How do you tell your members they are safe at your credit union without going to great lengths? Communicating your story of strength is a multi-modal effort, and each step must resonate with your image of professionalism to break through the barrage of pessimistic media.
If you're being counted on to be your corporate communications officer, it is critical that you know how to write well. Even if you may have been through media and PR training, and feel comfortable responding to the media’s questions – you must now take your corporate relations a step further and be the generator of positive news.
Writing to your members or sending an e-mail from the president might even trigger discomfort by the very nature that such a message is out of the ordinary. Using every day, ordinary communications in a new way, however, can give you the opportunity to turn things around for your members and back to focusing on what to do right as a consumer of finance.
How to Write for News Releases, Newsletters and Websites
Sending out news releases regularly may already be a part of your communications program, and today you should consider this tactic critical. Send news about a branch opening, a new product, a new branch manager, even a change in rates. This will show that your credit union is alive and actively serving members.
A news release should mirror the style of a newspaper. All the pertinent facts should be put in the first paragraph, preferably in the first sentence. Because these are meant to be "news" the best way to remember this style is to focus on what is the new information. Each paragraph subsequent to the main news should serve to clarify points already covered within that first paragraph.
News stories should only include information about the specific news being announced (if you have more news, save it for another news release). Most journalists would prefer to receive a news release that is one page (or 250-500 words), 1.5 line spacing. The typical newsletter reader is also expecting straight facts and brevity. A website reader is even less patient – the first paragraph is enough for your home page - additional information can go on subsequent Web pages.
An example of a news style opening is:
"A new ABC Credit Union branch will open on March 3, 2009, at 123 Sycamore, providing members service Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon."
How to Write for Magazines
A magazine is not a longer newsletter. A magazine is an opportunity for you to engage your members. While a magazine can include tips on organizing your taxes or getting your house ready to sell, keep in mind this type of content is everywhere, so it's important to use your magazine to speak in your credit union voice.
Magazine writing – also referred to as feature writing – does not contain all the pertinent details in the first paragraph. Rather, the first paragraph typically leads into the takeaway message, as well as draw in the reader. Feature writing is often five to 10 pages (or 1,600-2,500 words), and the expectation is the reader may spend 5-15 minutes with the story. Three to five points may be made, with supporting points of interest, and various quotes.
Magazine writing draws conclusions and summarizes points in the last paragraph. It is meant to entertain as well as educate.
An example of a magazine style opening is:
"Banking online is the preferred method for accessing accounts at ABC Credit Union, but many members still want a traditional 'brick-and-mortar' branch available to them. "I like to be able to visit my money," says Joe Smith, member since 1950."
Follow Standards Styles
In both news and magazine writing, adherence to journalism standards is expected. An example is whether to spell out ten or write the number 10. (It can be either depending on the sentence.) One can find these rules in a stylebook – the most commonly used are the AP Stylebook and the New York Times Stylebook – both available at most bookstores.
Use Technical, Not Expository, for Business Style
Expository writing — sometimes referred to as essay writing — is used in the business world often, but many times as the wrong choice. In a detailed business report, elements of expository writing may be used, in which case the author might consult Elements of Style by Strunk &White. The downfall of this writing style is the reader may perceive it as covering up bad news. For example:
"The purpose of this report is to explain and expand upon the current rate environment and how it affects ABC Credit Union's asset-liability spread."
This format is superlative and implies an academic reading is in order, and may even create fear even though no specific fearful words are used.
It is usually more appropriate to use a technical writing style. Technical writing uses brevity and action verbs. For example:
"Today's rate environment is risky for ABC Credit Union."
The format is straightforward, and tells the reader exactly what and why they will need to read this report.
A Word on Voice
The most common mistake in all writing styles is to overuse the "first person" voice. First person means the writer is talking directly to the reader. For example:
"ABC Credit Union is proud to announce…"
"Our team recommends this approach because…."
Taking the text out of first person and putting it in third person
helps the writer focus on facts instead of opinions. Third person
means the writer is providing information for reader consumption
through dialogue and / or facts. Examples are:
"Loan origination fees are now being waived, announced ABC Credit Union today…"
"New accounting software is needed because…"
Let Your Natural Style Guide You, Then Check Structure
While there are many other elements to good writing, getting the core structure accurate is essential for the story to be received well by the consumer. Ultimately any reader is a consumer in that they are consuming the information presented. Always keeping that in mind may help guide your writing into the correct style naturally. Using the right resources and guidelines will help ensure the correct style.
Kristin Witzenburg is publisher of Money Matters magazine and CEO of Market and Sales Logic, a Los Angeles-based media company for credit unions.