The Trick to Writing Business Profiles So They Aren’t Sleazy PR

Freelance writer comes off like PR personOne well-paid niche many freelance writers aspire to get into is writing business profiles. But often, when writers try this niche, they discover a problem.

The piece reads more like a press release for the company. This business owner is awesome! Their product is amazing!

One writer recently asked me:

“I’m interviewing a local businesswoman tomorrow that I pitched to my editor. This piece will appear in the business section of the newspaper. The editor asked that I not make the story too advertorial.  My question is, what should I ask to help balance the story?”–Janet

Great question. Because too many writers turn in pieces that end up getting killed because they aren’t balanced, hard-hitting business profiles — they’re more like “puff” pieces or thinly disguised PR work.

The editor might start to wonder if you’re secretly on that business’s payroll and just posing as a journalist. That’s why badly done business profiles die.

How can you please business editors with your profile? Here are my tips:

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

When you’re talking to the owner, they will be spouting their company’s PR line about their own greatness. It can feel like you’re caught in a heavy snowstorm and can no longer see the outlines of the buildings — or the real story.

Remember that your job is to come at this skeptically. You are not part of this company’s sales or PR team, and your story doesn’t exist to help boost their sales (though many owners imagine that’s the point). Don’t just nod your head and write down what they say.

You’re here to get the whole story — not just the glowing high points.

Get facts and figures

When a business owner tells you their sales are booming, find out by how much. If there have been layoffs, how many people were let go? How many new customers have they found this year?

Owners love to be vague about revenue numbers, but the details are what make your story credible — and not a PR job.

In particular, many privately held companies won’t want to tell you their annual revenue. But you want to make them. They’ll say they don’t disclose it — but ask them if a sales figure has ever appeared in an industry trade journal, at a conference, anywhere. If so, you’d like to include it. At worst, get them provide percentages, as in “sales rose 200 percent compared with last year.”

Do a search on Manta or ZoomInfo and see if you can turn up a mention of sales or profit figures somewhere in the past. Then, offer the business an opportunity to update that.

Once you’ve got your facts and figures, let those tell the story. Nail down every assertion you make about the company’s success with proof. Don’t make the reader take your — or the owner’s — word for it.

Decipher the jargon

Every industry has its own shorthand, and the owner will likely babble along spouting these terms. Unless you’re writing for an audience of only other people in that industry, be sure to get the owner to translate it all into English.

Companies also often have their own buzzwords for how they do what they do. Don’t be shy about asking for further explanation if it’s not obvious to you — because if you don’t get it, readers won’t either.

Ask the hard questions

Good business profiles usually touch on the dark side of the business in some way. Was last year the worst ever? How did they turn that around? Did a competitor put out a better product recently? Did the owner face a health crisis?

Find out what the biggest threat is to this business. Are costs rising? New competitors entering the market?

One way to snap owners out of their PR spiel is to ask them what they do all day, hour by hour. Often, that will touch on the problems they’re dealing with.

Ultimately, what makes this business truly stand out in the marketplace? What does it have that’s unique? Don’t leave the owner’s office without the answer to that one.

Don’t gush

Remember that as a reporter, your opinions are not part of the story. So if you bond with the owner and decide she’s the most good-hearted person ever, her charitable work is impressive, and you want to be best friends, that’s all swell.

But none of that should appear in the article. Don’t editorialize. If the owner’s character is truly outstanding, get someone else in the story to say that. Speaking of which…

Talk to others

There’s nothing more boring — or one-sided — than a business profile where the only interview is with the business owner. Dig deeper to learn in more depth about this business and where it sits in its competitive landscape.

Other people who could share useful insights on a business include:

  • A customer
  • A line employee
  • A competitor
  • An angel investor
  • Neighboring business owners
  • The owner’s mentor
  • An advisory board member
  • A colleague in a professional organization with the owner

In my days as a staff writer at a regional business journal, we were never allowed to file a business profile without at least one customer interview. Customers are the only ones who can tell you in a hype-free way exactly why a company’s products or services are succeeding — or failing — in the market.

Try to get customers the company doesn’t give you, if possible. I have stood outside hardware stores in the rain and taken to social media to turn up unbiased customers to get their opinions. It’s worth it.

If you turn up bad news in talking to others, remember to circle back and give the owner a chance to respond. Remember, you’re not there to make the owner like you. Your job is to bring back a fascinating, fully fleshed-out story about something innovative or fresh, and make the world of business come alive for the reader.

 

 

 

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20 comments on “The Trick to Writing Business Profiles So They Aren’t Sleazy PR
  1. This is an easy trap to get caught in, especially when you like the person you’re interviewing. These are great reminders for any journalist. I especially like the tip to talk to others. The more people you talk to the broader your focus and the more information you get. Plenty of high ranking executives are pretty quiet about everything except how great a company is, and I think talking to lower level employees and other outsiders is often the way to get a great balanced picture.
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  2. Great post Carol!

    I have this same issue when I’m working on business websites — owners want to tell you how amazing their company is, but not the nitty gritty of what they can do for their customers and how their business really works.

    I loved your advice to “ask them what they do all day, hour by hour. Often, that will touch on the problems they’re dealing with.” I’m going to start using that every time I talk to business owners, no matter what type of writing the final piece is!
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    • Carol Tice says:

      Yes, I always feel like my brain is being sanded with heavy-grit sandpaper as business owners rave vaguely about themselves…it’s very hypnotic. I could almost put my head on my arm and go to sleep while they’re doing it. But you must…resist…the spell of believing this initial spew. And start digging.

      I have yet to find a business that doesn’t have an interesting story hiding in there, and it’s your job to dig and find it. So often at the very end of one of these PR-style interviews, I’ll ask, “Well, but what’s new at the company?” only to have them finally come out with the actual news: They’ve just expanded internationally, opened a new store, closed 6 stores, lured away a top exec from a rival company. And at last, we have an angle for this profile!

      “What’s coming up for you in the next year?” is also a good question for getting some actual news out of them.

  3. Amy says:

    I love the specifics here Carol – the hour by hour and customer opinion especially.

    One question – How do you deal with an owner who seems to bond with you and tells you “off the record” juicy tidbits that make the story (divorce, personal toll, issues with business partners…)

    • Carol Tice says:

      I was taught that the minute a source says, “This is off the record,” to say, “Stop. Don’t tell me.”

      Unless it’s something you’re able to use, you don’t want to know it. If they drop something on you and then say they want it off the record, you get to explain it doesn’t work that way – they have to tell you up front. But you’re willing to work with them to make it something they can say.

      The other way to go is once you know the ‘off the record’ stuff, find someone else to say it ON the record. Maybe one of those other business partners is ready to spill. Maybe there’s a public record of that lawsuit or divorce filing. Just use it as a breadcrumb trail to follow, and source it elsewhere.

      This is all more relevant to expose work really — most business profiles you’re not out to ‘get’ the owner with a big scandal story. But if there is something relevant that gives the story more depth, you want to find a way to get it in the story if you can.

      • Ronn Jerard says:

        Wow, Carol. This is sooo valuable, especially when you say “…they have to tell you up front” if they want it off the record. That’s never happened to me, but now I know to look out for it in the future. Thank you.

  4. wellcarol,this is in-depth post i ever read.thank you.

  5. Rachel Horsting says:

    What I found most useful about the post was the specific areas to research for interview prep – it is so easy to get caught up reading everything. But knowing the essential questions focuses the research time AND the interview time.

    Even though you focused this on businesses, it is also useful for other kinds of profiles.

  6. Ronn Jerard says:

    Insightful article, as usual, Carol. The part that really jumped out at me was, “Owners love to be vague about revenue numbers, but the details are what make your story credible — and not a PR job.” That’s a dangerously slippery sloop that I will be aware of from this moment forward.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Oh, you have no idea, Ronn! My favorite is when they say, “Sales are up 200% from last year!” Which usually means sales were $10K last year and now they’re $30K. Big whoop. You have to ask, “Up 200% from WHAT?”

      Which still tells you nothing about whether there’s a dime of profit to it. After 20 years covering business, I can tell you, there’s a lot of tunneling to get some meaningful figures that tell us how the business is really doing.

  7. Carol, this is an excellent “how-to” piece. Here are a few additional questions I use:
    1) What work-related issues keep you up at night?
    2) You work several 12-hour days. How do you spend your time away from the office?
    3) Is there a big misconception about your company? If so, what is it and what are you doing about it?
    4) Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t discuss?

    • Carol Tice says:

      I always end with that #4, Pamela…and I love #3 as well. Sometimes there *is* a big knowledge gap out there, and an article can be a great time to show us the REAL story of what’s going on, as opposed to the one we *think* we know.

  8. Cherese Cobb says:

    Carol,
    You hit the writing ball out of the ball park, as always. I love the drinking Kool-Aid idea. Writing is alot like eating. You have sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. Sweet is only tasted on the tip of your tongue. You need the rest of the flavors for a complete experience! These flavors can be obtained by throwing hard ball questions and kicking the rose-colored glasses to the curb by asking others for their opinions.

  9. Great post. I think you’re right on saying most business profiles read like a press release. Businesses would be amazed at the feedback/interaction if they put some more personality in their profile.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that personality is in there, Ben not the business’s. If the reporter doesn’t ask some hard questions and have multiple sources beyond the owner, what you often end up with is a snoozy, self-promotional piece that lacks perspective on the business’s true challenges and place in the marketplace. And that friction, between what the business is trying to do and the factors out there that might prevent success, is what makes the story interesting.

  10. Rohi Shetty says:

    Thanks a ton, Carol.

    As usual, I’ve gained multiple insights from your post.

    My favorite: “One way to snap owners out of their PR spiel is to ask them what they do all day, hour by hour. Often, that will touch on the problems they’re dealing with.” This is golden.

  11. Willi Morris says:

    Great post! This is suitable for full-fledged case studies as well.
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    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, case studies really *are” PR — the client is the business, and the case study exists to glorify the company and show their products/services are best…so a bit different there.

      The trick is to not fall into the same conventions when you’re writing as a reporter for a business paper. There, the reader is your real client. 😉

  12. Ooh, great post, and one of my favorite topics.

    I have only one thing to my students who struggle with this: Tell a story. That’s it. Tell the story of this person and the business they’ve built and let the reader make the more technical and jargon-related discoveries on the way as part of that narrative.
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