How You Write a Press Release Is as Important as What You Write
Global firms' press releases are often written in English, the lingua franca of business. But the choice of words and phrasing, which depends largely on the culture of the firm's home country, makes a significant difference in how the message is perceived by stakeholders such as potential investors.
Based on an interview with Chavi Chi-Yun FLETCHER-CHEN on her article, “What’s in a word? Adopting a linguistic-style analysis of western MNCs’ global press releases” (Journal of World Business, 2023), co-written with Kristof COUSSEMENT (IÉSEG School of Management), Michael ANTIOCO (EDHEC Business School), and Christiane PRANGE (Tongji University).
Professor Chavi Chi-Yun FLETCHER-CHEN and her co-authors looked specifically at Business English as a lingua franca (BELF) used in press releases because this is a vital tool used by multinational companies (MNCs). A good press release can engage, persuade, and facilitate quality communication with different stakeholders to demonstrate the business’s success and boost investment.
Reading between the lines
Business English is used by MNCs in preference to their mother tongue. “But fundamentally, our background influences how we express things in a non-native language,” says FLETCHER-CHEN. “For people using business English, how well do they really communicate?”
The style in which a press release is written – the words and phrases, its complexity, length, and tone – all display the cultural values of the MNC’s country of origin. The research team set out to explore how a company’s country influences how it delivers information to its investors.
The authors characterized the BELF writing style used in such documents across four categories:
- Cognitive processing: How does word choice affect the complexity and challenge of reading the press release?
- Emotionality: To what extent does the writer use words and phrases that convey emotions, loyalty, or relationship intensity, and how negative or positive are those emotions?
- Social orientation: How does the writer talk about their alliances and business networks? Do they refer to “clients,” “stakeholders,” “staff,” or “attendees”?
- Psychological distancing: Does the writer talk about “we” or “I”? Do they use friendly, accessible, everyday language or strike a more senior and rational tone?
The authors also looked at how national culture shapes the tone and style of press releases, classifying each country studied – the US, the UK, France and Germany – into:
- High- or low-context: In high-context cultures, such as those found in Asian, Latin American, and Arab countries, messages are conveyed primarily through body language and contextual clues rather than words. In low-context cultures, most information is transmitted through words; communication is more straightforward and concise but requires factual detail to avoid misunderstandings.
- High- or low-power-distance: In high-power-distance cultures, people tend to bond most closely with those at a similar level to themselves and keep others at a respectful distance. Low-power-distance cultures exhibit less emphasis on hierarchy and make more open, emotional bonds.
- Individualist or collectivist: Collectivist cultures use language to view individuals as part of society or groups, creating feelings of belonging by using “we” over “I”. Individualist cultures are more driven by self-interest and motivation to achieve, and are keener to display personal achievement or performance.
The authors confirmed that the way press releases are written reflect the culture it originates from.
A surprising finding was that although common patterns were found across German, British, and US press releases, French documents exhibit unique linguistic styles, which makes sense in many ways.
To invest, or not to invest?
The authors showed investors different versions of the same press release that varied in their cognitive processing, emotionality, social orientation, and psychological distancing.
They confirmed that the investors’ attitudes towards press releases are influenced by the writing style, the investor’s home country, and the interaction between the two. The factors that seemed most influential were cognitive processing and emotionality.
So, if MNCs adapted their writing style to the reader’s country, it could be “a powerful way … to convey a sense of closeness and belonging, that in turn may lead potential private investors to place higher levels of trust in the message.” Companies could thus write a press release to suit the target audience. A British MNC wanting to interest a US investor, for example, should veer towards a more cognitive-processing style, yet a British MNC could incorporate the style with more social orientation than emotionality when communicating with British investors.
But customized targeting of press releases may not be feasible. In this case, the best style to adopt for economies in Anglo-Saxon culture is one with a high level of social orientation, i.e., discussing alliances, partners, networks, and interdependencies.
“Our findings show that even between countries with a relatively small language barrier, there are many differences in linguistic style,” says FLETCHER-CHEN.
The authors studied 2,223 press releases from 86 US, UK, German, and French MNCs (including Sanofi, Vodafone Group, and Microsoft) and analyzed the country-level variations in writing style. They also adapted a press release into four different styles, asked 1,173 US, British, German, and French investors which one they preferred, and how likely they were to invest in the company’s stock.
This research helps MNCs understand how they could adapt their press releases to better influence potential investors. The study states that the methodology used in this work provides “guidelines for measuring and comparing the linguistic styles of global press communications across cultures.”