All posts by Liz Ernst

Liz Ernst is a freelance journalist, copywriter and public relations pro. For more information, visit www,, or email Liz at

Headless Bodies, Topless Bars; What Makes a Headline Legendary?

Headless Body in Topless BarIn 1983,  the New York Post headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar” became news in and of itself, claiming the still undisputed title of  greatest American tabloid headline—evah.

For PR writers, headlines are no simple grab for attention. There are rules to writing press release headlines for media publication, and “Headless Body in Topless Bar” adheres to none of them. Since press releases are the primary name of my game, I get my creative fixes elsewhere—my blog, for instance.  When it comes to writing traditional news releases, I follow the rules because I like to eat.

Are traditional news releases still important to a well-rounded PR and marketing plan, even with the increased use of alternative marketing venues like social media and blogs?  Yes.

Is the headline critical to your press release’s success? Yes.

Just in case you aren’t familiar with my opinion on the importance of traditional press releases in any media campaign, here it is: only amateurs diss the traditional press release. Sure, they’re a lot of work and require real journalistic skills to properly execute; but in a world of self-serving marketing campaigns slathered in superlatives, the traditional press release stands alone.

When properly executed, the press release delivers legitimacy to your company’s key message and image. The world’s most important and successful corporations and organizations continue to issue press releases daily, often several in a day because it’s the appropriate format for relaying information directly to the press.  Remember, it’s journalists and editors who decide whether you have something newsworthy to say or are simply looking for free publicity for your thinly veiled ad, and it’s journalists who will decide your press release’s fate.

If you haven’t already, it’s important to start separating PR from marketing theoretically, because the two are not interchangeable. When tasked with writing a press release, you want to make sure your headlines are as expertly crafted as the body.

Here are six ways to nail a journalist-friendly press release headline:

1. Make it informative: One of the biggest mistakes non-journalists make when attempting to write a press release is mistaking it for marketing copy. When it comes to press releases, newsworthiness trumps clever sales writing every day; consider the headline a journalist’s bullshit indicator, which it is. The headline establishes whether you’re sharing newsworthy information or selling your client’s widget. Save the clever riddles and rhetorical questions for social media or marketing headlines if you really want your press release to be, you know, picked up.

2. No more than 120 characters. Although some purists would like to disregard the role of SEO in traditional press release creation, that’s not an option. Search engines only index the first 65 characters of a headline, making it critical that your most important keyword (as well as the company name)  appears within that range. Remember,  search engines place higher importance is placed on keywords placed closest to the beginning of the headline. While we’re talking keywords, one of the best methods commonly used for page title optimization is to use generic keywords and long tail keywords. Combining the two helps target a wider range of customers looking for more specific and targeted information.

3. Get to know—and avoid—spammy keywords. There’s a laundry list of words that trigger spam filter alerts, even when the use of the word is legit. Some such spam alert words are “free,” opportunity,” “mortgage” and “order now.” Unless you’re going for tabloid sensationalism, avoid needless or indulgent punctuation (like capital letters and exclamation marks) which can not only trigger spam filters, they’ll get your press release tossed to the circular file by journalists and editors faster than you can say “OH NO!”

4. Keep hyperlinks out of headlines (and summary paragraphs.) It’s good to use embedded links sparingly in a press release so readers have quick access to your website or product information, but save them for the body of the release and use them sparingly. Legitimate press release distribution services do not accept hyperlinks in headlines or summary paragraphs at all, but for those of you who self distribute through email or another channel, placing a link in a headline is a sure-fire way to encourage readers to run for the hills. Keep hyperlinks to a minimum in your press release—one link per 100 words max, although I recommend just one or two links total. Search engines are also suspicious of hyperlinks and will mark a press release with too many live links as Web spam

5. Keep it focused. Instead of trying to cram several elements into one headline, take a deep breath and remind yourself of  your intention here: to relay news to the press. If a company launches a new product line, don’t discuss the product line’s individual items in the headline; the news is the launch of the product line. Use a summary paragraph to say more than your headline can accommodate, and use the press release body to tell the full story. If you consider one element more important than the news of the launch itself, write it that way. For instance, “Hasbro Launches New Superhero Action Figure Line” can be rewritten to say “Hasbro Includes Spiderman in New Action Figure Line” if Spiderman is too important to leave out of the headline.

6. Make it count. Resist the urge to bypass the rules of press release headline writing because you have a really clever idea you’d rather use. Do you want the press release to showcase your cleverness, or to tell your client’s news? There are plenty of options for showcasing your creative writing skills online, but there is only one option for writing a press release capable of making it through the media gauntlet.

Blog Writing, SEO, and When Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness is Fittin’

blogging-insideSome 350 million people tweet messages condensed into 140 characters or less every day. Social networking has given voice to pretty much anyone who wants to say anything to millions of potential readers. My point is that getting your message out to millions of readers has never been easier, nor has it ever been as critical to the marketing success of the businesses or publications who hired you to write and SEO their blogs.

But there are some guidelines if you want your blogs to succeed.

Although we all know blogs are marketing tools, when you’re blogging for business the best approach is a journalistic one. Why is that you ask?  Because a journalistic approach is informative; people read blogs to get  useful information. Blog readers don’t go there to be hoodwinked into buying your product or services under the guise of “informational article.” They’re reading your blog because they want to learn something they don’t already know; give them something illuminating and helpful they can use, and you will be remembered as credible. Hyper-linking keywords to your website within the blog should be as close as it gets to selling your readers anything.

Choosing your blogging voice will depend on your audience. Short, sweet and unpretentious is a safe way to deliver a message that people will read. Most folks tend to read on the fly, on their smart phones, so economy is important. They want to absorb the message in three minutes or less. They usually know in 10 seconds if it’s worth reading all the way through. If you are blogging about a new product or a time-sensitive happening, keep it informational, limited to 300-400 words max, and hyperlink a keyword to the associated website page where they can get the full-on skinny and while they’re at it, find the stuff you’re selling. For example:

Finding a professional press release writer who is as adept with SEO as they are with AP Style writing guidelines is often easier said than done. In order to compete, you have to remember that an effective press release must be search engine optimized, or your audience won’t find it.

Notice I never name my company in the blog? I simply hyperlink keywords to the site and let the magic begin. I call it credibility marketing because my readers are being totally aroused by my expertise, and not being turned off with obvious sales pitches. I also make sure my blogs are enlightening, fresh, and timely.

If you’re writing a personal blog, you have a lot more freedom to play than you have writing corporate blogs; you can have fun with the content, choose your words with less hesitation, but still you must consider your audience if you want to actually be read. If you’re blogging about, say, Nancy Grace or dashboard bobble heads, try to stick with one- or two-syllable words and short paragraphs. If your personal blog is focused on Bayes’ Rules or the final season of “Six Feet Under,” you can indulge your passion for waxing cerebral.

I used to have an editor who always forced me to dummy down my copy, and although I do admit to occasional bouts of Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness (only when it’s fittin’), it’s a no-no in news and business writing. So she was right, sort of. But when she started telling me to find simpler words for terms like “habitat” and “prestigious”, I argued; our readers were intelligent and could be trusted with most words, I’d tell her.

So then I would go ahead and replace the words called into question with simpler words, all the while giving her the invisible finger. Bright side, it did force me to tighten my writing style for general audiences, which really is a gift.

But personal blogging is different. There is no better opportunity–-at least no better readily available, instantly publishable opportunity–-to talk up a topic creatively and in your own voice. Your audience may not be looking for you to dummy down the message, especially if your blog focuses on a specialized topic that resonates with a specific audience. I’d bet money that most specialized blog readers want content written in their specialized language (Star Trek fans for instance, or French wine aficionados,) and are hoping to actually learn something they didn’t already know before they read your blog; and hey, who doesn’t love to learn a new word on any given day, amiright?

OK, so there is something to the old adage, know your audience. Don’t go choosing a fancy word because you think it makes you look smart (but use it if it makes you look thin, natch). If a simpler word packs the same punch, use it unless the fancy word is more appropriate to the tone of your blog (see: sesquipedalian loquaciousness). If the fancy word really summarizes a point better than any other, go for it provided you are absolutely sure you are using it correctly. Let your readers look it up if they have to (or hyperlink to the dictionary definition if the word is particularly obscure). Give your reader the benefit of the doubt. In fact, if the sentence is structured properly, most likely the word’s meaning will be self-evident.

For instance, “the wedding was held at a tony club in one of Napa’s oldest family owned vineyards.”

Sure, I could say the wedding was held at the high-class club or the elegant club, or even the exclusive club, but tony tells the reader that this club has an aristocratic, highbrow quality. Lindsey Lohan wouldn’t be invited, but if she showed up, she would be treated impeccably. You won’t get those subtle references from elegant or exclusive.

Be bold, trust your instincts, and challenge your readers a bit if it feels right. Although the rule of thumb for bloggers should be to keep it simple so your readers can focus on the message and not the vocabulary, sometimes a well-chosen idiom does trump its bland counterpart. Just remember it’s a very fine line between ‘meaningfulness’ and mere pretension.

Keep honing your craft, and eventually your instincts will help develop the great blogger in you.


Some Finer Points to Writing Stand-out, Intelligent Blog Copy. Or not.

girl reading on platformThis blog is a continuation of the last one – sort of my own personal rant on quality content because, no matter what trends the winds blow in, quality content is what they’ll remember. If the SEO lands your blog article in the hands of anyone whose opinion you respect (and everyone else, for that matter) do yourself a huge favor and make absolutely sure they walk away pleased to have read it – or at least not pissed off that you wasted their time.

Build your writing career on quality content first. Make sure your SEO is spot on too if you really want to compete, but never sacrifice quality for keywords.

I wrote a blog on noise pollution regularly for almost three years, so I fancy myself to be a bit of an expert on the subject. Noise pollution is a hot, hot topic right now, in case you aren’t aware. A month or two ago, a Huff Post blogger wrote a piece on noise pollution that was so inadequate, every single reader comment criticized her. Most of them left feeling she had made up the problem! Her blog had no meat whatsoever. She mentioned study results without naming the studies or hyper-linking to them. It couldn’t have been lazier, and it was discouraging to those of us who care about this subject and recognized the plundered opportunity.

Noise pollution is actually a serious problem – it has exceeded mold and air pollution to become the leading health risk to humans and animals, both on land and in the sea. The studies are vast and varied, and the findings are jaw-dropping – for instance, we’re all developing tinnitus, and many of us are going deaf and having heart attacks because of all the noise in our environment. Fact.

Certain species of birds are losing their ability to sing in the right tone, and they can’t mate as a result. Ancient trees are dropping dead because of noise pollution! Fact.

That Huff Post disaster of a blog on noise pollution mentioned none of this – or if it did, I don’t remember it, I was too busy trying to read it without my eyes bleeding. Had the blogger spent just a little time finding new, relevant information – of which there is a ton out there on this incredibly important topic – she could have delivered a worthwhile piece. Instead, just like Fox News, she succeeded in giving her audience the impression that she had nothing better to do one afternoon than make up a story about noisy airplanes and things that go vroooooomm. So I wonder what her point was in writing the blog at all; she didn’t appear to have a message that she felt urgently needed telling. It was more like someone held a gun to her head and said “Noise Pollution – you have 10 minutes – write!” (which actually would have been a blog worth reading).

But it’s her byline on that blog, her reputation as a writer and researcher, which should mean something to her. Maybe she is very young and very new at this, in which case I would like to cut her some slack – but the best way to get through the growing pains that go with being a new writer is to do whatever it takes to make sure your copy is worth someone’s precious reading time. You can ask a few trusted friends or colleagues to read your copy before you post it, but beware – they might be tempted to rewrite it “their way,” or their criticisms may tell you they completely missed your point (and consider this a perfect opportunity to reflect – are you being too obtuse, or is the critique-giver just stupid?)

Fine tune your own instincts as a writer as quickly as possible – you are never a truly free writer until you are confident that you can handle criticism, and be prepared to either stand by your copy or admit to your mistakes – and learn from them.

Readers remember you if your blogs are very, very good or very, very bad. Decide early how you envision your reputation as a blogger a year from now, and five years from now. Do your research, and learn the art of self-editing. Read as many blogs as you have time for, and emulate those that captivate you.

The hardest part about blogging? Doing it.


Blogging 101: Credibility, Relevance, and Separating Yourself From the Hacks

CaptureOK, peeps, listen up!

That is either a terrible way to begin a blog, or a real attention-getter. I’m not sure. I’ve always been hit-or-miss with ledes, but that is not completely my fault. Of course I want to capture the reader with my title and my first five to 10 words, but there’s those pesky responsibilities like SEO, and AP Style (if it’s news writing), and the client’s message if you’re being paid to write the blog. So juggling all the rules while writing the world’s catchiest lede is not going to happen every time, but it’s oh soooo satisfying when it does.

If you’re setting out to become a blogger, take the time you need to separate yourself from the hacks. Bloggers compete with gobs of others trying to send the same (or similar) message, so you’d best make yours a worthwhile read. My first tip: never blatantly try to sell anything in a blog. Never, ever. You turn off the readers and cheapen the forum for the rest of us. Your blog should make readers interested enough to click on a link to the website that sells your product or services. Write about industry-related issues; don’t try to sell your products or services.

If you’re writing a blog to express your own viewpoint, the information you’re trying to convey should be a good barometer for the blog’s tone. If you’re writing a blog on ballet, for instance, you will want to utilize ballet terms and blog about issues that appeal to ballerinas. If your topic is Congress, guttersniping is de rigueur.

If I had my druthers, my writing voice would always be stream-of-consciousness hyperbole times a gazillion, but I rarely want to offend my readers (or my clients). So I am hyper-vigilant about taming the loose-talking voice within when it comes to writing blogs for my own website, and especially for clients’ websites. After all, I have their reputations to maintain and that’s kind of a heavy responsibility for a smartass like myself. As a thoroughly professional smartass, I behave.

In addition to taming your own inner Tourette’s, it’s important to fine tune your relevance barometer. Once you have established a topic that you believe to be oozing pertinence, please – I beg of you – write it properly. And by properly I mean do your homework and tell your reader something new and informative that they probably don’t already know. I’m serious. People who really understand whatever it is you’re blogging about – you know, experts in the field – might read it, and they will call you out if it’s wrong. Rightfully so. There is no excuse to publish incorrect or vague crap – if you need facts and resources, Google it. (I will expand on this in my next blog.)


What’s The ROI in SEO? OMG!

blog coverSearch Engine Optimization is a must for visibility, and visibility is a must if you’re going to compete.

There’s no getting around it; everything – from your website to your blog and press releases – should be professionally SEOd  so that search engines (and ultimately, viable customers) can find you.  SEO drives traffic to your website, and can single your business or organization out in a pool of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of others offering what you are selling.

Consider this: there are, at this moment, 2.9 million searches per minute being conducted;  175 million searches every hour, 4 billion searches every day, and 131 billion searches per month (source: Hubspot). You need to rise above “needle in a haystack” status, and that’s where SEO comes in.

By injecting the appropriate SEO strategy, your company or organization will achieve greater prominence. Media organizations looking to write a story or find an expert in your field to quote in a news article will find you first; when you are quoted as an industry expert or leader in a news article or program, your phone will start ringing, your website traffic will start moving, and your credibilty skyrockets.

When your blog or press release goes out on the wire, expertly executed SEO gets it to the top of the search engines. if you’re easy to find, your traffic will increase plain and simple.

If you’re not convinced, try these SEO stats on for size:

1. 93% of online experiences begin with a search engine (source; Rainbow SEO);

2. 82.6 % of Internet users utilize search. (source: B2B Social Media Guide);

3. 80% of search engine users clain they occasionally, rarely, or never click on sponsored search results, meaning more users prefer organic search results that effective SEO provides (source: SEO Peace);

4. That’s right, 70% of links that do get the click from search engine users are organic (source: SEJ);

5. 75% of users never scroll past the first page of search results. (source: Hubspot);

6. 50% of potential customers are more likely to click on a search engine result if the brand appears multiple times in the search results. (source: Brafton);

7. The number one driver of traffic to websites is search – out-trafficking social media by 300%! (source: B2B Social Media Guide);

8. With Google, 18% of organic clicks go to the number one position, 10% of organic clicks go to the number two position, and 7% of organic clicks go to the number three postion. (source: SEO Peace);

9. 42% of searchers click on the top ranked search result, compared to only 23% of searchers who click on PPC links. (source: BloggingPro);

10. 39% of customers come from search.