near and dear to my heart.  It’s the entry for “flack or flak.”  I’m sure someone at AP took some vengeful delight in including this one: “Flack is slang for press agent.  Flak is a type of anti-aircraft fire, hence figuratively a barrage of criticism.”

Whether you are charged with helping your organization face a barrage of criticism or not, I would highly recommend having the AP Stylebook nearby.  Since thanks to the Web and social media, everyone is a journalist today, it wouldn’t hurt to know some of the more common rules of style.

As one of my journalism professors once said to me, “To be a good writer, sometimes you need to bend the rules, but all good writers know which rules they are bending.”

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