10 words often misused in press releases

Be mindful of what words such as “unique” and “quality” mean before throwing them into a memo or a news release.

It’s bad enough that some communicators overuse buzzwords in news releases and memos. Even worse is the sad truth that often those words aren’t even used correctly.

Any writer should pause and ask, “Am I saying what I think I am?” before using these 10 words.

Quality. A lot of times you’ll see this word floating in a sentence, all on its own. “Our products are quality,” or, “These are quality services.” Looking the word up in the dictionary does yield definitions that show the word “quality” by itself can mean excellence, but more often the word refers to a scale from good to poor. Something can be “low quality” just as easily as it can be “high quality.” Add in that modifier—”excellent quality, highest quality”—so people know for sure what you’re trying to say.

Unique. This word has the opposite problem. Writers often try to modify it, calling things “very unique,” or “rather unique.” But the word unique already means what’s being described is like no other thing in the world. There aren’t any degrees of that. Either it’s unique or it isn’t. If you feel a need to modify the word with a “somewhat,” there’s a pretty good chance what you’re describing isn’t really unique.

Innovation. Much like “unique,” people trying to write compelling copy sometimes don’t think “innovation” says enough on its own, so they modify it with adjectives such as “new” and “groundbreaking.” But if something is innovative, it is, by definition, new and breaks some kind of figurative ground. Old innovations are history.

Official. It’s common to see news releases touting the “official launch” of a product or office emails about the “official kickoff” of some companywide initiative. It makes it sound like what’s going on is a big deal. But seeing the word raises some questions: Was there an unofficial launch? What makes this one official? Will someone need to contact a notary?

Exclusive. If you’re sending out a news release about something, there’s no way you’re giving anyone an “exclusive first look” at anything. News releases go out to numerous news organizations. If you were really granting an exclusive, the information you’re giving out should only be going to one. But what if you refer to a product, event or service as “exclusive?” If that’s what it is, that’s fine. If you aren’t going out of your way to exclude people from buying it, it isn’t exclusive.

Breaking. If news is “breaking,” it’s happening right this second. If you have time to write a news release about it, it isn’t breaking. It broke.

Never/ever. Phrases such as “never before seen” and “for the first time ever” are tricky. Whether your organization is doing something it’s never done before is something you can probably verify, but who can say whether the public reaction to something will be the biggest ever or the world will “never be the same” after some product is released? Phrases like that reek of hyperbole. And, yes, it’s your job to sell the media or your employees on your message, but they also want the truth.

Revolutionary. It takes more than something being new or a little bit different for it to be considered revolutionary. It has to be radically different, to the point where people completely rethink whatever came before. People talk about it, want to learn about it, change the way they do things based on it. In other words, if something’s revolutionary, it doesn’t need a news release.

Literally. If you don’t work for an amusement park or a fair, nothing you write about will be “a literal roller coaster ride.” Likewise, if you don’t work for NASA or perhaps an airline, nothing you do goes “literally into the stratosphere.” You mean “figuratively.” That’s the opposite of “literally.”

Social. In recent years, the term “social” has come more and more to mean “pertaining to social media,” especially in business. But that’s awfully confusing when the actual word “social” continues to mean “friendly,” or, more broadly, “pertaining to society.” Social Security doesn’t have anything to do with Facebook. Calling your organization “social” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s big on Twitter. All it means is that it deals with people. If you’re talking about social media, use the whole phrase.

Matt Wilson is a staff reporter for Ragan.com, where a version of this story first appeared.

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