29 Jan 2015

How To Screw Up A Press Release

Ditching Bad Habits And Embracing Beavers

In my alternative line of work as a journalist I receive lots of interesting press releases. But when I say, “receive lots”, I mean, “get carpet-bombed” and when I say, “interesting” I just mean, “naff”.

Whether you work in TV or trade journals, you will find editors and reporters searching in vain for meaning in these mysterious pieces of promotional material. Sometimes press releases are endearing or amusingly bad. More often they’re just bad and get deleted/binned/incinerated in an instant.

Let’s be fair though, people in PR, even individuals trying to push their own start-up, rarely have the means or the inclination to understand the dark workings of the journalistic-mind. And why should they? A good copywriter knows that press releases live or die by the first sentence. So, using some examples all mailed yesterday – and by no means the worst offenders – here are a few of the biggest pitfalls...

Clever First Sentences.

It seems that the younger generation of UK adults have been putting the selfless in selfie as social media campaigns have sparked a generous average of charitable contributions amongst 16-24's.

Never try to be too clever in your first sentence, especially if it will prevent you from getting to the point. Journalists think they’re smarter than everyone, particularly when it comes to crafting a good pun, so crowbarring something dubiously witty into the top line is a waste of your time and theirs. The first sentence must explain the whole release in one punchy sentence, like an actual news story.

Press releases should never begin: “It seems”. Journalists want facts or hard evidence. Not airy observations.

“Putting the selfless in selfie” is quite a cute line but here it succeeds in making the sentence more clumsy.

“A generous average of charitable contributions” - besides being too wordy, is basically just gibberish.

A better top line might have been: “Social media encourages young people to become more charitable according to a major new study.”

Insipid angles.

The leading ____ company, ____, in a groundbreaking collaboration with ____, is proud to announce the publication of a new report.

For something to be classed as news it must be significant. A new report is totally banal. Find the most exciting or surprising thing in your report and use that to drive the press release.

Assuming old news is newsworthy.

Reading together is an important element to a child's success and creates many special memories that involve you and your child. The importance of bedtime stories also includes instilling vital elements of communication in your child. We all communicate through written word, verbal methods, listening, and body language.

For the purposes of a book or a catalogue, the above is perfectly acceptable. But as the first paragraph of a press release it is hopeless. It makes the common mistake of giving prominence to general opinion. And in fact we don’t get to the meat of the story – a new survey – until the fourth paragraph.

Press releases should be about the here and now. They must not be a collection of vague and meandering remarks about things that happened last year or even a month ago for that matter.

Meaningless surveys

According to a new study by an online travel agency in the UK, couples who go on holiday together regularly end up having longer relationships, on average; with people also admitting that they feel at their happiest in their relationship when they are away on a trip.

Well hold the front page! Again a terrible top line, but even more concerning, the writer of this press release seems to be suggesting that people in a close relationship are more likely to holiday together.

The body of the piece includes some other knock-out revelations:

The majority 52% (of those polled) said they felt happiest when 'on holiday' with their partner.

I'm not trying to rubbish the intentions behind this press release – clearly a lot of effort went into the survey of 2,000 respondents no less. The problem is that there is nothing surprising about it. The typical reaction of a news editor is, so what? What am I expected to do with this information?

Sometimes a survey is the only tool at your disposal to generate a news story. And in those less than ideal circumstances, at the very least the survey should be scientific, with a large number of respondents and clear-cut answers. Above all, the findings must be significant.

So after all that, what about an example of a winning press release I received yesterday? Well, it started with a picture, not a headline:

And the first sentence?

It’s official - beavers are back!