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Adding a Human Face to Public Relations Writing

By Sherrie Negrea

It’s Sunday morning and The New York Times is lying on your breakfast table, unopened. As you scan the stories on the front page, which leads capture your attention? Are you more interested in reading about people, places or things?

If you’re like most readers, you’ll probably gravitate toward reading about people, because people identify with people. They don’t identify with facts, statistics or processes. They want to read about people because they’re curious how other people live their lives, and they want to see if they can learn anything they can apply to their own lives.

Public relations professionals often leave this critical hook — the human element — out of their press releases, blogs and newsletters. Yet the focus on people is what journalists strive for to make their stories come alive. As a 16-year veteran of the newspaper industry, I can recall many editors instructing reporters to find a “real person” to interview as they assigned their stories for the day.

Since I left journalism 15 years ago, much has changed in the newspaper business, and much hasn’t. What has changed is newsrooms are skeletons of their former selves, as mergers and layoffs have rocked the industry. But despite the shrinking staffs, reporters still must write stories that readers want to read.

This is where PR professionals can step in by doing some of the groundwork that reporters, when they were part of larger staffs, could do. Press releases should not only include the names and contact information of people reporters can interview for their stories, but they should also take it a step further and provide quotes and background information about these people. In short, PR professionals need to do more of the reporters’ jobs, because they are stretched too thin to do it all themselves.

Creating Press Releases That Focus on People

This strategy succeeded in helping me place a press release about a unique business owner — a certified shaman — in USA Today last year. The release focused on why the shaman, Susan Norton of Ithaca, had been hired by the Colgate University Athletics Department, in an attempt to boost the performance of its teams, to bless its seven major sports facilities. While preparing the release, I interviewed Colgate’s associate director of athletics, who reported that after Norton conducted a seven-hour ceremony to clear what she called the “oppressive energy” from the facilities, some of the teams suddenly started climbing out of their slump.

“After she came, we had a really great track of success with some of our sports teams,” Jeffrey Falardeau, associate director of athletics at Colgate, was quoted as saying in the release. “It kind of makes you wonder.”

The story ran as a feature with photos on the local page of The Ithaca Journal on April 20, 2015, and was picked up the same day by USA Today, both of which are Gannett papers. Surprisingly, the article was written by the Journal’s photographer, who started the story this way:

Ithaca Shaman Makes House Call at Colgate University

Bringing in a shaman is not your usual response when things are not going well at a NCAA Division I athletic program.

But that’s just what Colgate University did.

Colgate Associate Director of Athletics Jeffrey Falardeau, who described the school as having an open mind, said he thought Ithaca shaman Susan Norton would be the right person to make things better. He knew Norton from his time as an assistant athletic director at Ithaca College.

Applying This Strategy to Standard Press Releases

Without the athletic director’s side of the story, this press release probably would have never made it out of the assignment editor’s inbox. But because the human element was there from the beginning, and all the reporter — or in this case the photographer — had to do was pick up the phone and call the contact, the press release included everything the newspaper needed to pursue an unusual story.

While most press releases don’t focus on such a bizarre circumstance as a shaman blessing a Division I athletic department, this technique can work with any release. No matter how standard it may seem, the media will pursue a press release that tackles the reporter’s job of finding a human being who can tell a story that readers will want to read.

Sherrie Negrea is a public relations writer and owner of Versatile Writing in Ithaca.