PR TECHNIQUE: Clarity not clutter: how to write boilerplates

Boilerplates can be helpful tools in introducing a company or product to the media. The most effective ones, finds Matthew Creamer, are succinct rather than superfluous.

Boilerplates can be helpful tools in introducing a company or product to the media. The most effective ones, finds Matthew Creamer, are succinct rather than superfluous.

Deadline approaches, and a journalist somewhere is trying to file a story about your client. She's already made the calls, conducted the interviews, and written the lion's share of the copy. Only one thing is keeping her from filing her article, a small but essential fact - it might be the city where your client is based, or the number of people it employs, or a stock ticker symbol. She turns to the press release and scans to the bottom, to the boilerplate. Her eyes fight through that big solid block of text, cluttered with baroque sentences, a vocabulary that seems lifted from the technical manual for a nuclear reactor, and promiscuous use of the phrase "leading provider of." But the factoid she needs isn't there, and she's sent back to the phones or a website as seconds tick away. Moments like this, when a boilerplate assumes importance, may be few and far between, but they do exist. Besides being either a lifesaver or a time-waster to a reporter on deadline, that seemingly innocuous anchor of the press release can be a welcome introduction to one who knows little about your client - and it can save your well-wrought release from the circular file. It can also function in the same way for investors, a sales force, and other elements of the company who need a deft way to describe their wares. But according to several PR people, far too many boilerplates are ineffective wastes of words. The most common complaints are that what should be simple, bite-size descriptions of a company or service are overlong, overstuffed with jargon, unnecessary lists of awards and products, and even unproven assertions of market dominance. The reasons for boilerplate sloppiness are manifold. Some say it's because PR execs don't take them seriously; others say it's a misconception of the boilerplate's function. "It should be a really good paragraph you'd like to see inserted into a newspaper or a magazine verbatim," says Tom Gable, a partner at GCS Public Relations in San Diego. "It should be clearly written and truly characterize the company in a positive way." Crafting a successful boilerplate in large part requires a toeing of the line between marketing material and information that can be used in the news-gathering process. This means cutting the hype by deleting superlatives and listing only easily provable facts. It means cutting out extraneous information, though what that is varies from company to company. And it means eliminating technical terms. "Try as hard as you can to boil it down to two or three sentences, two paragraphs at the most," says Tim Schellhardt, director of editorial services at Ketchum-Chicago. "It has to be believable and succinct. It's not an advertisement, and it's not a testimonial either." Schellhardt is on a self-described crusade to revise several clients' boilerplates. Often, he says, the revisions entail shortening the text and removing technical terms. Some are so long, he says, that "your eyes are glazed over by the time you finish the last sentence." It's easier for most experienced boilerplate writers to say what should be left out than what should be included. Most agree on the basics, such as a URL, a description of the market, description of the company, product, or service. But that's where the agreement ends. Most of the content will be shaped by the characteristics of each individual client, as well as the sensibility of the industry of which it's a part. PepsiCo's, for instance, is short and sweet with an overview of the company's divisions and a mention of its international reach. Coca-Cola's runs along the same lines. Fuji Photo Film, on the other hand, offers a more detailed list of its products, mentions the amount of business it does outside of Japan, and even drops in where its principal manufacturing operations are located. The content will also be shaped by the writer's expectations of the target audience. For most, this audience is, simply, the media. Some PR people, however, have a more ambitious understanding of a boilerplate's uses. Mike Neumeier, VP of the Abovo Group, says a boilerplate shouldn't be "a necessary evil" but "words people believe in." And these words should be useful outside the realm of PR. In other words, employees in sales, HR, and marketing should all be able to use it. The tone of a boilerplate varies from company to company. "There's no one answer in terms of tone," says Abovo Group EVP Sami Jajeh. "It depends on the product and on where you are in terms of life cycle." He says that a company flirting with a monopoly status may want to soften its voice, while an emerging company will adopt a more confident one. But this comes with making the construction of the boilerplate important, something that's given consideration through tweaking and re-tweaking. Jajeh and Neumeier have made it an important part of their agency's five-point messaging strategy. "The point is to articulate the company's strategy and message," Jajeh says. "It's not just a to-do function to be relegated to some junior staffer." ---- Technique tips Do use active words Do try to keep it to three or four sentences Do include a URL Don't overload on adverbs and adjectives Don't use unproven facts or make wild statements Don't fill it with jargon

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