All posts by Guy Clapperton

What does a journalist look for in a press release?

I’m picking up a fair bit of work training people in public relations to write at the moment, so I thought it might be worth talking about press releases. I get a lot of them and some are fatally flawed – but rather than criticise (there are plenty of blogs that will offer critiques if you like) I thought I’d map out some stuff that really ought to be in them.

  • Targeting before you write and before you send the release out. I get that there are loads of journalists out there and that we move about. Freelances like me write for more than one publication, sometimes as a one-off. Genuinely, I get it. However, a while ago I was writing only about small business and information technology – and one company sent me a load of releases coming in on female sex aids for a while. Don’t get me wrong, like any mid-life crisis-stricken male I found them fascinating, but they didn’t get any coverage. Think about who you’re sending a release to and why. I’ve been known to ask PR people which of my outlets they thought a piece might suit; the good ones have an answer, the bad ones just shrug.
  • A good title is essential. By “good” I mean clear and to the point rather than clever-clever. The headline on this blog tells you what you’re going to get and a press release header needs to get me there just as quickly. An old colleague of mine used to edit a magazine targeted at women and every year she’d get the Easter releases, which would try so hard to avoid mentioning that they were about a chocolate promotion. Just tell us you’re promoting chocolate if that’s what you’re doing – we may well be interested!
  • Content really is king. I’ve had releases saying “my client has an opinion on…” – only this morning, as someone who doesn’t write about personal finance, I’ve had a release from someone whose client wants to comment on a personal finance issue. So there’s no relevance to me (see “targeting”) and really not much to say. Why waste the electricity sending it?
  • Structure is also vital. If I don’t “get” a story from the preview pane of my email program I’m probably not going to read any further – I get enough good content to fill my day. Sorry.
  • Exclusivity is probably not realistic when dealing with press releases but as someone outside the staff of the press for which I write I need some sort of hook on which I can pitch it. I once emailed the commissioning editor with whom I was working on the Daily Express to say I’d just been invited to a press event; the answer came back, “great, so have I!” Of course he didn’t want to commission me to go to something he was already planning to attend. Freelance journalists will need to demonstrate that they’re worth the extra budget. So, can you add something that will help us sell it in? Maybe we interviewed your client a year ago so have extra knowledge (and we might need reminding as we do a lot of interviews), maybe it would be a good follow-on from a piece we’ve written, maybe there’s another reason you think we should pay this some attention?

That’s a few thoughts for a kick-off but of course there’s a load more. I’d be pleased to come and run a session on writing for your agency or your PR department – drop me a note by clicking here for details.

Do you need a “hook”?

When I was learning journalism I was always told that a feature, news story or anything else needed a hook. It absolutely had to have something for the reader to hang it on – a reason for them to read on.

Mostly this meant some sort of topicality. Lately this has changed. I still see journalists on various social media platforms complaining that something isn’t timely, it doesn’t seem relevant to anything happening immediately and that it’s otherwise unhelpful.

OK, so far so good – but what’s happening out in the slightly more real world?

Social media

What’s happening is that although people are still reading news they’re also reading a whole load of timeless stuff. Not so much the celebrity interview that purports to be timeless but we all know it’s based on the release of a movie or book, but the genuinely timeless stuff. How many blog entries have you opened recently that consisted of lists? “Five mistakes made by marketers”, “Three ways to attract more followers”, you know the sort of thing. The smart money says the readers love lists, although I have my doubts myself (maybe people are wising up to click-getting titles or maybe I’m just not very good at composing lists).

Or they consist of a title with a question – if you’re reading this blog the chances are that you clicked attracted by just such a question.

Blandness

I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that the problem isn’t actually topicality and perhaps it never was. The problem is that some people send out press releases, blogs, social media entries or whatever they’re writing, with no regard to whether they’re all that interesting. There have always been elements of this, even before the online world. It’s blandness, not whether or not something is relevant right now, that’s the enemy of good content. You still need a hook to get the reader interested, but it doesn’t have to be something desperately current any more. Interesting and relevant will do.

So how many of your efforts lately have fulfilled that criteria – and have any of them been fillers just because you thought you ought to send something out, maybe even with a news story vaguely tied in?

Do you need to sharpen your writing skills up? I can help – contact me by clicking here.

Some words on house style and sponsored writing

One of the things I do is to edit sponsored supplements within other publications. I’ve done this very recently for the New Statesman, I’ve also done it in the Times (for independent publishers like Raconteur) and Professional Outsourcing, of which I’m overall editor.

The client doesn’t always understand the deal. It’s a lot like advertising but there are serious differences. It’s worth considering them if you or a client are thinking of getting involved in something like this.

  • An advertorial or sponsored piece is not, repeat not, the same as an advertisement. You can put whatever you want in an advert subject to decency and other considerations and it will probably be accepted. Pieces of writing that bear the name of the publication are different. They are part of the brand and have to be up to scratch – so putting any old thing in isn’t going to work.
  • Likewise, the writing has to be in the magazine’s style. This means that if you or your client are insecure enough to think that a job title has to be in capital letters but the magazine says job titles are lower case, our style will prevail. Papers that have been around for over a century won’t change for a one-off. Your business wouldn’t change its style for a one-off client.
  • The magazine will also have final say over content. Seriously, I’ve seen a major magazine walk away from several thousand pounds worth of business at the last minute because the client insisted on a particular article with a particular allegation going in. The client threatened to pull the business and take the mag to court and the mag called his or her bluff – the client managed to find a replacement article to go in on a later date. Never, ever try to call a journalist’s bluff – we love a challenge and when we’re sure we’re right we won’t back down.
  • But never mind us – what about the readers? Even for the smallest magazine, which might be amenable to publishing a little product puffery or whatever, there has to be something substantial in it for the reader. Will the reader respond as you want them to if you go in too salesy – or would you be better off saying something of value and making a lasting impression? OK, loaded question, but a valid one.
  • Finally make sure you tie the sponsored communication in with your other comms. Social media, your blog, everything – it should all carry the same messages and make people familiar with your brand and its values. No, it may not have all the hallmarks of your brand, it’ll be in our house colours and follow our style sheet – but it still needs to feel authentically “you” as part of a continuum of content. That’s how inbound marketing works – and it’s not that difficult to do.

Do you need help writing for media or speaking to journalists? Contact me – I can help.

Where do your targets hang out?

I’ve seen a couple of discussions on social media and which network is right for a particular purpose just lately. It’s getting confusing, I agree – there are so many.

The first query came from a colleague in a start-up in which I’m involved. We use Yammer to communicate internally and he was asking why we didn’t just use email. There are loads of reasons; fully searchable communication that becomes a full-blown knowledge base over time is powerful for me and is also a reason to use Slack, Convo, Podio, Jive and any of the rest. It also encourages openness – yes you can send direct messages but the environment nudges you towards sharing.

For clients

Another colleague had a different dilemma. His client wanted some sort of engagement with their end users. The guy thought about a closed Facebook group or a closed LinkedIn group and all of the options listed above, but in the end he decided on Facebook.

This was probably a good option simply because he’d done the research and found that his targets were already on Facebook. They weren’t on LinkedIn. The number of people I’ve seen who decide they’ll start a particular group somewhere and then find it dies because the users just won’t decamp there is stunning. Always, always go where the market actually is and don’t assume they’ll follow you elsewhere.

Caution

This does come with a caveat, though. A few years ago LinkedIn had something called LinkedIn Events. You could publicise an event to all of your contacts, free of charge, and a number of event companies sprung up doing just that. No doubt the events themselves were excellent.

Over time, LinkedIn realised this wasn’t going to make any money and simply represented a cost. So the company announced it would be discontinued.

The uproar was as loud as it was predictable. LinkedIn, said one user, is deliberately destroying my business. This, said another, is what the social media networks are really like.

Well, yes. They’re like businesses, and if a part of the business is neither profitable nor likely to support another profitable area, it’s probably going to be axed. The lesson to learn here, whether you’re starting your own group on Facebook or setting up a Yammer group for someone else, is that you’re in someone else’s playground and you’re probably not paying for it. It’s their territory. Logically, if they want to change the rules, if they want to turf you out, if they want to make it a payable service, they have every right.

Maybe my colleague shouldn’t simply have decided “Facebook” – maybe “Facebook and here’s my plan B” would be better.

MCs and Compères – give it some thought

I go to a number of conferences for my work, and I MC or compère a few. I’m gearing up for another now and here are some of the things I’ve seen going wrong at others – I’ll be watching for them:

  • No-shows from speakers. How many times have you had a speaker agree to turn up and find something better to do on the day? Or not turn up because of illness, or a misunderstanding? Your MC had better have an emergency keynote speech in his or her back pocket. It might not be utterly brilliant but if it fills the gap and offers something of value, the audience will be happy enough and won’t know there was a disaster behind the scenes.
  • Lack of audience control. I attended a conference last year hosted by a brilliant businesswoman – no, she was highly reputable – whose idea of getting the audience’s attention after coffee was to stand there with the microphone going “Ssh” repeatedly. The audience behaved eventually but they weren’t happy. Microphone close to the mouth and “Ladies and gentlemen we are about to start again, please take your places” is better – the voice fills the auditorium but you’re speaking quietly so it sounds respectful.
  • Timings. Oh good grief, timings. I’ve been up as “next speaker” to find the speaker before me overrunning by five minutes and announcing “I know I’m overrunning but this next bit’s important” and going on for another 20. Of course I cut my speech down – I don’t think I’m important as speaker, however I think the fact that people will find their lunch ruined or the coffee cold is vital. That’s what they’ll Tweet about and never mind the “importance” of a speaker of whom they’d never heard before they turned up. The MC on the day just sat there.
  • Timings 2: Controlling speakers is difficult and the audience can think it’s hilarious. A few years ago I was chairing one of the streams at Social Media World Forum, and we had the CEO of a guitar company as a speaker. We knew we were in trouble when a) his PR team told me it was my job to get him upstairs to a panel discussion for midday (my job??? Hello, you’re his PR team..?) and b) he started his speech talking about Elvis and Johnny Cash and how they never had social media. Ten minutes after he was supposed to finish I had to intercede, reminding him he had a panel: “But I’m not finished with these folks,” he told me. He reluctantly came off stage and I thought he was going to the other hall, but he stopped again: “Can we get a photo together..?” so we had to stop for a pic. I need hardly add that the audience in my auditorium loved every second of my discomfort; the audience waiting for him in the panel session might have felt very differently.
  • AV: I’m not an AV man but a competent MC absolutely keeps an eye on the AV people, brings coffees, makes sure they’re happy – they can make a good conference spectacular. I was at an event this year at which the speakers were on a low stage so difficult to see already and the lighting was poor so they were quite indistinct. The hosts had saved money by bringing their own audio kit and from the back the sound was indistinct. It’s an old trope but if you think it’s expensive to use a professional, see what it costs you (at least in terms of reputation) if you don’t.

That’s why I have my seven-point system as an MC when I’m working on an event. If you’d like me to come and help with yours, have a look at my Speaker/MC/Compere page by clicking here or just drop me a line by clicking here and we’ll talk.

 

Corporate writing: You want to use my name?

A colleague asked a question the other day. Like a lot of journalists he does the odd white paper and writes the odd blog post for other people; these normally go out under someone else’s name. It’s standard ghost writing, nothing extraordinary going on.

Only…he found later that the client, or the client’s client, was putting his name onto it without telling him. Given that it was commercial rather than independent, and he has a reputation as being a bit investigative, he was slightly perturbed. The end client didn’t see the problem.

We have our brands, too

The curious thing is that you can be certain that, if he’d used the end client’s name without permission, they would have understood the implications perfectly. I happen to use an Apple computer to type this blog, and as many technically-informed readers will have spotted, it’s hosted on WordPress.com. I pay for these services but at no stage does any part of the deal say “This is a WordPress blog” or “This is an Apple-approved opinion” would be permissible if I were marketing it externally (I don’t imagine they’d do much good anyway but that’s another issue).

And yet so many clients assume that if they’ve bought words in they can use the originator without checking. So here are a couple of ground rules:

  • If you want to acknowledge the writer of a guest blog or corporate piece, the first step is: ask. Many writers are perfectly happy with this. Others, because it impacts their personal branding as independent, might say “no”, and still others will want more money – if you want to boost your brand with our name, why wouldn’t we ask a premium? (You might ask why, if their main business doesn’t pay the bills, they’re still doing it – but that’s a slightly different debate).
  • Related point that I’ve made before: Just because you commissioned something, that doesn’t mean it’s yours. We expect to be edited to house style but substantial changes need to be run past us, particularly if you’re going to use our names. The relevant Act – referenced in the linked blog entry – assures us that we remain the owners of the stuff we’ve written.

Every business expects to have to maintain its reputation, whether it’s a giant brand like Apple or a tiny micro-brand like a freelance journalist’s name. If you’re hiring us, remember you’re engaging with a mini-business rather than just a nice person – so the basic business rules around using the name will apply.

Camila Batmanghelidjh and crisis management – managing the media

 

Let me say first that I know nothing about Kids Company, the charity run by Camila Batmanghelidjh in London that closed down on Wednesday. I’m not a specialist, there appear to be investigations ongoing from the police, for all sorts of reasons commenting would be a bad idea.

What’s clear, though, is that she’s been very loud in the media. And in terms of crisis management I’m not certain this was a wise decision – although it’s better than hiding yourself away and refusing to comment at all.

I’ve prepped a few people for crisis management before now, and had I been advising Batmanghelidjh here are some thoughts I’d have offered.

  • Try not to look or sound defensive. Journalists are going to ask questions on behalf of the viewers and it’s never personal. If there’s been a crisis, your first concern is with those affected. Looking contrite, whether you feel it or not, is an appropriate reaction when your organisation has just been closed down, however unjustifiable you might feel it was.
  • Try not to accuse the media of being irresponsible. No matter how strongly you feel that a report has been put together for the media’s benefit, don’t rise to it. It will sound to many listeners and viewers as if you are blaming everyone else for your misfortune and lashing out.
  • Don’t comment on anything subject to an inquiry. If the police are checking something, bow to their pre-eminence in the case. “I’d love to help but there’s a police inquiry going on, which we welcome and with which we will co-operate – the important thing is to find out what’s actually gone on and to help the kids who were in our care” is a summary of the only appropriate response, even if you don’t use those exact words.
  • Have some short answers prepared to a number of obvious questions. The temptation is to answer as fully as you can but in print/online journalists will select parts of your comment – they have little choice – and in broadcast settings they will have to keep you to time. Trying to put long answers leaves you saying “let me finish” and “you’re not letting me answer the question” – which can sound defensive and ill-prepared. Have some shorter answers ready and you can stay in control.
  • Stay calm and don’t speak too quickly. If you sound panicked, no matter how convinced you are of your case, listeners and viewers will not trust you and you don’t want to prejudice opinion.
  • Get advice on the best interviews to do. Not hiding when things get difficult is admirable, too many businesspeople and others retreat into their shells when the going is tough; however, getting saturation coverage can look like an orchestrated PR exercise. Have a statement ready for the interviews you don’t do and get advice on those that you should.

I’ve helped companies with crisis management – do you need a crisis session? Click here to drop me an email and we’ll talk.

Image from Flickr:NHS Confederation, showing Camila Batmanghelidjh on stage with Sarah Montague