From 'shining a light' to 'unique', 'thrilling' and 'punching above their weight', we identify the worst PR offences, with top arts publicists chiming in with their own pet peeves.
'Punching above its weight' is a phrase set to cause instant anger. Image by Damir Spanic via Unsplash.
If you're an arts or film journalist you'll regularly receive media releases, whether they're promoting new shows, art prizes or important government announcements. Many of these have messaging that's diluted by the overuse of clichés, clunky phrases and repetitive, hyped-up words.
Writing well is hard work. Believe us when we say we sympathise with how difficult it can be to communicate accurately and truthfully, while also trying to be arresting, original and stimulate interest. We are as guilty as anyone of falling into easy shorthand, especially when pressed for time.
But if you want your media releases to do their job and catch attention without causing irritation or boredom, here are some of our most detested words and phrases.
We've also enlisted some experienced arts publicists to give us their perspective on the subject.
The takeaway message (another cliché) is to try a little harder and think a little deeper about the language we're using. We're supposed to be in the 'creative' sector after all.
Words & Phrases Done to Death
'Shine a light on'
Unless you've just experienced a blackout, there's no need to shine a light on anything. Try using 'unveil', even 'illuminate', if you must. Or maybe just 'show'.
'Taking a journey'
Trekking in the Andes is a journey; explaining the story of your 30-minute comedy show is not.
This one speaks of the deep Australian cultural cringe. When tourism copywriters talk about Melbourne's 'world class boulevards' or the 'Paris end of town' we know they're over-reaching. Same goes for our national theatre, dance, music and screen productions. Why not be confident and just assume it has just as much right to exist as anything else in the world?
'Punching above its weight'
This is in the same cringe category as 'World Class'. Stop being so insecure. Yes, we have a national obsession with underdogs and small poppies, but find another metaphor to say something works well despite being small or made with limited resources.
'At the End of the Day'
If you're writing a fantasy novel about Armageddon this phrase might be useful, but in media releases, it's redundant.
'Paints a picture'
This one is probably okay, but only if you're talking about actual painters or cinematographers.
Really? Take a moment to probe whether this is actually true. Most things have been done before.
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The Publicists Respond
Of course, it’s not just arts journalists who sometimes despair at an over-written media release or the over-use of a particular word. Publicists too have their pet hates when it comes to particular words and phrases, especially when editing a demanding client’s rough draft.
Eleanor Howlett from Sassy Red PR said: ‘My three biggest language no-no’s in media releases are:
- The overuse of exclamation marks. We’re heading into Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) and that can be a bit rampant. I’ll allow two exclamation points maximum in my releases. I prefer none. We know the artists who write their releases are really excited (!!!) about the work they’re creating – as they should be – but the media on the receiving end of hundreds of these weekly… unfortunately, not so much.
- I think it’s problematic and I get out the red marker when artists use of the word 'Hilarious' to describe their own work. I appreciate that’s blunt, especially going into MICF when it’s mostly every release, but if you use that word and you’re not hilarious to even one person? Well. It’s awkward. However, if it’s included in the release as a quote from a review or such, then perfect!
- I never understand why artists feel the need to use $10 words when a 50c one will do just fine. I mean, write it well, but there’s no need to use the thesaurus on every word in the sentence. Keep it simple.
Similarly, Starling Communications’ Ben Starick told us: ‘Like fashion, words and phrases seem to cycle through trends. Look at this year – we’ve overused “pivot”, “adapt” and “new-normal”.
‘At times, there are a handful of terms that appear redundant when reviewing copy for a media release. Overused words I sometimes see include “exciting”, “groundbreaking” and “contemporary” – are they really? In whose opinion? Can we back this up with evidence?
‘I think the one word that grates on me most is “unique”. When I see “unique” in a media release, I often stop and think, “Surely there’s a better way to explain this?” Are we really describing something that is unlike anything else, something that has never been tried before?
‘Choosing words and phrases that resonant and create some interest can be a fine art – it needs some integrity. For me, this has been a good reminder to pause, to reflect and to ask: is this word the best one to use and what does this word really mean in the context of the sentence and broader message?’ he said.
Miranda Brown from Miranda Brown Publicity said there are multiple words that are a constant source of irritation for her in press releases:
'"Unique", "brilliant", "celebration", "thrilled" all come to mind. Cities are constantly ‘overflowing’. So many superlatives!
'If I had to choose one it would be "unique" because it is overused to the point of meaninglessness. To be unique is to be unlike anything else. How often do we actually experience that? We all know that art is a constantly evolving beast with artists taking inspiration from those that came before them and the world around them. A successful formula is often repeated ad infinitum. Unique is rare.'
Karen Eck, founder of PR Agency eckfactor and founder and presenter of The Power of Visibility for women in business said that she's grown to dislike hearing the term 'narrative' in PR pitches.
'I first heard it listening to a cluster of corporate PRs rabbiting on about "narratives" in their proposed strategy. Problem was there was little strategy. Using the term once was passable but after the 15th time, utterly tiresome.'
Eck said she's also tired of hearing 'excited', 'thrilled' and 'pleased'. 'Any opportunity to avoid these words is worth the effort.' she said.
Read: Three killer mistakes women make in promoting their work
'Leverage' is also a word she's avoiding now. 'I’ve been guilty of using this word a lot over the years, particularly in reference to advising clients on how to take advantage of their creative content. Like a lot of things in 2021, it’s time for a change!'
Eck added: 'And of course the 2020 overused phase award goes to … "in these challenging and unprecedented times" and the runner up is "we’re all in this together".'
Additional reporting by Richard Watts.