ONE of my daily tasks when I am being an editor instead of a writer, or in other words, during those times I am mumbling at my computer screen instead of myself, is to read and assess the publication value of an endless stream of press releases from various companies, government agencies, and other organizations.
It is a task that is sometimes informative, sometimes amusing, but more often than not, makes me want to stick a hatpin straight into my frontal lobe and go back to selling car parts for a living.
The goal of a press release, at least from a commercial perspective, is to attract potential customers to the subject’s products or services in a way that is generally considered more informative and credible than obvious advertising—and which encourages media outlets to publish it for free. The objective for government or other non-profit enterprises may be a bit different, but the approach to catching the attention of editors, and consequently the news-consuming public, is much the same. Unfortunately, it is an approach that is followed by very few PR practitioners. If you want your releases to stand out and achieve the aforementioned goal—which, after all, results in a paycheck for you from a happy client, here are a few pieces of advice:
The keyword is ‘news’
If you want your “news release” to be regarded as such, then make it sound like actual news. A release that begins with a lead sentence like, “A life of luxury in the heart of the city’s most exciting shopping and entertainment district,” is not the intriguing emotional cue you hope it is, but ambiguous and unhelpful. If readers want mystery, they’ll pick up a good book, or see what’s on HBO.
In a newspaper or in online media, every news story is competing for readers’ attention with several others, maybe dozens of others. Because of this, most readers will only read the headlines. If the headline is interesting enough, they’ll read the lead paragraph; if that manages to hold their attention, then they’ll read the rest of the story. Thus, you, the hard-working creator of media releases, should strive to tell your intended audience—beginning with the editor who will decide whether your submission is newsworthy or not—what your story is about as quickly as possible. So instead of a lead like the example above, something like, “XYZ Builders’ newest development, the Lutonia Residences luxury condominium tower in the city’s exciting Ortigas district, will soon be ready for occupancy, according to company officials,” is a better approach; informative, and not as obviously
That may be discouraging to the publicity practitioners out there who have a burning desire to express themselves creatively, but frankly, unless you’re Robert Frost, no one is interested in your literary art. Save it for that novel you’ve been meaning to write, and focus on telling your readers and your client’s potential customers what they actually need to know.
That doesn’t mean your copy has to be completely lacking in style; a little bit of well-used creative word choice enhances any piece. But don’t overdo it, and in particular, avoid unsupported superlatives. Referring to oneself as “the leader” or “the biggest” or “the most popular” invites a challenge to one’s credibility, unless the statement is a universally acknowledged fact (it never is, anyway), or some evidence is given to back it up.
And finally, to make a press release really stand out as a piece of news and not free advertising, try to put your client’s announcement in the context of a topic of wider interest. For example, if your client has just announced the introduction of a new line of energy-efficient appliances, then do a little research and explain how these are an effective option to help lower consumers’ expensive electricity bills.
The ‘firing squad’ photo
The words are important; just as important is the visual content that can be included with a media release. Unfortunately, this is another area where most press releases have me reaching for that hatpin again.
Here’s a typical scenario: Your client, a large real estate developer, has just held a small celebration to mark the ‘topping-off’ of its latest condominium tower project, and would like the public to know. Of course, you realize that the real message is not just that the event took place, but that the building, which will offer very nice accommodations, is well on its way to completion and therefore should attract interested homebuyers. And of course, you’ll remember to include all the information relevant to that message somewhere in the press release you create—the attractive location of the building, the number and style of units offered for sale, the other amenities the building will offer, when it is expected to be ready for occupancy, and contact information for prospective buyers who would like to know more.
And because it is always good practice to include some visual material—particularly for the print and online media outlets on your mailing list—you choose a photograph or two to add to your release. But instead of choosing pictures that illustrate the main point of the story you have just painstakingly crafted, you instead send a picture of the VIPs present at the ‘topping-off’ event, standing in a line and smiling for the camera.
In the newsroom we derisively refer to that as a ‘firing squad’ picture—to us, it appears as though everyone has lined up to be shot—and unless you’ve actually paid for the space for it to be published, it will more than likely go straight to the trash bin without a second glance.
A good rule of thumb—really, the only rule—is that the picture should illustrate the actual story. If the story is really about a new building and the features it will offer, a picture of the company president, sales manager, chief engineer, and local vice-mayor awkwardly posing in hardhats in front of a banner that says “Topping-off Ceremony of Royale Grande Vista Residences Tower 2” in no way helps the reader—your prospective customer—to visualize that. With all due respect to the egos of executives and politicians, a picture of people is only important if the story happens to be about people. While this may come as unpleasant surprise to many, that is the case much less often than most people believe.
There are many other tips, some generally applicable and others pertinent to specific businesses that I am currently working on gathering into a presentation that will soon be available in either seminar or book form. If anyone is interested in further information about that, or has comments or suggestions from their own experiences they would like to share, I’m just an email away.