When I was in journalism school, I got a big fat F on a paper. My professor liked my story about a couple who had spent three years sailing around the world, visiting more than 30 countries along the way. But I had misspelled “Colombia” as “Columbia,” and at my school, factual errors (she considered it one) slashed 50 points off your score.
I thought it was a little extreme, but the F made me keenly aware of the consequences of mistakes in reporting. When I left journalism for public relations and marketing, I applied the same gun-to-the-head approach to press release writing.
Now about the word “press.” I know press releases are no longer just being sent to the media. Distribution services such PR Web and Business Wire (not to mention Google Alerts, Twitter, Facebook, and other tools people can use to monitor and share content) now allow for a strategy that targets customers directly. David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR, prefers to call them “news releases” instead of “press releases,” so it doesn’t sound like they’re exclusively for the press.
But someone else’s writing an article about your business does more for its credibility than your writing an article about it—especially if that someone works for a reputable publication. So if engaging the media is still part of your strategy—and it should be—here are 10 press release boo-boos that far too many pitches contain. Do your best to avoid them.
1. It did not go through an editor/fact-checker. I got an F for misspelling Colombia. In business, it could be worse. Several years ago, a communications manager for a skin care company in San Jose, Calif., sent out a press release encouraging readers to call a 1-800 number. It had one incorrect digit. It didn’t take long before the manager was flooded with calls from editors and customers angry or amused at having dialed a number for phone sex.
2. It doesn’t contain news. That your CEO got an award is not news—not unless the award was for a revolutionary medical device that saves people’s lives or software that reduces waiting times at hospital ERs. When you’re writing a press release, always ask: Why should the publication’s readers care about this product/service/milestone? What value does it provide to readers? What problem does it solve? If you don’t have an answer, then it’s not newsworthy.
3. It’s salesy. Press releases are not sales letters. They’re not ad copy. So take out the “you,” “we,” and “us.” Don’t use overly hyped words such as “miracle,” “breakthrough,” and “cure.” Refrain from peppering it with flowery adjectives to describe your service. Just stick to the facts. You can—and should—accommodate opinions by adding quotes, but don’t let them leak into the narrative. A press release should be formatted like an article. If you’re not familiar with that format, check out the publication you’re targeting and copy theirs.
4. It doesn’t have a story. You might have something worth reporting, but if it’s all facts and figures, your readers won’t see it. Their eyes will already have glazed over. Always tell a story. Complement facts with quotes that express insight or convey an emotional reaction to the data. Frame your release around a challenge that was or can be overcome, a problem that was or can be solved. That’s how you portray your company as a hero—by showing, through storytelling, how it has helped or can help others, and not by indulging in self-praise.
5. It lacks focus. I get it. You’re doing all these awesome things. Heck, you’re changing the world. But focus on just one thing. One project. One product. One campaign. Save the others for separate releases. You can talk about them if they’re related and build on each other, but only one can be the star. Having multiple angles will run you into all sorts of problems. Not only will your press release be too long and your headline incomprehensible—which will confuse and annoy editors—they also won’t be search-friendly. Search engines see content that’s about too many things as content that’s about nothing.
6. It buries the lede. If you don’t state your point in the first paragraph, editors will toss out your pitch before getting to the second. But like me, you sometimes might want to lead with an anecdote. That’s OK, as long as it’s related to the point of the release. It should also be interesting enough to make readers want to know what happens next. It should flow smoothly to the second paragraph, where the big reveal takes place. And it should be short. If your release is about an anti-stroke campaign, you should hit the campaign after three or four sentences.
7. It doesn’t have a news-like headline. A headline can make or break a release. Advertising executive David Ogilvy once said that on average, five times as many people read the headline as they do the body copy. So if you don’t sell something in your headline, you’ve wasted 80 percent of your money. It’s the same with a press release that you’re selling to reporters. A news-like headline communicates direct benefits that are relevant to your target audience. It’s not cryptic, promotional, or overly clever.
8. It’s too long. Stick to a single page, no more than 400 words. Begin with an anecdote or a reference to a high-profile issue or event; immediately connect it with the product, service, or cause you wish to publicize; put in a paragraph with statistics from reputable sources for credibility and context; energize it with a quote or two; and then end with some boilerplate text about your company. That’s it. Length should not be a problem if you avoid mistake No. 4.
9. It doesn’t have any quotes. Quotes make opinion, insight, and emotion possible in a press release. They take readers beyond the traditional five Ws (who, what, where, when, and why) to the hows. To answer questions like, “How do employees feel about the change in overtime policy?” Or, “How can you explain that concept using a metaphor or analogy?” Emotion is at the core of storytelling. Avoid quotes that simply state facts and figures, because they’re a waste of space. Also, don’t use quotes that blatantly promote your product, unless they’re from impartial sources.
10. It’s riddled with jargon. Don’t write “myocardial infarction” if you can write “heart attack.” Don’t write “remunerate” when “pay” works just as well. Unless you’re writing to colleagues (and sometimes even if you are), jargon makes you sound pompous and difficult to relate to. It also forces reporters to look up certain terms (in which case they might just say, forget it). It’s also not search-friendly, because search engines favor natural language.
The press release is still the workhorse of many PR campaigns, even after social media allowed businesses to engage directly with customers. Knowing that a journalist wrote about you, that his or her article was vetted by at least one professional editor, and that someone else’s money was spent to publish it, lends credibility to the publicity that your own blogging, newsletter-writing, and Facebook and Twitter posting just can’t match. You know it, and so do your customers. So do your best to get it right.
Maggie Holley is a marketing writer who helps healthcare companies tell stories that show and sell their science. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiedholley. A version of this post first appeared on her blog, Selling Through Storytelling.
This article first ran on Ragan.com in July 2012.