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.

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