Tag Archives: press releases

Where should your press release go?

Most press releases are awful. There, I’ve said it. People send them to me and I delete the majority. It’s not the quality every time, though. It’s the relevance, or rather lack of it.

Press release work must be the bane of the public relations executive’s life, to say nothing of the pain it is to the business owner taking the DIY approach. I can often tell they’ve taken care and drafted a press release well – but what happens to them next is crucial.

It’s clear they’ve sent them to me in my role as “any old journalist”.

Here’s a thought: I’m a technology journalist who also writes a bit about business. I edit New Statesman Tech for the moment and Professional Outsourcing Magazine and do a whole load of one-off bits and pieces, but they’re all in the business and tech area. I’ve done little else for at least two years. So I end up asking myself why have I received the following in recent months:

  • A query about whether I am writing anything about gifts people buy each other when they get engaged;
  • Something on quality wooden toys for the Christmas market;
  • A recipe for whole sea bass with orange butter;
  • A solicitation to sample some beer (I always say “yes please but I don’t write about beer” – nobody sends me the free beer these days)
  • Top tips on winter skin care
  • A luxury hotel in London

OK, I used to run a lifestyle blog for middle-aged men so the first, fourth and fifth might be understandable. They are out of date, though. The company that sent me loads of press releases on female sex aids a couple of years back was fascinating but not something I’d be writing about.

Send your press release wisely

Too many people see the word “journalist” in someone’s job title and send out a press release regardless of any specialism that writer might have. It’s honestly, honestly worth thinking about who I am and what I write about before sending it off.

You’re actually better off making a smaller list. Take the top ten journalists, bloggers, websites or magazines on which your business would like coverage. You’re never going to get into all ten, the competition’s immense – so why not improve the quality of your pitch and tailor individual releases/communications rather than send the same thing to 20 people?

The personalised approach often works better. I get the impression you’ve made an effort and know who I am, and over time you get a feel for who’s going to respond to what.

Just don’t get stalkerish. I had a call about 15 years ago from a nervous young PR person. My then-new daughter was safely at nursery and the shaky young (male) voice started off, before even introducing himself: “How is your daughter, Guy..?”

If I’d had security staff they’d have been onto it like a shot.

Writing tips: don’t do it all at once

When I’m coaching people on their writing skills they often start by making a huge assumption. They think they can do it all at once. Sit down, start writing and it will be perfect automatically. Worse, they ask me how long it takes to write a blog or news item.

The answer from me, honestly, is “not very long” but then I do it every day. Like or hate my style, I’ve been in the habit of putting  finger to keyboard every working day of my life since 3 January 1989, my first day at the trade magazine, MicroScope.

So asking me how long it takes to write something readable is a bit like asking a marathon runner how big a sweat they’d work up running around the local park. It’s not arrogance to say I’m quite proficient, with 27 years of daily practise behind me it would be a scandal if I weren’t.

Writing takes redrafting

Even then I’m not afraid to redraft and take feedback, scrap everything and start again. Corporate writers should be the same. If it’s a lengthy document, and it often is, the first draft is effectively for fun. Write it then check through for typos, house style, non sequiturs, repetitions. Depending on the length of the document you’re almost bound to find something that doesn’t work as you thought it did.

Read through again and see whether everything makes as much sense as you thought. It often won’t because you were that close to it when you were in the process of putting it together. Show someone else if you can. Try changing the font and look at it the following day if time allows; if you can trick your brain into thinking it’s looking at something new, you’ll find it easier to spot any errors.

Suppositions

It’s easy to assume writing should be easy. You learned it at primary school, it should be second nature. So asking me how long it takes me to knock out a story or blog entry might make sense.

Like any skill, however, the various techniques improve with practise, and if you haven’t done a lot of it, don’t sweat. You’re allowed to be rusty.

And don’t be afraid to redraft. Your first stab at a document doesn’t have to be definitive. A bit of spit and polish can be an excellent thing.

IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE |

I’ve been taking part in a Facebook discussion on whether the press release is dead as a useful thing. My answer is generally “no” and a lot of my views are duplicated in this excellent blog from the Comms Dept:

via IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE |.

The problem is that there are some pretty naff press releases out there. So if you’re writing one or are part of the team doing so, here are some of the things that would help me as a journalist.

  • A clear subject line. Too often (ie more than once) people try something clever. Just tell me what has happened: Company X lands major contract, Company B launches new product – whatever it is. If you can’t summarise it quickly does it really need to be said?
  • A good summary in the opening paragraph. I’m a journalist and I’m used to writing news. I therefore expect to read news in a newsy format which means the important stuff goes in immediately – who, what, when, where, how. I may read no further if I’m pushed for time so why not put everything important at the front?
  • Good targeting. Yes it’s difficult to keep track of journalists as their careers progress and they move from title to title. But yes that’s part of the job. If you want me to be interested in writing something you’d better have at least a vague idea of who my readers are.
  • Available spokespeople. A colleague recently replied to a press release and had an autoresponse message that made it clear that the sender was on holiday for a month and didn’t want to be bothered. OK, you’re entitled to your holiday and if you can afford to take a month off, good luck to you – but don’t bother me with a press release if you can’t be bothered yourself, OK?
  • Decent English. I know, I know, it shouldn’t matter, I’m looking for relevance rather than eloquence ideally. However, if you don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re, its and it’s, I might find it irritating. If you clearly don’t know your stuff I’ll be more so. Remember the security breach at married dating organisation Ashley Madison? I had two releases commenting on the incident at Madison Ashley. It just looked like opportunistic grubbing around after half-reading a headline.

Other than the targeting, it all ought to be fairly straightforward.

Do you need help with writing your releases? Email me and we’ll talk.

How do you write a news story?

I currently write for the New Statesman – here’s a recent supplement I edited – the Guardian, and edit Professional Outsourcing Magazine, just entering my third year, as well as a lot of freelance writing. One of the things I found most difficult when I started up as a full-time journalist was news writing.

I just couldn’t get it. Snappy intros, finishing with a brilliant quote – and then the subs would turn it into what I perceived as mush, and in my view spoil it. Except, of course, they weren’t – they were improving it drastically, and here’s what they were doing.

The rules

The first rule I had to learn was that all of my thoughts about becoming a brilliant, erudite writer, were in themselves a load of mush. If I wanted to become a news journalist I had to keep it simple. That’s even truer now than it was then as we live in an increasingly global environment. Simple phrasing is easier to understand.

Some of the advice was poor, mind you. Always stick to short sentences, they said. Short is better. People won’t read longer stuff. They like brevity. But you can’t develop an idea. Only when you allow yourself a bit of length can you really explore something and open out, as long as you ensure the sentence itself is comprehensible. (See what I did there?)

The big lesson, though, was to consider how people read news stories. Only very rarely will they read right to the end. So the important stuff has to go at the beginning. It’s like a pyramid (see that picture at the top of this post?); if you cut the bottom layer off, it’s still a complete pyramid. People reading a story and not finishing it still need to take away the salient facts. People reading a story that’s been cut for length – and sub-editors will always cut from the bottom in a news setting – still need to understand what’s gone on.

That image has stayed with me for years, even as people’s tendency to read to the end has diminished with the increasing distractions of the Internet. It still works and probably always will. It’s also something to bear in mind if you’re in PR rather than journalism. Adopt that pyramid structure for a press release and a journalist, no matter how subconsciously, will identify that the release has been written in his/her language.

So have a look at your own news output. Could you take off the last few lines and leave the sense of it intact? And if not, should you be fixing it?

Do you need coaching with your writing skills? As a current, practising journalist I can help. Fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

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.