Top tips for writing a winning press release

Writing is the bread and butter of PR. A normal week’s writing can range from drafting a quick quote, penning a 5,000 word whitepaper, jotting an opinion article, or of course, scribing a press release. The press release is certainly one of the most frequent writing tasks and is a much-maligned tool in the PR’s arsenal. However, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Every so often, the subject of the press release being ‘dead’ rears its head. Yet, clients still want them, and more importantly, so do journalists! So, PR agencies keep writing them, in their thousands. It’s high time, then, to recap some top tips for writing a press release – because they’re not going anywhere any time soon!

  • Mind your language – as Alex recently blogged, PR ‘speak’ can be littered with phrases that turn journalists off and actually add nothing to your content. Steer clear of any marketing jargon, stick to facts, and under no circumstances should you use the word ‘leverage’.
  • Don’t oversell – in a similar vein to the previous point, avoid telling people your product/service etc. is ‘unique’ or ‘innovative’ (Dominic also has some thoughts on this), because words such as these are so frequently overused that they reduce the power of your release.
  • Know your limits – some press releases are not going to get press attention, and that’s fine, but know your limits and know what you want to achieve with the release. A strong customer story is a coverage winner, a minor product update is a useful ‘FYI’ for prospects, customers, and some media, and will help boost SEO – rather than guarantee you coverage.
  • A picture says a thousand words – this tip applies to lots of other written content like case studies and by-lined articles, but sending images with a press release can save journalists a lot of time trying to find one to match, and can bring a story to life. Just make sure they are of a high resolution, or they will be useless.
  • We are delighted – that might be so, but so is every other company out there! Press release quotes that start with ‘we are delighted’ are a well-known menace in the world of PR and journalism. Try to think of another way to express your ‘delight’, and explain why your announcement is good for your customers, not just why it makes you happy.

The important thing to remember when writing a press release is to keep the journalist in mind. Think about what information the journalist needs in order to write a story, and ensure you are giving that information in a clear, concise way – no-one is going to read a 1,000 word press release, however beautifully crafted it is!

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Former FT journalist, Tom Foremski, recently wrote a piece asking if PR can be automated? It’s a bit of a head-scratcher of an article that compares how the media industry ‘has been dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world and forced to adopt new media technologies (has it, has it really?), with PR’s apparent lack of technological prowess.

The basic premise is that PR doesn’t use technology to further itself and that PR’s use of technology extends only to ‘a Twitter hashtag and a dashboard of likes and shares’. The upshot of which, according to Foremski is that PR can’t grow because it can’t scale; in essence, PR growth means hiring more people. Foremski thinks this is a problem that makes PR companies vulnerable as they can’t ‘automate the technologies of promotion’. Now that’s a phrase – automate the technologies of promotion. I don’t know about you but I’m picturing I-Robot-esque rows of fresh PRobots ready to bash out a press release.

Let’s look at that then, writing a press release. The much maligned and unloved press release that despite its own bad press is still a valuable PR tool that both journalists’ and PRs’ alike make use of. To write a good press release, you need knowledge of your client, the industry, issues affecting the industry, product knowledge, technical and often complex knowledge, and the ability to tell a story, the ability to know what resonates with human beings. You need nuance. Machines and technologies don’t understand nuance, which you’ll know all too well if you’ve ever tried to edit a document in Microsoft Word.

So I have to ask, is it such a bad thing that PR can’t grow unless more people become involved? Lest we forget the P in PR stands for public. It is all about people after all – on both sides of the fence, those communicating and those listening. The PR world is too often accused that it’s a clone-like, drone-like industry that churns out the same out old stories that aren’t either interesting or newsworthy. Would technology do a better job? People tell stories, not machines. Besides, as any PR knows, we already have enough trouble trying to answer the ‘what do you do for a living’ question. I don’t want to have to start throwing automate the technologies of promotion in there as well.

Dear journalism, we still need you. Love from, PR.

I recently read an article by Ian Burrell bemoaning the prospects of the journalism industry, arguing that it’s slowly being killed off by PR itself – he’s by far the first to make this claim. Referring to the ‘churnalism’ of Nick Davies’ infamous Flat Earth News, Burrell argues that the tempestuous love/hate affair between journalism and PR is only getting worse as large corporate organisations are now bypassing journalism altogether, and going direct to their ‘publics’ with a vast array of homemade content delivered straight to the customer themselves. And in doing so, he asks the question, does PR still need traditional press?

In a word, yes.

Burrell uses the examples of large, cash-rich organisations like Mishcon de Reya as prime suspects in this journalism-circumventing trickery, and whilst Mishcon are creating a huge amount of (actually very innovative) content, this kind of activity is far from the norm for the majority of PR campaigns. It’s a cold, hard fact that few clients of PR agencies have hundreds of thousands to spend on creating flashy video and native advertising, what they really want is the most bang for their buck. And that buck, literally stops somewhere; funds are tightly managed and budgets may often be limited. This means that PR must not only be creative, but maximise every possible opportunity for influential editorial (un-paid) coverage – and doing that means you have to know what journalism and journalists want.

Way back when, one of my excellent university tutors advised us all to read Flat Earth Newsbefore any other of the weighty tomes recommended for the course. He was adamant in telling us green, keen PR kids that we should steer as far from this kind of PR as we possibly could if we wanted to be trusted consultants to clients and forge strong relationships with the press. He was of course right and his words have stuck with me. And while I can’t argue away that there’s a lot of bad PR out there, by the same token, there’s a lot of bad journalism too.

When all is said and done, PR and journalism still need each other; even if more content is being created by companies and PR agencies themselves. Content still needs disseminating, and the best way of doing that is through trusted and influential media. Hard-won editorial coverage in a national paper or key trade publication trumps native advertising on Buzzfeed any day of the week. I think Ian Burrell is actually somewhat undervaluing ‘traditional press’. To many people, both clients and consumers, it still has a huge amount of influence and value and remains a key factor in PR activity. Don’t worry too much just yet, Ian. We may not always get on, but we don’t want to see you going anywhere.

How to win at social media with the Clintons

Here’s a post I recently wrote for the Spark blog

You may have seen recently that Hillary Clinton became the latest of the Clinton Clan to join Twitter, following in the footsteps of husband Bill and daughter Chelsea. And whichever PR pro helped Hillary launch her first tentative social footsteps was something of a genius, she may have only tweeted four times (to date), but she’s gone down a storm.

Bill and Chelsea are far more active, as are all their associated profiles which encompass their many charitable and action foundations. The Clintons have built a formidable presence on Twitter, perhaps learning from Barack Obama himself, whose social media practices have been near flawless. As a ‘brand’, the Clintons are impressive – managing to do what many businesses fail to do; build a cohesive, united, ‘joined-up’ presence on social media networks to get that all important message out there.

Social media, as we all know, is here to stay (as are the Clintons). Having a social media ‘presence’ is deemed as an almost necessity for businesses these days – and whether it is the right thing for your business or not (it isn’t always!), there are lessons to be learned from the Clintons if you’re making the jump to social.

So, what tips can companies pick up from the Clinton’s foray into the Twittersphere?

  • Make an entrance – Hillary’s inspired first tweet, a play on the #TextsFromHillary meme was a great start. Retweeted 11,042 times so far, that first tweet itself generated a whole lot of headlines and goodwill.
  • Have a sense of humour – Well done Hillary, referencing your own meme and taking‘selfies’ with your child; clever, wry and in the best of humour.
  • Choose your time wisely – Do not, under any circumstances, try to gain capital or make jokes out of tragic events (I can’t believe that even needs to be said, but sadly it does).
  • Don’t forget your profile – The 140 characters under you name is your first chance to draw the user in. Hillary’s is excellent, and that clever ‘TBD…’ ending hasn’t put those 2016 rumours to bed.
  • Be active – Now Hillary is letting the side down here a bit, but Bill and Chelsea are regular tweeters; businesses with inactive streams or infrequent updates are not engaging in the conversation which will deliver them customers.
  • Build your brand – Chelsea Clinton does this very well, her Twitter profile page has the Twitter handles of all her other associated accounts listed down the side – a good tip, make it easy for users to find your other connected networks.

Now, the Clintons were starting out with a good deal of reputation and cache already in place – very, very few businesses will have that type of expectation or welcome if they decide to go social. Building a social media following is a slow and involved process, and can’t be done half-heartedly. But whether you decide to make the social leap, or if you already have, why not strive to be like the best?

The North/South divide: Still a thing.

Disclaimer: I’m a northerner.

Check out this story on ComputerWorldUK, about a new competition launched to find the next £100m tech start-up, with a £1m prize and advice and support given to the winner. Where is it based? London. This is part of the government’s continued effort to create a tech hub in East London. Because of course, absolutely no technical expertise, skill and innovation happens outside of London. The Tech City initiative is just one more example of the government’s inability to focus on anywhere outside of London. It is so hopelessly short-sighted.

We can talk all day about the North/South divide, but the fact remains it is there. As someone whose office is in London but is a home-worker based in Manchester, I make the trip from North to South regularly. I’ve also lived many years in the South East and many years in the North West. I have seen first-hand the disparity between wealth accumulation and job availability in both locations. In short, London and the South East have money to burn; the North West is haemorrhaging jobs and increasing poverty all over the place. And it is not getting any better. This government is so wholly focused on its London bubble, it has all but forgotten that the rest of the country exists, except when it needs some votes and it has to muddy its feet north of the Watford Gap.

Sadly, some very good London based friends and colleagues are stuck in the same bubble. The disdain for anything outside of London is quite astonishing sometimes. I don’t rise to it, mainly because I’m used to it, and it’s something of a losing battle to begin with. But I also recognise the difference between a bit of harmless banter, and, well, some pretty nasty and disparaging views about anyone/anything in the North. The North of course in these situations referred to as some mystical, far away land, populated by people in flat caps, eating pies and claiming benefits they are not entitled to.

Honestly, it’s boring. So very mind-numbingly boring that these types of views still exist. But they do. And until the government looks outside of London and starts to do something for the rest of the UK, you know, like invest some actual money somewhere, the situation will remain the same.

A couple of posts from elsewhere…

Some recent posts I wrote for the work blog (@Sparkcomms), both on corporate comms.

The first takes a look at BlackBerry’s evident lack of media training. There’s really no excuse in this day and age…

Why media training matters: BlackBerry has (another) bad day at the office

And the second examines Tesco’s recent ingenious crisis comms. Sonnets of sorrow, whatever next eh?

Crisis communications and saying sorry: not just when, but how

World’s worst blogger.

Well, it’s been a while. I blame my very busy work schedule and the fact I’ve moved cities four times in the past 12 months. Now here I am back in my home town of Manchester and can be regularly spotted on the Pendlino to Euston travelling between my London and home office.

No longer am I a PR newcomer but am three-ish years into my PR career, currently working as an account manager for a London based b2b tech agency. I have clients in all areas of tech; and also in telco, life sciences and engineering.

I can safely say that one of the things I love best about my job is how much I learn on a daily basis. I can talk at length about software licensing, OTTs impact on 4G networks, oil and gas exploration, application performance management and medicinal chemistry. All of which means I might be exceptionally boring but at least I’m good in a pub quiz.

I do solemnly swear that I will now blog more often.

The changing of the guard

Amongst the thousands of articles written about the superinjunction/Ryan Giggs debacle, one woefully out of touch article from The Guardian stood out. Written by Richard Hillgrove, who is described as a ‘business and political public relations consultant’, the article seems only to emphasise the divide between the old and new guard.

Many of the below the line commenter’s make the point that regulating what people write on a social network is nigh on impossible. Indeed, a couple liken the article’s point to the Royal Mail being sued for something they have written in a letter to a friend, or the fact the Twitter is somewhat analogous to a phone network.

Twitter is primarily a medium of communication, as is Facebook and numerous other social networks, people use them to chat to friends, make new friends, and sure, gossip now and then. No different really to a conversation I may have with a colleague around the watercooler surely.

Except the key difference is the potential for it to be heard; I may say something on Twitter which may get re-tweeted, replied to, discussed, even trending. Now, I may be somewhat overstating my Twitter reach here, but you get the point. It’s the same theory as when something goes ‘viral’; it might start off as a conversation between two people, but end up as it has in Ryan Giggs’s case, as one between millions of people.

And I suppose that’s the beauty and the terror of social media in a nutshell. Whatever the musings about whether social media is here to stay or not, the question of how it can be regulated is ultimately academic in my opinion, unless we really want to experience even more of a big brother society.

Current libel and privacy laws are not compatible with modern forms of communication, which seems simplistic to say, but changing the law is more feasible than fact-checking the trillions of status updates and tweets made on Twitter and Facebook. Which are just two of the ever growing number of social networks.

Twitter is not in and of itself a media outlet, it’s a conduit for words to be spread, between individuals, corporations, businesses, governments, and myriad other organisations. There is a fine line between free speech and libel, and walking that line becomes more perilous as our social and digital networks grow, but ‘reeling it in’? It’s not only an impractical suggestion, but a very naive one.

And if Richard Hillgrove needed proof in the power of Twitter, he now has his very own parody Twitter profile

Free speech? Evelyn Beatrice Hall had it right

I love Louis Theroux, and have religiously watched all of his documentaries, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with his latest examination of ‘America’s most hated family’. Theroux first visited the Phelps of Kansas, who founded and run the utterly abhorrent Westboro Baptist Church in 2007; this documentary (BBC2, Sunday, 9pm) is their second meeting.

With unprecedented levels of bile and vitriol, the Phelps have made it their mission to tell the world just how angry and vengeful God is,  and just how much he hates gay people, anyone of another faith, or of another race. I can’t even begin to explain their absurd and offensive views, and quite how one is able to conjure up so much hatred toward another person is beyond me.

It does however, raise the interesting question of free speech and that famous quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, ‘’I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’’ These words resonate especially when watching the Phelps, and their ilk, waving offensive placards and chanting shocking insults on small-town street corners, and the funerals of military personnel.

The legal question of free speech has become somewhat entwined with the moral question, as the Phelps experienced in a protracted Supreme Court battle with the family of a soldier killed in Iraq, over whether their demonstration at his funeral constitutes an expression of free speech (Snyder Vs Phelps).

As much as I hate these people, and what they stand for, you cannot mandate what someone puts on a sign, what words they speak or indeed what thoughts are in their mind. The minefield of what is offensive to some and isn’t to others is a never-ending discussion. The Supreme Court found 8-1 in the Phelps favour; an unprecedented level of consensus amongst the Supreme Court bench’s ideologues.

I am not for a second suggesting that their demonstration is right, decent, or acceptable; it is deplorable to me and the vast majority of observers.  But our society, and that of America, is a society founded on individual freedoms, and one where we fight to protect these rights both at home and internationally. So as galling as it may seem, the Phelps do have a right to express their opinions.

What one would hope for is that general human decency and sensibility would inspire some modicum of self-restraint in their behaviour. There is a time and place for expression of views, and the funeral of a young man isn’t one of them. I may hold views which are offensive to some, in fact I’m sure we all do; it’s the nature of the human race, we are all different, but most of know exactly when to bite our tongue.

Unfortunately the Phelps being the people they are, they haven’t quite mastered that subtle art of simple human decency. So although the legal outcome may sit at odds with our moral opinion, the fact of the Phelps existence is absolute. And while I certainly couldn’t bring myself to defend their rights, I leave that to the minds of the Supreme Court and Beatrice Hall, the best I can hope for is to laugh at them.

The Good, the Bad, and the Fees.

Tuition fees are just one of the current victims of our much vaunted ‘swingeing cuts’;and are sure to ignite impassioned discussion amongst varied groups. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not quite sure exactly where I stand on the subject. Sure, my blood boils when I see the current crop of privately educated, wealthy politicians who enjoyed generous grants inflicting vast amounts of debt on the current generation of students; but at the same time I recognise that higher education, whether subsidised or otherwise, is not a right, but is a privilege.

I’ve had the privilege to attend university for undergraduate and postgraduate study, and I certainly have the debts to accompany it. I would advocate university to anyone; I had some of my best and most valuable experiences during my time at university. But I appreciate how daunting debts running into the tens of thousands must appear to prospective students.

I’ll also be honest and say that I don’t fully understand the numbers (I didn’t study maths at university for a reason). But as it has been explained to me, universities are in the main charging the maximum, or as close to the maximum £9000 limit as possible for two crucial reasons; the actual reduction in government funding, and the predicted drop in student numbers. Combined, this leaves little other way for universities to cover the cost of delivering a degree.

The ‘bad’ I am referring to in this post’s title is the negative publicity problem this has created for universities. Leeds Metropolitan University, where I took my Masters degree, this week announced their intention to charge fees of £8500 per year. Leeds Met has built a strong reputation on widening participation and of traditionally charging lower fees. As the first of the ‘newer’ universities to announce this news, they’ve taken a good amount of flak as a result and face something of a battle to justify the cost. The below the line comments on this Times Higher Education article are scathing to say the very least.

The ‘good’ I am referring to, is the devilishly good PR move executed by the coalition government. By leaving little other option than to raise fees, the government has effectively managed to deflect blame to individual institutions, and shift the focus away from themselves. Forcing the hand of universities this way, means we tend to blame the announcing institution and it is the institution that becomes the object of our ire.

So, as much as I hate to congratulate David Cameron and co, they seem to have their PR machine pretty well oiled this time.

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