Let’s start with the press release
One of the more memorable phone calls I received as a rookie reporter covering home furnishings came from a “leather-like” upholstery cover supplier.
“Brian, Brian, are you sitting down? This is Marvin.”
“Yes, I’m seated, Marvin.”
“I’ve got news for you on a product that’s going to revolutionize the industry, Brian. It looks like leather, it smells like leather, it feels like leather. Brian, it’s not leather! It’s as soft as a baby’s butt, Brian. Butta! I’m telling you, it feels like butta!”
This particular faux leather failed either to feel or smell anything remotely like leather, its similarities to margarine notwithstanding. So, not surprisingly, this company got no news coverage. A press release might have proved more effective, because nothing is more foundational to public relations and marketing than the press release, a writing form around since at least 1906. Knowing this, why do so many get this simple tool for unlocking the doors to news coverage and awareness so very, very wrong.
Covering home furnishings for nearly 15 years, I got hundreds, perhaps thousands of releases, many of them celebrating – wait for it – an improved website. Ooh! Most of these releases went right into the proverbial “circular file.”
To avoid the shredder or “delete” button, take a few cues from the following case study. Plucked virtually at random from PR Newswire (prnewswire.com), the release below was the first hit for a search using the key word search term, “information technology:”
PASADENA, Calif./PRNewswire – Vertical Management Systems Inc. (VMS), Envestnet | Retirement Solutions (ERS), a majority-owned subsidiary of Envestnet, Inc. (NYSE: ENV), and United Retirement Plan Consultants (URPC), announced today an innovative strategic partnership designed to help financial advisors, retirement plan sponsors and participants navigate new Department of Labor (DOL) conflict-of-interest regulations, and streamline their fiduciary, recordkeeping and compliance services on one scalable platform.
The seamless integration of these services on VMS’s Retirement Revolution platform provides a retirement-plan solution with choice, flexibility, complete transparency and cost-effective pricing. Further, it leverages the combined expertise of leading firms in the financial-services marketplace to offer optimal outcomes across the spectrum of retirement-plan needs – from plan design and set-up to full recordkeeping and administration, wrapped with fiduciary protection that specifically addresses the new DOL rules.
“We are very excited about VMS’s partnership with retirement-industry leaders like ERS and United Retirement,” said Kevin Rafferty, Chief Executive Officer of VMS. “The combination of Retirement Revolution’s cutting-edge retirement platform with top-notch fiduciary and third-party administrator (TPA) services establishes a new gold standard in the retirement industry. At a time when the heightened regulatory environment requires better solutions, we feel this comprehensive offering is just what advisors need to drive operational efficiencies and better serve their clients.”
The comprehensive Retirement Revolution® platform offers both “off the shelf” and customizable solutions, providing advisors and their clients with highly flexible retirement plan alternatives to meet their specific needs.
“United Retirement is proud to be part of such a robust retirement plan solution and partner with VMS and ERS,” said John Davis, Chief Executive Officer of United Retirement Plan Consultants. “Together, we believe our joint offering provides our advisors and clients with a holistic, yet customizable, retirement plan solution geared at helping them manage and mitigate their fiduciary risks.”
Are you glad you read this release? No, of course not. You likely didn’t read it all, skipping down to here, because it is such a train wreck. So, by negative example, we can identify a few important principles applicable well beyond the crafting of a press release.
First, announcing something doesn’t make that something news. The value isn’t in the announcing.
Second, no one outside of the executive suite cares who is making the announcement or what that person’s title might be, even and perhaps especially if it is the president or CEO of the company. Lead instead with the news or information that people might actually care about. In the release above, it’s clear that the internal politics of giving each CEO a quote took precedence over any sense of service to their respective publics. This is self-serving BS, and your publics will tune you out the instant they perceive you shoveling it out.
Third, how excited or proud you or your company is about something – anything – isn’t news, either. Again, focus on how the information matters in the real world. Taking the old journalism saw that a dog biting a postal carrier isn’t news, but a postal carrier biting a dog would be, when your executive suite isn’t exited about some big news for the company, by all means, share that.
Fourth, alphabet soup is a barrier to understanding. The many acronyms in this release’s lead create a thicket of confusion few readers will even attempt to hack through. The corporation’s own style conventions get in the way of clarity and meaning.
Fifth, avoid statements trumpeting how awesome your services or “solutions” are, as this press release generically puts it. Avoid empty, clichéd claims such as “first-in-class,” “best-of-breed,” “cutting edge,” or “revolutionary.” (For a great parody of this style of corporate gobbledygook, see this YouTube video below). Write instead about how your organization helps real people.
Finally, this release fails to take advantage of the hypertextual possibilities of digital, even of email distribution. Link out. Create an action step. At minimum, hyperlink the contact information.
To the last point, digital news releases differ from their traditional print counterparts, or at least they should. Digital news releases run shorter, typically about 250 words or so, and they feature hyperlinks and other ways for the reader to take immediate action, such as joining an email distribution list, adding a social bookmark, liking, sharing, or posting a comment. Often news releases written for digital distribution will include multimedia, as well, such as a video clip or link to video.
Good press releases are written much like the news stories they hope to inspire, or at least they should be. If not written to run “as is,” they should present a story idea clearly and compellingly.
Before you or your PR pros write another release, consider these basic questions:
1. What is the purpose? What is the news here? Think in terms of the standard news values by which journalistic organizations determine coverage: impact, conflict, novelty, timeliness, prominence, a twist or surprise element, proximity, human interest, the bizarre or unexpected.
2. Who is the audience or public for this message? Know this with crystalline precision, then write to that audience and only to that audience.
3. Why should this audience care? How will it benefit them? Why will this public be interested? If you can’t answer this question, there isn’t a need to write a press release.
4. What is the communicative goal? How does this release fit into a larger purpose or strategy? What will success look like?
5. What are the key points or aspects or messages the release needs to communicate?
6. Why are you releasing this information now? What’s the timeliness? (The necessity of timeliness is in the term itself – “news.”)
These are good questions for your company’s next press release, and they are good questions more generally for all of your corporate communications, external and internal. If nothing here is earth-shattering or paradigm-shifting, why can’t more PR practitioners get it right? How many press releases should have never been written at all? A lot.
As Shakespeare never wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some just send out a press release and then just hope for the best.” But, the Bard did write, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” By that impeccable logic, crap by any other name would smell as rank.