News Releases: Do and Don’t

The Good, the Bad and the Unhelpful

Here’s why 99% of all Press Releases are either rapidly rejected or ignored and discarded without being read.
a) They don’t contain a real story
b) They don’t have an inviting, meaningful headline & intro
c) They don’t know when to stop
d) There’s just too many of the damned things

There are several other reasons too, which may take a little longer to explain. So we’ve put together the Expertsources 10 Commandments which you may wish to consider well before putting pen to paper.

We’ve also added below, details of a new and unique Press Release distribution service called News Bulletin which Expertsources will be launching in January 2011  to resolve many of the problem issues.

Expertsources:
10 Commandments
No 1: Bury corporate egos (Parts 1 & 2)
No 2: Have consequences or solve problems
No 3: Think headlines
No 4: Get the story into the intro
No 5: Know when to stop
No 6: Thou shalt not be seen to market
No 7: Write for journalists not experts
No 8: Think seriously about your timing
No 9: Don’t over-egg puddings (or knock down your own story!)
No 10: Beware of adding attachments

Plus: Commandment Extra:
Check content, contacts, clarity and the calendar

We recommend you try and avoid the catalogue of pitfalls outlined below. At the very least it’ll stop you wasting money on distribution services – some of which don’t care what you send out, so long as you pay the fee.

And if you’re doing it yourself, then hopefully this will help ensure that your next Press Release makes it into the 1% that DO get noticed.

Commandment No 1:
Bury corporate egos (Part 1)

Too often Press Releases are company business of little or no interest to anyone other than the staff – who actually know already.

Seriously, are you really interested in the appointment of a new chief executive of an ice cream business in Wrexham? 

No. Neither is anyone else – apart from, possibly, the Business Section of the Wrexham Enquirer. So just tell them – don’t inflict this stuff on journalists working for Panorama, the Daily Mail, BBC Radio Bristol, Sky News or the Penzance Gazette.

The same goes for your firm’s latest order;  details of a local council  adopting your resource data monitoring system; you’ve poached 2 sales managers from a rival (that’s mere corporate bragging); or opening a refurbished office in Scunthorpe (the painters have been in).

Expertsources Tip: Don’t waste your money on PR distribution for these type of ‘announcements’. It isn’t news many are ever likely to use.

Bury corporate egos (Part 2)
Please don’t get upset about what you’re going to read next. But it is true. From the media’s point of view, you and/or your company are rarely the important part of the story.

e.g. If Cardiff High School for Girls bans pupils wearing earrings from lessons for a week, what is the story? Is it the ban on 1,200 fashion-conscious young women (yes) or the fact that it is happening at that particular school? (not really – unless it has a history of this knid of thing).

So apply this to your Press Release. You might like to see your company or product name  plastered everywhere – but few others do (certainly not as the main point of the tale). And it can often skew what should be an interesting item into one that may get lost.

Here’s a recent example (December 2010)

Original Uninspiring Headline:
(Name)Hotel Group reveals commissioned artwork for Aberdeen (hotel name).

So far, nothing of interest other than a blatant hotel plug.
Why read on?

Here’s the original story:
(Name) Hotel Group has revealed a new collection of celebrity paintings to
be displayed in its (name) hotel.
Local artist (name), whose works hang in private collections around the world, has spent the last year producing a unique collection of celebrity paintings for the (hotel name)  in (hotel address), Aberdeen.

One-off portraits of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Rod
Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Angus Young of AC/DC, and Aberdeen-born Annie Lennox are given pride of place in the new 185-bedroom Aberdeen hotel.

* Apart from using almost the same words in the headline and the first paragraph (see more below) there are 4-5 mentions of the hotel group/name already. Unwise, unnecessary and unfortunate. More importantly, it misses an angle that would certainly attract more attention.

This is at least a little better:
Headline:  Hanging Around With John, Paul, Annie  & Elvis    

A painting of Beatles’ singer-songwriter John Lennon, who died 30 years ago this month, is among a series of unique pop star portraits going on view inside Aberdeen’s newest hotel.

Lennon’s portrait  will hang alongside pictures of fellow Beatle Paul McCartney; singers Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Annie Lennox, and the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley. 

They are all the work of Scottish artist (name) and will be on permanent display at the (name) – the new 185-bedroom hotel in the city centre. 

* The Hotel Group isn’t the interesting part of the story (nor the new hotel)  – it’s the pictures.  Its the pictures that will get you into the papers not a new building.

And the tale gets a worthwhile hook by ‘hanging’ it on the Lennon shooting anniversary – a small but important detail not mentioned anywhere in the original.

Obviously the name of the hotel and full address (plus contact details) will appear later in the story. Or, better still, at the end of the Press Release under a heading ‘Further Information’.

Expertsources Tip: 
Interesting bit first,  plugs fifth.

Commandment No 2:

Have consequences or solve problems
Journalists are looking for a story. For that, the good Press Release should contain key elements such as a cautionary warning; valuable advice, comment or opinion, information on how to resolve a troublesome issue (or what will happen if issue not resolved).

And state, as clearly as possible, the problems being solved and/or the consequences if they’re not. Many of these will involve making or saving money, improving or worsening health or some other general benefit/ disaster to avoid. 

If written correctly, with a few well-chosen facts & figures alongside and supporting quotes and examples, these should make news. 

And think ‘impact’. Do you want to know Company A’s  latest energy-saving device will cut the average gas bill by 16%  per annum – or £600 a year? 

Most will go for £600 a year every time – because it actually quantifies their benefit in terms they can understand instantly.

Expertsources Tip: 
Question: Is this Press Release of interest to many, or only a few?  The broader the relevance quota, the better. 

Commandment No 3:

Think headlines

If what you’re saying in your Press Release doesn’t lend itself to a suitable headline – then it is probably best to ditch the Press Release altogether because it won’t contain a worthwhile story.

As a quick guide exercise, flick through your local/regional & national newspaper and count the number of times one or more of the following words appear in headlines or supporting strap headlines:

Why; How; Could; Do; Is; Was; Can; Will; That; Which; Does; What

Not only are they short (therefore popular and handy) but they add intrigue and lure you to read on with the hint that you might learn something of real value. Could any of these words suit your Press Release headline?

Maybe they answer a question you’ve been pondering for some time.
* Why Labour lost the election
* How to avoid being made redundant
* Will rail prices rise again next year?
* Is nudity the latest fashion statement?
* The house that nobody wants to buy
* Could the UK economy survive a Euro collapse?

Some headlines include more than one of the above to further whet the appetite and to avoid too many which just pose questions.

* Fashion experts discover how women choose what to wear.
* Why eating fruit will increase your brain power
* Robots can be taught how to do housework 

Your exact Press Release headline is unlikely to be used by journalists but should be written in similar, intriguing fashion to one you might expect to see in any newspaper.

They are trying to attract readers. You are trying to attract readers too – they just happen to be journalists. So the same rules apply.

In your own mind, condense the essence of the Press Release message and write it down. That will be your headline & intro rolled into one. 

Expertsources Tips: 
* Don’t use the same words/phrases in the headline and then in the
   first paragraph.
* Headline alliterations sometimes work:  Can currants cure cancer? 
* Or take a familiar phrase and change it a little as we did above:
   Press Releases: The Good, the Bad and the Unhelpful 

However customising well known phrases and sayings can be taken  far too far – as with this pre-Christmas gem from December 01, 2010. Yes, this IS a real Press Release that someone thought was a clever idea:

Headline:   Jingle bowels, jingle bowels, jingle all the way!

Story:  New research reveals more than a third suffer from bowel complaints during the festive season.

Constipation is such merry fun, isn’t it.

Expertsources Tip:  DON’T WRITE HEADLINES IN CAPITAL LETTERS – THEY ARE  VERY DIFFUCULT TO READ AND EXTREMELY IRRITATING – ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY KEEP MEANDERING ON AND ON.

Commandment No 4:
Get the story into the intro
After selling the story with a catchy headline you need a riveting first paragraph that explains all. OK, two fairly short paragraphs if you must. The rest is justification & padding and will only be read if the first bit (intro) draws the reader on.

Most journalists receive between 100- 250 email Press Releases every day. If each one takes up to 45 seconds to open, read & digest ……they could easily waste 2 hours a day looking through them all (depending on your maths).

Simple answer: they don’t. And that means you’ve only got a few moments to stake your claim.

For goodness sake make it easy to read.

And simple to understand at a single glance.

Because 5 seconds is about all you’ll get.

Example: Recent Press Release:
Headline:
(Company A) warns train travellers of increased need to book early
Story:
(Company Name) warns that travellers will need to make the most of
all the available deals, discounts and advanced bookings in order to avoid paying premium prices following the announcement by the Association of Train Operating Companies that train fares will rise by an average of 6.2 per cent in January 2011.

Verdict:  Too much information crammed into one long sentence. Story appears weak.  Headline & first line of story too similar to each other.
So, let’s try that again:

Suggested New Headline:   How to beat rising rail fares
Suggested New Intro:
Rail passengers can avoid the impact of next January’s price rises by tracking down dozens of cut price offers and extra discounts available when booking early.

(Company name) says rail travellers, facing increases averaging 6%, can save hundreds of pounds a year if they think ahead and book well in advance.

Which of those two are you more likely to bother to read past the 5th word?

Expertsources Tip:  Be careful you don’t bury the best story of the lot in paragraph 12.

Commandment No 5:
Know when to stop

Tell the story, add a few quotes and examples, and know when to call a halt. You may want to add an extra factual summary via ‘Information For Editors’ at the end – but leave the main story relatively short and punchy.

If a journalist is interested in following it up or wants to check out the facts, they’ll call.  You can tell them the rest of it, then.

Expertsources Tip: 
Remember to use plenty of paragraphs. There’s nothing more daunting than seeing 73 lines of neat text to plough through – and little chance of something interesting catching their eye.

Commandment No 6:
 
Thou shalt not be seen to market

OK, a Press Release IS often a marketing tool. Anyone sending out a Press Release is, one way or another, trying to attract attention to themselves or their organisation.

No crime in that. But try not to let it look like a marketing exercise because it will be spotted a mile away and, generally, ignored.

Journalists care about the story, not you or your business.  Your comopany name is an also ran. So give them what they want and you will get the coverage you are looking for via the mentions & quotes which follow later on.

Which is best? A story that mentions your company 3 times in the first two paragraphs (but the media ignores) or a story that mentions you a couple of times (and quotes your MD in paragraph 4) which is read by several thousands if not millions?

And if you’re really determined to blow your own trumpet, at least be honest and clear about it. If that’s all there is, it’s  probably the best story, anyway.

Here’s one Press Release spotted recently:
(Company A)

announces it is strengthening its nationwide coverage and continuing to grow at a rapid rate, despite the challenging economic climate. 

Altogther now…YAWN.

(Company A Chief Executive says): “We are tremendously proud that we are continuing to reinforce our nationwide coverage at such a fast rate, which means we can enhance the service offered to our customers.

 

Still awake?

Actually, it is a UK business chain opening three more shops.  Well done to them.

But unlikely, written as it is, to be a story many journalists will be interested in – unless you make that the whole point: honest, upfront marketing. Even so, try personalising it – with benefits (or downsides) to real people and a few facts to back it up.

Therefore this Press Release might have been better to say:

At least 200 new jobs will be created in Doncaster, Glasgow and Liverpool when  (type of product) manufacturer (company name) opens a further three new stores next month.

Despite the recession, increased demand for (product) has boosted (company A’s)  sales by 20% during the last six months with profits up 31%. Two more new stores, leading to a further 70 jobs, are already planned for 2012.

* At least a journalist looking for a company that’s ‘bucking the trend’ might now be interested. And the encouragement of good news is all there to be seen, quickly and easily, in the first two paragraphs.

And you never know, there might be a feature in it for someone wanting to investigate why (the product) is proving so popular and economically resilient.

You could even make that the whole point of the Press Release you send out next month.

Expertsources Tip:  Always tell it like it is.  But if you have nothing newsworthy to say, don’t say it. 

Commandment No 7:
Write for journalists not experts
The main culprits: IT providers; software development companies; IT manufacturers. Anything to do with IT, in fact.

From a recent Press Release:
Risk Manager is built on the award-winning Force.com platform from
Salesforce, recently recognised by Gartner as a leader in the Magic Quadrant for Sales Force Automation.
Oh, good.

And here’s another:
With organisations upgrading from Exchange 2003/2007 to Exchange 2010 they will enjoy the new features of Exchange but they will miss Single Instance Storage which means that their storage costs will increase considerably. With (Product),users will put SIS back into Exchange thus reducing the need for expensive storage and also solving their PST management problems at the same time.
                                                                
                                                                                        And you would have thought somebody could have put the following into plain English:

This increased importance of TV has coincided with strong growth in uptake of new television technologies particularly High Definition TV (HDTV) and Digital Video Recorders (DVR). The study projects that 47% of British homes will have a DVR in 2011, a proportional increase of 10% in the next year. With half of British households already owning an HD ready TV, the study shows that uptake in HDTV services will grow proportionally by 20% in the next year.
  

Far easier to say sales of Digital Video Recorders are expected to go up 10% next year and High Definition TV services increase by around 20%.

Expertsources Tip:  Write the main part of your Press Release in similar manner to how you would tell your next door neighbour while out walking the dog. It shouldn’t resemble a legal document or leasehold agreement! 

And if they (and the dog) nod off while you’re half way through telling the tale – the chances are its not a story worth re-telling to anyone else.

Commandment No 8:
Think seriously about your timing
In every sense. This applies to maximising the general impact of the Press Release content as well the precise moment during the day when it is issued.

A story about the harmful effects of excessive noise levels amongst teenagers would be better sent the week before the Glastonbury Festival than a week later. 

Often, you can piggy-back your Press Release off national events, current news stories, popular TV programmes, forthcoming anniversaries or hardy annuals like Christmas, summer holidays or school exams – most of which you can plan in advance (and send to journalists a few days in advance, too).

And what time of day should you email your story to the media?
Is it best at 7am – ready and waiting along with 50 others when the journalist walks into the office?
Or 9am when they’re planning the day ahead?
Or 11am when they’re properly awake! 
Or 2pm after a pleasant liquid lunch?
Or 4pm when many newsrooms might be on the look out for something to cover tomorrow?

Expertsources Tips:  Avoid Monday mornings before 10am.
Steer well clear of Friday afternoons (unless just information about a diary event next week).

And Saturday and Sunday email Press Releases will probably do little other than increase Monday morning email hell for everyone on the receiving end.

Commandment No 9:
Don’t over-egg puddings (or knock your own story down!)
You’ve dreamt up a terrific headline. Now the story must back that up.

Everyone complains when a newspaper headline exaggerates a problem; makes a bald, general statement that might only be true in a few, exceptional circumstances; or spins credibility off into outer space with very selective quotes.

So don’t get carried away with the desire to attract attention at the expense of reality.

Recent Press Release headline (November 2010):

Frogs help treat children’s eyesight
                                                                          
Sounds intriguing. Is this something to do with research into implanted stem cells from lady frogs? Or that male frog saliva might cure blurred vision?

The story:
The most common cause of visual impairment in children is amblyopia (lazy eye). Patching treatment before the age of 8 can improve eyesight to normal, but, as any parent will tell you, patching a young child is easier said than done! 

Doubts creeping in about this. Yet on we go…

Hoppity frog is a colouring activity and story book to help children
understand and cooperate with their patching treatment in a simple, fun way.
 
It’s a book.  After that headline it’s just a damned book.

Hoppity may well prove his worth for kids itching to rip off their eye patches. But does he ( lets assume he’s a  ‘he’) really merit a headline which seems to promise a remakable breakthrough in health treatment courtesy of slimmy things in ponds?

And while we’re at it, why do firms (and individuals come to that) constantly refer to themselves as: ‘the UK’s leading company in….’ or ‘one of the most successful’….. or ‘the top’ ?

Who says so?  What facts are there to back this up?  If it is true (maybe) then you should really explain the criteria used to make such a claim possible. 

Expertsources Tip:  Beware of  saying the ‘biggest’; ‘largest’, ‘smallest’; ‘most expensive’ or ‘world’s first’ unless you are positive about that and have the facts to prove it. 

And saying ‘ company A ‘ is one of the……biggest, smallest, longest or most recognised…’  often implies you would like to think it is – but nobody wanted to check it out properly – it case they found out that it isn’t. 

If you are in, let’s say, the top ten by volume of sales (or turnover or number of customers) then just say it,  as bold as brass.

However – not a good idea to include in your Press Release something that knocks down your own story !

Here’s one from January 2011 – first paragraph implies a  possible VAT story – second paragraph then says, well, no there isn’t a story here, actually….(Gawd Help Us!)

Financial solutions company
(name) advises consumers to take a careful look at their finances following the VAT increase to 20%, commenting that
some people may need to adjust their budgets to accommodate higher costs.

But the company added that most people are unlikely to be affected significantly, with only small price rises expected on most items.

OK. At least its honest. But second paragraph screams
NO STORY HERE, FOLKS.
So why bother with Press Release in the first place?.

Commandment No 10:  
Beware of adding attachments
Nobody likes them. First, they’re very annoying and waste time.

Second: you’re never too sure where it will take you or what infectious disease you might be installing into your machine (or maybe the company’s entire network).

Expertsources Tip: 
Don’t.

Commandment Extra:
Check content, contacts, clarity and the calendar
Not a commandment as such, but a miscellany of regular pitfalls that can be avoided with a little care and attention.

* Check all sppellings and that nothing important has been out.

*
If there’s an embedded  link  in  the Press Release make sure it goes to exactly the right spot on your website. Too many merely link to a Home Page leaving journalists desperately hunting for a headline or further link. Very soon they lose interest and give up.
 
*
Double check that your Press Release includes precisely who to contact for more information and how to do that (i.e. telephone numbers, mobile, email address etc). And is the information also on the appropriate website?

* Often Press Releases are sent out with a contact name of someone from the PR company who is handling the story and/or the name of a person working for the organisation concerned. Make it very clear which is which.

* Avoid including a contact name of a person who is constantly in meetings; has a phone permanently switched to message/answer; is away for the day/week on business; on holiday or left the company two months ago.
Yes, all these DO happen far more often than you would think likely.

* Here’s a Twitter Posting from a journalist on December 30th, 2010:
Got a Press Release today – no mention of the company’s research on their website and the contact email gave me a reply message – out of office until January 4, 2011  (Doh!)

* No journalist is going to be very pleased to receive a Press Release dated Thursday. June 10, 2010 followed by an interesting story including the words  ‘ as announced on Tuesday last week’.

* And if you really MUST call a journalist to see if they’ve read your Press release and/or are they going to use it – far better to have a REAL reason for calling. 

Think of an extra fact (oops, surely not deliberately left out for this very purpose) or a surprising new development they should know about which would make the story even more interesting.

Expertsources Tip: As a rule, don’t make  ‘follow up’ calls for the sake of it. They’re annoying and usually counter productive.

And finally, the really good news:
Expertsources News Bulletin:  News you CAN use.

In January 2011, Expertsources will launch a unique News Bulletin to be emailled to all registered media members.

Unlike many existing services, News Bulletin will contain only submitted Press Releases that contain genuine news that journalists can use.

Each will be given a fresh, media-friendly headline and a re-written intro. 

And every News Bulletin emailed to media members of  Expertsources will contain several different news items under clearly designated subject headings e.g. Transport, Health, Finance etc.

So there should be something for all and reduce, dramatically, the number of individual emails journalists receive.

These unique features will resolve the increasing problems associated with Press Releases which are::
1. Many do not contain a real story
2. Many are too long to be read and understood quickly
3. And there are too many of them.

For details of News Bulletin and how to submit a Press Release for consideration, please contact:
Bob Mills
Executive Editor, Expertsources
01438 311758
editor@expertsources.co.uk

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