Public Relations Primer Part 3: Using Quotes to Spice Up Your Press Release

This is the third installment in the Public Relations Primer series. Read Part 1, How to Write a Darn Good Press Release, and Part 2, Writing Your Press Release Lead.

To be or not to be? That is the question…

Or, to put a PR spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to use quotes or not to use quotes? If that is the question you’re asking about your press release, the answer is almost always yes.

The only time I can recall sending out a press release without quotes was when I worked at the local government-owned community-access TV station (previously mentioned in Part 1 of this series), and we ran our free, four-week television production class to train new volunteers. The local newspapers always ran the announcement in a brief, no-frills sidebar, so the press release was brief and without frills to suit their needs, describing the purpose of the class, dates, times, location, and how to register.

Other than an example like that, direct quotations should be used to add color, life, and context to the otherwise “just-the-facts-ma’am” newsy tone of your press release narrative.

Where do you get quotes to use in your press release?

If you’re lucky, you’ll actually have the opportunity to interview people about the topic of your press release, and all you have to do is write down or otherwise record what they say in their own words. Then later, when you’re writing the press release, you’ll have a ready source of quotes to use.

In a small to mid-sized organization, you can usually manage to get a few minutes of internal people’s time for a brief interview. If not, then you can fabricate the quotes you need, making certain to submit the press release for that person’s review and approval before distributing it. I’d be cautious, though, about making up quotes for people outside your organization, such as a client or local government official — unless you’ve specifically asked their permission to do so beforehand and make doubly sure you get their review and approval of any made-up quotes before issuing the press release.

Make sure your quotes sound like a real person talking.

Whether your quotes are real or made up, it’s important that they sound like something someone would actually say in conversation. If you’re not sure what I mean and want to get a real sense of the difference between narrative and dialogue, pick up any novel that’s been professionally written, edited, and published, and study what’s in quotation marks versus what isn’t.

Note the “professionally written, edited, and published” part, which I include because the only book I’ve ever returned for a refund was a novel in which all the characters’ dialogue sounded exactly the same as the author’s narrative voice, including that of the main character, a teenage boy. As a mother of teenage boys, I can assure you, they don’t talk that way. And, really, neither does anyone else.

Good written dialogue is a simulacrum of the way people talk, meaning that it’s a likeness or a representation. You don’t include every “uh…” and “er…” they utter, or the sentences they start and never finish due to a change in thought. (Nobody wants to read quotes that are quite that real.) And if the person you are interviewing uses incorrect grammar in conversation, by all means fix it in the quotes you use. You don’t want to make the person sound uneducated — especially if it’s your boss (or your boss’s boss).

Avoid corporate-speak and hackneyed phrases.

Part of making quotes sound natural is avoiding the blabbity-blah corporate-speak that no real breathing human being would ever say. Quotes that ramble on, saying nothing with meaningless phrases, are a turn-off to editors and readers alike, and they do nothing to fulfill the goal of adding color, life, and context to your press release.

If you want a great example of what a quote can do for your press release, read the first three paragraphs of this press release from IBM Corp. If you’re anything like me, you don’t even really know what they’re talking about in the first two paragraphs, but when you get to the third paragraph — the direct quote — it’s as if a light bulb came on. That quote takes a technical subject, and turns it into a concept anybody who’s ever been in a grocery store can understand and relate to. Talk about adding life and context!

I wouldn’t necessarily have thought to mention this on my own, but I agree with the author of “How to Write a Killer Press Release Quote,” who emphasizes the importance of avoiding hackneyed, Mr. Obvious quote starters such as, “We are excited…” and “We are thrilled…” (to which I’d add, “We are proud…” and “We are pleased…”). As that author points out, if you’re issuing a press release about something positive (as opposed to poor earnings or a sex scandal), we already assume you’re thrilled, excited, proud, and pleased about it. So just skip saying it and move right into telling us why.

Using direct, paraphrased, and partial quotes.

A really good interview can often hand you the whole story on a silver platter, so all you have to do afterward is write it up. But your entire press release can’t be one big, happy quote. There’s something of an art to interweaving quotes and narrative into a cohesive story. Typically, you’ll want to alternate between the two. To help with that, you can paraphrase quotes into your own words and use partial quotes.

To illustrate, we’ll revisit our fictitious Acme Manufacturing press release from Part 2 of this series. Here is our lead again, and then we’ll add to it with direct, paraphrased, and partial quotes.

ANYTOWN, N.Y., Dec. 1, 2014 – The Anytown City Council recognized Acme Manufacturing today as its “Number One Corporate Good Citizen” for the third year in a row, citing job creation, employee benefits and corporate philanthropy as the top reasons for this honor

Let’s follow that lead with a direct quote:

Acme plays a critical role in Anytown’s local economy,” said City Council President John McAndrews. “The company employs nearly 20 percent of our adult population and provides them with top-notch healthcare benefits. On top of that, Acme generously supports our local food pantry.

Now, pretend for a moment that John McAndrews is a “colorful” local politician, known for being less than tactful, who said something you can’t repeat verbatim in your press release, but the general message is something that would add value to your story if phrased less offensively. So you might paraphrase most of what he said and perhaps use a partial quote:

When Fido’s Favorite Dog Food Company closed its Anytown processing plant in August to relocate to China, the Anytown unemployment rate increased significantly. In response, Acme doubled its monthly donation to the food pantry, “like a good neighbor in a time of extreme need,” McAndrews said.

Punctuating quotes.

As you’ll have noted from the examples above, direct and partial quotes go inside quotation marks (what a surprise), while paraphrased quotes do not. Here in the United States, punctuation of quotes generally goes inside the quote marks, particularly commas and periods. Question marks and exclamation points only go inside the quote marks if the quote itself is a question or an exclamatory statement. (And if you’re using exclamatory statements in a press release, they’d better be quotes.)

Attributing quotes.

With regard to attribution, you can see from the examples above that on first reference we identify John McAndrews by his full name and title and then switch to last name only. We might refer to him as “he” on subsequent reference as well, unless we’re also quoting or mentioning other men, which could cause confusion over whom we mean by “he.”

Please note that “said” is the preferred verb for attribution of quotes. You can also feel free to use “according to” occasionally for paraphrased quote attribution. Whatever you do, don’t try to think up creative alternatives to “said,” which may feel repetitive when you’re typing it over and over but is nearly invisible to the reader of a magazine, newspaper, or book. No editor wants to see quotes from a speaker who’s declaring, pontificating, snarling, musing or otherwise waxing poetic. You can’t go wrong sticking with “said.”

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