Going in AP Style

Jan 10, 2018

One of the core tenets of journalism (and public relations, which at most colleges is part of the School of Journalism) is the use of AP style when writing. AP, of course, stands for the Associated Press, whose manual and rules are drilled into journalism students from the day they begin writing for their school newspaper (or whatever aspiring writers write for in school these days).

For a PR professional, use of AP style demonstrates that you are a journalism insider. That’s very important when you’re pitching a byline article, or a press release, or some other piece of content that needs to be reviewed and approved by an editor. It gives you a certain level of credibility, or at least signals to an editor that he or she won’t have to spend untold hours bringing your writing up to par.

Failure to use it, on the other hand, is generally seen as an admission that you are an ignorant hack whose writing skills would be best applied to warning labels on pet supplies. No one wants that.

This, of course, is the reason Amendola Communications is very careful about conforming to AP style. It benefits not only our agency but our clients.

Still, for those who aren’t familiar with AP style, some of its peccadillos can be a bit off-putting. They’re not used to seeing things written that way, and their preference for the approach they’re used to can become a bone of contention that slows down the writing and approval process.

Here’s the reality of the situation. When you are writing for your own blog, or marketing materials, or internal memos, etc. go ahead and let your preferences dictate the style. But when you’re writing something you’d like to have published by an independent media outlet, it’s important to follow AP style.

So what does that mean from a practical standpoint? Glad you asked! Here are five examples of the differences between regular people style and AP style. Those of you who are familiar with it please feel free to add additional common uses in the comments section.

Capitalizing corporate titles or not

This is the one that probably causes more consternation between Amendola Communications account managers and clients, so let’s start there.

Most people are taught in business writing courses to capitalize someone’s title, such as President, or Chief Medical Officer, or Vice President of Some Made Up Area that Sounds Good on LinkedIn. It’s viewed as disrespectful not to capitalize the title.

That is not the case in AP style. Titles are never capitalized, unless they are used as part of the person’s identity. Which means you can refer to President Trump with capital letters, but you would write Donald J. Trump is president of the United States.

This, by the way, is one of the easiest tests for editors and journalists to see who knows what they’re doing. Get it right in your press release and you’ve removed a barrier to publishing.

Spelling out acronyms

While the healthcare industry loves it some acronyms, AP style is not as much of a fan. So while you may believe everyone you’re communicating with knows EHR stands for electronic health record, AP style still demands that you spell it out anyway.

Usually, you will spell it out first, then put the acronym in parenthesis afterward, i.e., electronic health record (EHR). The exception is in quotes, which means if you’re going to use an acronym in a quote try to spell it out ahead of time, just to be safe. Of course, some acronyms that are widely known, such as FBI or CIA, do not need to be spelled out. But if you’re writing about them and you work in health IT, you probably have bigger issues than AP style facing you.

Bonus fun fact #1: According to the AP Style guide, using the initialism CEO by itself is acceptable, although they still recommend spelling it out somewhere else. Other titles, such as CFO or CMO, must always be spelled out because they are less universal.

Writing out numbers

This is another of those interesting AP style oddities. When writing out single numbers from 0-9, AP style dictates you spell out the number rather than use the numeral. So zero for 0, one for 1, all the way up to nine (9). Once you’re in double digits, you use the numerals, so 10, 11, and so forth.

That also applies to numbers used in combination, which can get very awkward. You would write “there are 10 three-bedroom homes on this block” or “Put the three of us down for 12 medical devices each.”

State abbreviations

The AP has its own set of state abbreviations that are preferred, especially for use in a dateline. They are different (and longer) in most cases from the more-familiar postal codes, so it’s worth looking up. Or, you can just follow this link, although they’re not laid out quite as nicely as you might like.

Here are a couple of examples. The postal code for California is CA, but the AP style abbreviation is Calif. The postal code for Arizona, where Amendola Communications is headquartered, is AZ whereas the AP style abbreviation is Ariz.

Two-word states tend to get different treatment. While New Hampshire uses an N and an H for both, the postal code is NH while the AP style abbreviation is N.H. The extra periods make a difference.

Bonus fun fact #2: When you’re in the body of a press release, AP style stresses spelling out the name of the state rather than using abbreviations of any kind.

Bonus fun fact #3: Certain large cities, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and New York, don’t require a state at all in the dateline. In fact, including a state again makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing.

Other types of abbreviations

For pretty much any other type of abbreviation, you’re always going to use periods after each letter. That includes professional credentials (M.D. instead of MD, Ph.D. instead of PhD) and time designations (p.m. instead of pm, E.S.T. instead of Eastern Standard Time).

Yes, it can be very odd-looking, especially when you say an event will begin at 1:00 p.m. E.S.T., and yes, all those periods kind of get in the way. But that’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh, they like it. (Sorry, channeling my inner Kate Donlon there.)

So many rules

This is just a small sampling of some of the most common issues that seem to crop up from time to time. There are many more. In fact, the AP puts out an entire manual with everything you could possibly wonder about, which they will be more than happy to sell you if you’re interested. It’s available in both paper and electronic form.

Or, you can just count on your friendly neighborhood PR pros to get it right for you. It’s all part of the service.

Ken Krause

An award-winning writer for his work in advertising, marketing and public relations, Ken Krause has a diverse background that includes more than 30 years of combined agency- and client-side experience. Ken has in-depth experience in technology products and services, healthcare, supply chain, consumer electronics and other vertical markets. He previously served as Vice President of Content Services at Tech Image, where he spent 14 years. Ken also served as Marketing Communications Manager at ASAP Software (now a part of Dell). His earlier career includes stints as an Account Manager at Marketing Support, Inc. and McKee Advertising and as a Senior Copywriter for Meyer/Fredericks.