Feature Writing 101

20 04 2009

In earlier post I introduced feature writing as a beneficial skill for PR practitioners to know. Often the news about clients can be considered as feature, therefore it is essential to know how to write one. This week in Dr. V’s class (@prprof_mv) we will be editing features and putting together the Clemson Communication Studies Department Newsletter.

I interviewed Stephanie Harvin, features editor of The Post and Courier, to get some tips on writing features. The interview is as follows:

Q: What makes a good feature story?

A: A good feature story is just like a news story, it contains elements of news, but is generally an expanded version giving more about what the news means. For instance, a news story about recycling will tell you the hottest tip on recycling, but a feature story will incorporate more people, more facts, and more context for the story. It will also have more photos and graphics attached to it to give it a reader-friendly approach.

Q: What is the most important thing that all feature stories should have?

A: An element of surprise. Features don’t have to be read by anybody, so the language and the idea should engage the reader’s emotions or interests quickly and reward them for reading.

Q: How do you come up for ideas for stories?

A: They come from all kinds of sources, but they should be about something that is happening in your community. They should go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Q: Some people say that you should never put yourself in your stories. Is this always true? What is your policy at The Post and Courier on first person features?

A: No. With the impact of social media on print, we are relaxing some of the first-person rules to be more reader-friendly. More readers want to engage with a person they recognize rather than an impersonal and remote reporter. But you still have to tell the story from a balanced perspective.

Q: What is the best way to structure a feature?

A: The structure comes from the way you decide to tell the story. Some stories are narratives, some straight news structure, some intros plus bullets or Q&A’s. There are also good charticles – articles done in a chart – that make good features. There is no one structure that fits feature stories so you have to master a number of them.

Q: Do you believe subheadings make for a good feature structure?

A: Subheadings are just one of the tools we use to break up masses of gray type. They should add to the value of the story, though. Again, these should follow the structure, and not be a worry by themselves.

Q: Some people like to insert bullets and other punctuation devices to make their stories “scannable” at times? What is your policy on this?

A: The more you break up a long story into boxes, briefs, bullet points and easy to scan points, the better it will be. The main thing is to have different information in all these various forms, and not repeat the main story in them. You should choose one of these devices per story, though, so you don’t confuse the reader.

Q: What makes or breaks a feature story?

A: A good feature story should engage the reader from the first word, and a good one uses a strong theme and clean writing to make its point. It should never vary from its task, although the path can meander a bit. What breaks a feature story is a lack of clarity on the writer’s part. If the writer doesn’t really know why they are writing the story, it doesn’t matter how much they write or interview, it will still be a mess.

Are these tips useful? Why do you think feature writing is an important skill for PR practitioners to have?

Feature Writing and PR

21 02 2009

This week in Dr. V’s PR class we discussed feature stories and their importance in PR. We also had a journalist come to talk to the class about writing features. We decided that feature writing not only is an important skill for journalists, but also for PR people. PR people need to know how to write features so they can pitch to journalists more effectively. Also, features appear in internal media within a company or organization. Feature writing can be applied to news letters and also blogging.

In my intro to journalism class in Spring 2008 we used Tim Harrower’s book, Inside Reporting ,to help us learn the ropes of journalism. I highly recommend this book. Below I have summarized the different styles of features that are described in his book.

Styles of Feature Stories

  1. Personality Profile: Is about a person. This story combines facts, quotes and descriptions to talk about a subject.
  2. Human-interest story: This is a story about real people. A situation that is tragic, funny, odd or inspirational.
  3. Color story: You write this when you are asked to attend an event. Interview people and describe what you experience.
  4. Backgrounder: This is an analysis of an event or issue in the news. You tell the 5Ws of the story.
  5. Trend story: These are stories about things, places, people that are affecting today’s culture.
  6. Reaction piece: This provides a sampling of opinions about breaking news or a controversial topic.
  7. Flashback: These are commemorative stories that combine photos, facts and interviews to describe something that happened in the past and why it is important.
  8. How-to: This teaches reader how to do something. Often contains bulleted lists and diagrams.
  9. Consumer guide: This is a story that rates a place or product. Tells readers the good, the bad and the ugly.
  10. Personal narrative: A story told in first person about something that you experienced.

Interview with the Executive Editor of The Post and Courier

4 02 2009

My first assignment in Dr. V’s PR class this semester was a media relations project.  It included creating a media list and pitching to a specific journalist.  I thought that there was no better way to learn how to pitch to a journalist than actually talking to one.  I emailed Bill Hawkins, Executive Editor of The Post and Courier, to ask him a few questions about news releases and pitches.  His advice to me was as follows:

  • The trick to useful and effective news releases is getting them directed to the right editor or department.
  • Know the name of the person you are trying to reach.  Go to the newspaper’s Website and look for a list of editors/reporters.  You can get their contact information from there.
  • A targeted email allows for an easy follow-up.  Remember to use the subject line.
  • The information should be broad enough for the general public.
  • A news release is not an advertisement.  Mr. Hawkins said that the number one reason they throw away news releases is if they merely are pitching a product that should be an advertisement, not a news release.
  • Press releases should be to the point and brief, timely, and complete with contact information.

I hope you find this information useful.  Media relations is a very important part of PR and we need to know how to properly communicate with the media.

PR is Negotiation

15 01 2009

This semester I am enrolled in a negotion class at Clemson University with Dr. Wiesman.  The first day in class we were making a list of characteristics of negotiation.  This is what we came up with:

  • It involves at least two parties.
  • Negotiation is a give and take.
  • It is a win-win situation, in which both parties find a mutually acceptable solution to a complex situation.
  • We have a high concern for ourselves as well as a high concern for others.
  • It is a transformational process.
  • We create value and at the end of the negotiation, we claim that value.
  • We negotiate by choice.
  • It involves interdependence: both parties need each other; a relationship between the parties is necessary.
  • It involves mutual adjustment: both parties have to change their initial wants.

If you read this list of characteristics and did not know I was talking about negotiation, you may think that I am talking about public relations.  When writing down all these characteristics negotiation and PR seemed to mesh together more and more.  After all isn’t PR a mutually beneficial relationship in which both parties need each other.  PR is a give and take process.  Good PR involves two-way communication.  The organization and its publics need to be open to give something as well as take.  Also, good PR is transformational and involves mutual adjustment.  Sometimes the organization or the public or sometimes both need to give up their initial wants and listen to each other.  Only then can they come up with that 3rd alternative that is beneficial to both parties. 

From now on I am going to think of PR and a PR effort like a negotiation.  Both the organization and the publics need to gain something.

PR Portfolios and Resumes

1 12 2008

Brett Turner, PR Director for Jackson-Dawson Marketing Solutions, was the guest speaker for the Clemson PRSSA meeting on PR Portfolios.  He spoke to us about resumes, interviews, and PR portfolios.

  • The most important ability of a PR practitioner is WRITING!
  • PR practitioners are master communicators.

Rules of Resumes

  • Include a cover letter with your resume. This is the most important thing to include with your resume.
  • The cover letter is what separates you from other people.
  • Do research about the company.
  • Connect how your experience can tie in and help with the clients at a specific company/firm.
  • Write well. Don’t not have mis-spellings in your resume, cover letter, etc. Spell check does not catch everything.
  • Re-contact the company and be assertive. This will let someone know you are serious.
  • Don’t forget to write a thank-you note. (handwritten- most company’s are lead by older generations)

PR Portfolios

What should a portfolio do?

  • It is to gain attention. It is for someone to remember you.
  • Stimulate interest. A portfolio needs to pull the employer in and engage them. Make someone look further and want to delve in.
  • Build a desire.

What needs to be in a portfolio?

  • Don’t fluff up a resume.
  • Include writing samples.

Styles of PR Portfolios

  • many styles: 3 ring binder
  • start with a very general cover letter (where your from, what you have done, what you enjoy, etc.)
  • next resume.
  • keep its in a chronological order from earliest to latest.
  • showcase your writing skills, if you did an event, etc.
  • Include references. Usually 3.
  • make it easy.
  • you don’t need a lot.


  • Ask questions to the interviewer. Smart, thought out questions.
  • ex: Are the people I am going to be working with here today and can I meet them?
  • ex: What skills do I not have to be successful in this job?
  • ex: What is going to be my day to day role? What is a typical day like?

Principles of Crisis Communication

18 11 2008
  1. DO NOT LIE!!!  This is the most important rule of crisis communication.  Public Relations’ first responsibility is to the publics and the people, therefore do not lie to them.  Also, lying usually backfires and causes more bad PR for the organization.
  2. Apologize and rectify the problem.  If the crisis involves a particular individual of the organization, have that individual take responsibility.  Do not put blame on the organization if the blame is on the  individual.
  3. Communicate clearly, quickly and choose your words very carefully.  That is why PR exists, to communicate to the publics.  Some words are very emotionally loaded and therefore, you need to choose words carefully.
  4. Don’t blow something out of proportion.  If something is an isolated incident, keep it isolated.  But dont underplay a crisis.
  5. Try to solve the crisis at first sign.  Don’t let something escalate; be alert and monitor the crisis.

PR practitioners need to ask themselevs what is best in the long-run.  This is the difference between long-term PR and “one night stand PR” (according to Dr. V.). One Night stand PR is giving PR in general a bad name and reputation.  A crisis needs to be dealt with carefully and the strategies need to be analyzed in the long run.

Pimp your blog

11 11 2008

I started to browse through beingcheryl.com in between classes and realized that I had been reading her posts for over 30 minutes!  I did not even realize how fast the time went by.  I think that part of the reason was Cheryl’s unique writing style and also the design of the blog.  Her blog looks AMAZING!  Check it out.  She not only entertains you with her truthfulness, but offers pictures to also keep your attention. 

Of the blog posts I read, I highly recommend The BS Nature of Interviews and The first rule of Twitter.  I really liked these posts because they talked about topics that have been discussd in Dr. V’s PR class and in Clemson PRSSA member meetings.  The BS nature of Interviews really relates to what was said by guest speakers at the first Clemson PRSSA meeting (see live blog post for more info).  Some of the advice I was given was be yourself and show a positive attitude.  After all, you are not expected to know everything, but you are expected to be willing to learn.  I feel like if you market yourself as yourself and instead of a piece of paper, you will have a more lasting impression.  After all, connections and networking matters.  Do you want to be remembered as just another application for a job or a person who made connections with the interviewer? Honestly, the interviewer will remember you and not the piece of paper.

The point of this blog post is to tell you to be yourself.  Be yourself online, in real life, at interviews, at your future job, etc.  Cheryl mentioned that she has a hard time marketing herself in interviews, but really if she would be herself like she does on her blog, she wouldn’t have a problem.  Check out beingcheryl.com and you may want to consider to pimp your blog!

Social media gives the little dog a big bark

9 10 2008

After speaking with Laura Fitton, better known as @pistachio (twitter) I started to think about social media in a more in depth manner. 

Social media is revolutionizing the power structures around the world and changing the way that we receive news.  Social media gives power to the people.  No longer does one have to be in a high organizational position to be heard and make a difference. As Dr. V said “the golden wall is coming down.” That is the thing that seperates us (the public) from the elite. This drastic change is turning PR upside down.  The role of boundary spanner is changing.  A PR practitioner is not the only direct voice between an organization and the publics important to its success.  PR practitioners must listen to the public and learn from them.  According to Laura Fitton, the most important lesson to learn from social media is to learn how to listen.  Listen to your publics and be genuine.  Social media is not merely a way to push product or services, it is a means to form relationships with others.  It is through these relationships that conversations arise and then the work of the PR practitioner has truly started.  Offer your publics information that will benefit them, not only the organization you represent.  After good PR is two way symmetrical, meaning that the organization and the publics are open to change. 

This dynamic change in power scares the once powerful decision makers of organizations.  One voice can not harm a large company, but masses of voices can.  Social media gives the little dog a big bark.  My voice matters and it can be heard. 

 Another change due to social media is the way that news is received.  The news industry is the only media required by democracy.  It was established to be a forum for discussion.  The notion of news as a media conglomerate challenges this notion of a place for the people to discuss their thoughts and opinions.  News has become a business, and because of this the people have found ways to discuss topics through other means, now known as blogging.  This just goes to show that discussion and conversations are necessities in society and if the news doesnt provide a forum for discussion, people will find other means.

Over all, social media is revolutionizing PR, news, and even communication as we know it.  The most important task is to stay up-to-date with the current media trends and us them in a genuine manner.

Chapter 11: Public Relations in the Digital Age

7 10 2008

Important Points

  • The Digital Age has changed helped PR practitioners to communicate with a vast amount of publics in various locations.
  • Serious matters such as privacy issues, the protection of intellectual material, job security, and media convergence have been raised as a result of the Digital Age.
  • Although technology has changed our world drastically, when sending a message the content of the message and the medium chosen still depend on the audience, purpose, and values.
  • The most important job for PR in the future is to stay up-to-date with new and advancing technologies.


24 09 2008

This youtube video was shown in my organizational communication class and I thought it was very funny.  In Dr. V’s PR Principles class we have spent a great deal of time talking about the importance of social media and learning how to use new types of social media.  Our class has had pieces of advice from various guest speakers about how important the use of social media is and how it develops relationships with people in the world of PR. 

This video protrays a monk having trouble opening a book.  It made me laugh, because a book does not seem like a piece of technology in our very high-tech world today.  However, at one point in history a book was a piece of technology and a very important one at that.  It increased literacy, gave us a way to transmit history, and became one of the most essential forms of communication. 

In comparison to the monk, I hope I don’t seem as lost learning new forms of social media.  Our class has been told repeatedly, “Don’t be scared, just jump right in.” As a new blogger and twitter user, sometimes I find myself feeling a little lost like this monk.  I hope when you get frustrated about learning how to use social media and technology, this will give you a laugh.