Friday, March 28, 2014

How NOT to Write a News Release

It’s a mainstay of the public relations process and thanks to countless distributions of really terrible variations sent to the media it has earned an often well-deserved bad rap.  It’s the news release.

In fact, the head of digital communications and social media at Coca-Cola Company, Ashley Brown,  recently said he wants to do away with the news release altogether.

Instead, he’s opting for an online magazine, self-published by the iconic company.  As a veteran PR person, I have to think that if Coke would take Brown’s advice, the move would rank up there with the PR version of "the New Coke." 

Brown told a group of attendees at a conference that rather than use press releases, he and his company want to go direct to consumer. The company wants to create popular content centered on what the audience wants.

That is excellent advice for marketers, but it totally ignores the role the news release plays as part of the news-gathering process in the journalistic world.  More to the point, Brown does not come at this from a journalistic point of view, but rather a marketing one. The marketing mindset sees the news media as nothing more than another marketing channel to be used to sell product or build a brand.  That’s a one-way street.

In the profession of public relations, we make it our business to build strong relationships with many stakeholders, including journalists. This means when conducting media relations, we owe it to journalists to give them information in the time and form they find usable and credible.

Still, in fairness to Brown, his issues with the news release as it is commonly used are good ones.  Too many news releases are terribly written, poorly formatted, and as self-serving as any poster for a lawn service that you’d find on the bulletin board at your local grocery store.

So, rather than provide a boring “how-to” on the right way to create a news release, I thought I’d provide a list of how NOT to write a news release.  These are in no particular order: 

Include “For Immediate Release” at the top of your news release.  Truth is, that’s a relic from the days when the news media might have actually waited for a PR department to approve their use of information in a news release.  It has been a long time since such a line has had any relevance in a news release. Take it out. 

Don’t include a dateline in your news release.  This is the mention at the very start of the first sentence, first paragraph that lists the city and state where the news is originating, along with the date the news release is issued.  By not including this, you are excluding two of the most important elements of the story – where and when it originated. 

Include lots of industry jargon, acronyms and no explanation of what those acronyms mean.  Full disclosure.  I’ve been forced on more occasions than I like to admit to include industry jargon that I didn’t like.  At the same time, I always make sure to include the appropriate qualifiers and details for the layperson to ensure that no matter who reads the document, they understand what it’s about.  In an ideal world, the least amount of jargon and acronyms, the better. 

Don’t include a “boilerplate” paragraph at the end of the news release. The boilerplate usually falls at the end of a news release under the heading “About,” as in “About ACME Pet Supplies.”  The paragraph that follows provides a brief overview of the organization, such as where it is located, how many locations and people it may have, what it does, and maybe even a little history on the organization.  It should include all of the pertinent information on the company regardless of the news, so that if a reporter who’s never heard of the company picks up the news release, he or she has context.  The boilerplate is all about context. 

Use the first person.  Many news releases are written to sound like advertisements, using the first person, such as, “We have extended our holiday shopping hours so you can find the right gift for your dog or cat.”  When done without quotes and without attribution, this is an ad, not a news release.  News releases should be written in the third-person following journalistic style, best detailed in the AP Stylebook.  It’s a great resource. 

Don’t be interesting.  All too often, organizations expect news releases to speak for themselves, and those news releases quickly fall to the bottom of the digital pile beneath other, more interesting news releases reporters and editors receive.  A news release should be interesting. It should get attention from the very start. It should tell a story that’s timely and relevant to the journalist on the receiving end. But above all, it should motivate the journalist to want to share it with his or her readers or viewers. 

Use hyperbole to describe your company, its services or products.  Marketing-oriented news releases often feature unsubstantiated claims about products as “one of the best cleaning solutions on the market.”  That’s opinion, not fact.  If a reporter wouldn’t write it that way, then it’s not a good idea to write it that way for a news release.  There is a way, however, to include such claims in a news release in a journalistic style.  Simply find someone in the company who’s willing to contribute a quote for attribution that essentially says the same thing. It is perfectly acceptable to include in the news release, “’Our carpet detergent is one of the best cleaning solutions on the market,’ said John Doe, President of Doe Enterprises.” 

Don’t include contact information.  Believe it or not, some news releases are sent to reporters without a name, phone number or email address of someone to contact should the reporter have any questions or want to verify information in the news release.  Make sure to include the name and at least a phone number for a media contact.

These are just a few ways not to write a news release. There are many others, but if you tackle these, you’ll be well on your way to enhancing your credibility with news rooms.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Web: 25 Years and Counting

If you’re under the age of 30, I may have to give you welcome notice that I don’t plan on talking about the history of the Internet by telling you that “back in my day we had to walk four miles in the snow to go to school.”   That said, I’ll skip the parts where we actually relied on the Post Office to deliver news releases, we used land lines as a primary means to reach out to the media and others, fax machines were the latest breakthrough technology, and we had to wait for the morning to see what was in the news.

Rather, I’ll fast-forward to a strange but eye-opening business party I attended in Silicon Valley during the height of the dot-com bubble.

It was the night I looked around the room and saw right in front of me the transformation the Internet had already made and got a glimpse of how it would change just about everything. This is the late 1990s, less than ten years since the Internet had been launched in 1989.

I was in San Jose for a tech conference.  The company I worked for was in the thick of the national dialogue about making high-speed Internet or broadband a reality.  To this time, no one could stream all of the data-heavy entertainment, gaming and other content the way we do now.   The technological solutions that our company offered promised to help enable the phone companies to roll out broadband to the masses.

Some things get lost today when we hear terms like “dot-com bubble.” The term conjures well-founded images of excess, over-valued companies and pointless business concepts. But during that period, amidst all of that noise was a very real truth.

The Internet, already making change, would continue change the world in ways most people couldn’t realistically imagine. Today, so much of what we do is reliant on the Internet, and yet much of what we already take for granted can trace its roots to a conceptual period in the mid-1990s when people congregated in places like Silicon Valley.  People I remember meeting and interfacing with.

At this party, it was all open collars, golf shirts and a few tie-dyed tee shirts thrown in for good measure.  The service staff was decked out in futuristic Star Trek-like costumes best described today as the kind of look the cast on TV’s Big Bang Theory would dream about.  The Star Trek theme was carried out in the d├ęcor and lighting.  The party’s hosts knew their audience.

That audience consisted of the people who brought you the Internet you know today.  Some were code-obsessed electrical engineers.  These weren’t just any engineers. These were the brilliant among the brilliant.  Others in the room were people with roots in the telecommunications business, and still many others from all walks of life.  The one thing all had in common was they were there to see what they could do with the Web’s potential.

Then there were the professionals. Investment bankers, investors, journalists, lawyers, dealmakers of all kinds, financial analysts, industry analysts, buy-side analysts, sell-side analysts.  They were all there…analyzing.

The conference was all about broadband and how its potential could be realized at all levels – research and development, delivery to millions of homes, creation of media channels, and of course, the generation of revenue.  Commerce. E-commerce.

But for me, it wasn’t the educational material or the formal presentations of that week that brought the meaning of all this home to me.  It was that moment at that party where I looked around.  I saw the intellectual power in the room, the sheer business clout of this collection of companies and resources, the dramatic shift in business etiquette, and a feeling, an energy that can only be described as how an NFL player might feel if standing in the tunnel, underneath the stands as 100,000 raucous people waited for the start of the Super Bowl.  Only in our case, it was about 150 people who all understood that the things our companies were doing – large and small – the things we were discussing as dryly technical as it may have sounded to an outsider would be big.

Over a beer, someone from a telecom company told me how he was working on enabling fiber optic technology to bring movies to home computers, just an idea at that time.   An investment banker told me about a company he had just bought into that was pioneering wireless broadband.

This was the night for me that I could see we were at a point of no return.  That - in retrospect - the way we did just about everything was about to change for good.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

PR for the Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade

If you’re in PR for any length of time, sooner or later you become an events planner.  It may not be your specialty, but you have to be able to plan and stage events, whether they be store openings or press conferences, trade show panel discussions or annual meetings.

Tied to this, you need to be able to create all of the communications around the event to make sure people know about it, want to be there, and when they get there, your messages are effectively delivered and objectives achieved.  Sounds simple, right?

I’ve been involved with all of the above, but I have to admit one of my favorite events to plan and support is the Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade.

I’m in charge of public relations for the parade, and I get involved in obtaining sponsors and some fundraising.  I’d characterize it all as a labor of love.  With a name like “O’Brien” this may be understandable, but tied to this, there are other reasons.

The planning and implementation of the event allows me to intersect once again with people I have known in any many other contexts throughout my life.  People from my old neighborhood, old school friends, reporters with whom I’ve worked on other stories, people I’ve known in business. And I’ve met and gotten to know many new people, new friends.

On the PR side, I’ve been able to do what I love on a project that matters to me, but also continue my own professional development through the process.  In the years since I’ve handled PR for the parade, social media has emerged and become a dominant media channel.  The parade provided one outlet where I’ve been able to experiment, learn and hone my own social media skills and knowledge in the process.  Thanks to the parade and other social media work, I have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.  As a result, we’ve built a few things.

The Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade regularly is the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the country with New York’s event being the largest.

On a cold day, we attract about 150,000 spectators.  Two years ago on a sunny day we drew 350,000 mostly peaceful and happy spectators.  The biggest crowd the parade ever drew was 450,000 spectators.  Keep in mind, the entire population of the City of Pittsburgh proper (excluding suburbs) is just over 300,000.

One thing I and others on the Parade Committee are proud of is positioning the event as a family-friendly one where “kids of all ages” are welcome and have a great time.  This isn’t lip service. We’ve taken some very specific actions that have over time had positive effect.  To be sure, this is a work in progress, but much of the work here is to counter stereotypes of the Irish and the holiday, overtly and subtly.  Parties are called for, but the celebration is of one of the region’s largest ethnic groups’ Irish heritage.

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a much more religious holiday than here in the U.S.  Still, the Parade Committee has made sure not to get away from the spiritual aspect of the event, kicking  off parade week with a Communion Breakfast, and on parade day starting with mass near the starting line.  Not many events of this size are as unapologetic about its religious roots, while at the same time, extending a hand to people of all other cultures.  The spirit of the parade is to consider everyone, regardless of nationality “Irish for a day.”

The parade now receives much attention from the media and the public in the weeks leading up to the parade.  News stories and features start to pop up weeks before the parade and help involve the community in the celebration right up on through the event.  By the start of the parade, the excitement is palpable.

Our Facebook page  now has nearly 17,000 followers.  Our Twitter feed has over 1,600 followers, many of them key influencers in the media and in the community.  Combined, these social media channels drive the public’s awareness of parade plans all the way through the process, helping to create an environment of anticipation.

Social media supplements an active media relations program that involves not just the parade planners, but also others who may be involved in different aspects of the parade, from elected officials and civic leaders, to parade participants.

That may be the “magic sauce” behind the whole thing.  By the time the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade marches on Grant Street to the Boulevard of the Allies, the region has been through the darkest, coldest and iciest days of winter.  Spring is days away.  People are ready to celebrate with family, friends and fellow Pittsburghers.

Cool thing is, on parade day if you’re a fellow Pittsburgher you are a friend.