Chapter 6 – The Role of Writing in Public Relations

Previously, we touched on using the news media as an informational tool to achieve your organization’s communication goals. One useful writing material is a feature article. Features are more in-depth than traditional news stories and go beyond providing the most important facts. The purpose of these stories is to provide a detailed description of a place, person, idea, or organization.

Although reporters and editors classify features as news stories, they are not necessarily structured using the inverted pyramid style. Instead, features use storytelling devices to help the reader connect with the overall narrative and its central characters. Features are particularly common in magazine writing, although they frequently appear in other mediums.

Profiles or personality features that give insight into a person’s role, experience, or background are one type of feature. Among the most common subjects of profiles are celebrities, athletes, individuals who overcome challenges, and high-profile executives.

Click here for more information on the different types of features.

It is important to understand the circumstances that warrant a feature piece from a strategic communication perspective. Communication professionals write feature articles to provide in-depth exposure for their client or organization. A feature can increase a client or company’s visibility and even help find new key audiences.

If you need to quickly get information about your client or organization to the media, a feature article may not be the best tool because it typically is longer than a traditional news story. However, you could write a feature article on, for example, your company’s new CEO to provide more background information to key audiences. Feature stories are also used in an organization’s internal communications, such as newsletters and magazines.

Overall, feature articles use an informative tone while incorporating creative and descriptive devices in order to increase audience appeal. Here is an example of a feature article from the New York Times.

Unlike the traditional summary lead, feature leads can be several sentences long, and the writer may not immediately reveal the story’s main idea. The most common types used in feature articles are anecdotal leads and descriptive leads. An anecdotal lead unfolds slowly. It lures the reader in with a descriptive narrative that focuses on a specific minor aspect of the story that leads to the overall topic. The following is an example of an anecdotal lead:

Sharon Jackson was sitting at the table reading an old magazine when the phone rang. It was a reporter asking to set up an interview to discuss a social media controversy involving Jackson and another young woman.“Sorry,” she said. “I’ve already spoken to several reporters about the incident and do not wish to make any further comments.”

Notice that the lead unfolds more slowly than a traditional lead and centers on a particular aspect of the larger story. The nut graph, or a paragraph that reveals the importance of the minor story and how it fits into the broader story, would come after the lead. There will be more on the nut graph later in this chapter.

Descriptive leads begin the article by describing a person, place, or event in vivid detail. They focus on setting the scene for the piece and use language that taps into the five senses in order to paint a picture for the reader. This type of lead can be used for both traditional news and feature stories. The following is an example of a descriptive lead:

Thousands dressed in scarlet and gray T-shirts eagerly shuffled into the football stadium as the university fight song blared.

For each article below, identify whether it uses a descriptive or anecdotal lead:

The content in a feature article isn’t necessarily presented as an inverted pyramid; instead, the organization may depend on the writer’s style and the story angle. Nevertheless, all of the information in a feature article should be presented in a logical and coherent fashion that allows the reader to easily follow the narrative.

As previously stated, the nut graph follows the lead. This paragraph connects the lead to the overall story and conveys the story’s significance to the readers (Scanlan, 2003).

The nut graph comes from a commonly used formula for writing features, known as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) formula (International Center for Journalists, 2016). The formula was named after the well-known and respected publication, which created the term “nut graph” and mastered feature news writing (Rich, 2016).

The formula consists of beginning the story with feature-style leads to grab the reader’s attention, followed by the nut graph (Scanlan, 2003). After this comes a longer body of the story that provides the usual background, facts, quotes, and so on. The formula then specifies a return to the opening focus at the end of the story using another descriptive passage or anecdote, also known as the “circle kicker” (Rich, 2016). This could be, for example, an update on what eventually happened to the main character or how the event or issue turned out. This blog post provides a detailed example of the WSJ formula.

Literary Devices

Feature writers use a particular style of writing to convey the story’s message. The use of literary devices helps in this task. These devices include similes and metaphors, onomatopoeia (use of words that mimic a sound), imagery (figurative language), climax, and more. Here are a few examples of onomatopoeia and imagery:

Onomatopoeia: The tires screeched against the concrete as she hit the pedal.

Imagery (example modified from Butte College, 2016): The apartment smelled of old cooking odors, cabbage, and mildew; . . . a haze of dusty sunlight peeked from the one cobwebbed, gritty window.

Click here for more information on literary devices, including specific examples.

Descriptive Writing

A good feature writer uses plot devices and dialogues that help move the story forward, while focusing on the central theme and providing supporting information through descriptive language and specific examples. You want to show readers what’s happening, not simply tell them. They should be able to visualize the characters, places, and events highlighted in the feature piece.

Show versus tell

Tell: Friends describe Amariah as a generous and vibrant person who was involved in several nonprofit organizations.

Show: Tracey proudly recalls her friend’s generosity. “Amariah is usually the first person to arrive at a volunteer event, and the last to leave. She spends four hours every Saturday morning volunteering at the mentoring center. It’s rare to not catch her laughing, flashing her perfect smile. She’s just a burst of positive energy.”

It’s often tempting to end a feature piece with a summary conclusion. Instead, use an anecdote, passage, or compelling quote that will leave a lasting impression on your readers.

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