Great Beginnings and Endings: Keys to Writing Bright Headlines and Compelling Boilerplates

February 2, 2015


The move to quality content in all forms of digital communications is a plus for the PR profession.

Packing copy with words to catch the search engines doesn’t work the way it used to. Google changed its algorithms in September 2014 to focus on quality of content, useful information and user engagement. The update, called Panda, finds sites and content that are overoptimized with keyword stuffing and pushes them down the rankings.

Think about having bright headlines and good content in all that you do and a strong closing boilerplate in news releases. Your good work can convey the organization’s positioning and differentiators, educate many target audiences, provide solid evidence to support your position with facts — not hype — and help change perceptions or even behaviors.

In my previous career as a journalist, I had tough guidance from several editors (The Wall Street Journal, San Diego Evening Tribune, in-flight magazines). I’d pitch an idea, often packed with data and jargon gleaned from my research. “Just give me the headline,” they would say.

Starting with this focus is relevant in today’s digital world, where PR professionals are taking the lead as content providers across multiple channels. To keep advancing, we need to continue honing our writing skills, starting with headlines that grab a reader’s attention.

Envision crafting smart headlines for news releases, fact sheets, analyst reports, website content, blast emails, blogs or any way you are trying to connect. You can aim these at an editor, potential customer visiting a website, fund manager, elected official, social media channel or to fellow parents for a soccer league fundraiser. Think about penetrating subject lines, too — your headlines in social media.

With a little work, your headlines can excite, entice and entertain. The best ones grab a reader’s attention in a short amount of space and lure him or her into a story. They create evocative thoughts and images. They summarize, smartly and succinctly, the meaning of what will follow. They don’t go on forever like an abstract for a research paper. (You can’t bore people into reading your story.)

Here are some quick tips for writing better headlines:

1. Think about your target audiences and what’s important to them.

2. Read the media you are trying to reach, including online media and bloggers. How would they write the headline? Is there a style or different approach?

3. Figure out what the news is (breaking, feature, opinion).

4. Get creative. How are you going to stand out from the crowd?

5. Decide what approach you should take (fact-based, humorous, the ever-present pun, positioning and visionary, provocative, diplomatic).

6. Figure out the number-one impression you want to leave with your target audiences. Do you have the facts to support the case?

7. Be a stickler for style.

End on a strong note

Assuming great copy flows after your headline, make sure that your news release has a proper ending: a well-crafted boilerplate.

Many companies think of the boilerplate as a dumping ground for unsubstantiated claims of leadership, professional jargon and copy from marketing materials. For an entertaining exercise, scan through news releases on a distribution service and jump straight to the boilerplates. You will find yourself wondering, in many cases, what the heck some do. Some mention “breakthrough solutions” and leave the reader wondering what they might be: hardware, software, chemical, reagent, management consulting, financial services or your own in-house water solutions (from a bottled water company).

Recent bad finds: 500-word boilers summarizing a company history; a lifestyle company that specializes in bringing the mind and the body together through foods, beverages and supplements (we’ve seen copy from companies in Colorado that specialize in separating mind and body); a flexible, best-of-breed, online fundraising platform that enables you to create a deeper donor relationship; and a time-to-value leader in business services management software solutions.

When queried about their experiences, Counselors Academy colleagues cited editing by committee as a primary cause of frustration. PR pros often start with copy built on strategic communications objectives and end up with two or more pages of redlined copy and comments from engineering, marketing, legal, finance and executive management. The result: boilerplate babble that few readers, except the original authors, can penetrate.

How to evolve? One concept is to envision a refined elevator pitch of three to four sentences: what you do, for whom, why it is important, how it is different from everyone else on earth, where you operate and what other compelling facts exist to catch the target’s interest.

For composing, consider these basic guidelines:

• Review boilerplates from competitors and others in the space. Look for what’s there and, more important, what’s not there to get a framework for clearly differentiating. You will be amazed by how most of your competitors sound alike.

• Make sure that outside audiences (media, analysts, investors, customers, suppliers) can easily understand the business you are in and aren’t distracted by marketing hype, jargon, technical detail or CEO-speak.

• Keep it short — one paragraph with three to four sentences is the goal — clear and compelling.

• Choose words carefully to make sure that you have quality content and that it doesn’t read as if it were optimized for online searching and lacks depth.

• Read it aloud to colleagues or friends who are not in the business.

Crafting tight, bright news release boilerplates can help differentiate a company against competitors, make an initial impression on any target audience, and give everyone a short paragraph that they can adapt to other communications, from answering an email query to giving a more refined cocktail party pitch. For some readers, this copy will help formulate their first impression of the company. How good can you make it?

Tom Gable, APR, Fellow PRSA
Tom Gable, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice chair of Nuffer, Smith Tucker PR, San Diego, and previously founder and CEO of Gable PR. He has been in the PR profession for more than 40 years. A former financial journalist and Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is author of “The PR Client Service Manual” and a frequent speaker at national conferences and teleseminars on jargon-free public relations, creativity, strategic reputation management and crisis communications. Contact: tg@nstpr.com.


Leanne says:

Thanks for these tips, Tom. Could you please direct me to some boilerplates you think have nailed it?

May 22, 2015

Robin M. Mayhall, APR says:

Great suggestions. Thanks!

July 6, 2017

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