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!

Top 5 Client PR Traits

In the previous post, we ran through some of the traits that successful tech PR pros need, but how about clients? The relationship between PR agency and client, be it a quick fling for a project or a marching down the aisle long-term retainer, is a two-way thing.

The best clients, and so those that are most successful, understand this and will work with their agencies to provide them with the knowledge they need to hit their shared objectives successfully. Here are five traits of top PR clients:

  • Don’t be a jack of all trades: And a master of none. You know your business and your customers better than anyone, the most successful clients know exactly what they arequalified to comment on and don’t try to comment on every passing trend.
  • Trust us: We’re not doctors, but we know what we are talking about. The best clients trust their PR advisors when they give them advice and don’t just go it alone.
  • Spend money: Now, we’re not just saying this, but PR is important – don’t neglect PR and invest in it where you can, the results will pay dividends down the line.
  • Content is king: Very often, clients produce lots of great content internally or for sales purposes that can be useful for external PR. And then they forget to share it with their agencies! Don’t forget to send us that whitepaper.
  • Think about what is important: Do you want to be in the channel press, do you want to be in the tech press, do you want to be in the business press? Having a few ideas about what outcomes you want from PR before you start is crucial.

The world of technology throws up lots of different types of clients, from small start-ups developing innovative solutions to established companies supporting customers with legacy technologies. Wherever you are on the spectrum, having or developing, these traits will ensure that the relationship you have with your PR agency is a fruitful one.

Top 5 Tech PR Traits

Public Relations is a changeable beast. It encompasses anything and everything from media relations to event management, to content production and far more in-between. It also spans every industry and imaginable niche. Nowhere is this truer than in tech PR; where conceivably, on a daily basis you can go from talking about big data in drug discovery to business intelligence dashboards in the NHS, to fin tech applications in the cloud.

Being able to juggle, understand and communicate such varied themes is a challenge. Here are some top tech PR traits that all PR pros need – from the very greenest graduate to the most frazzled flack.

  • Organisation: Without fail, the ability to organise oneself, manage your time, meet deadlines and handle several clients at once is crucial. They don’t call PR plate spinning for nothin’!
  • Liking technology: Incredibly, if you don’t like technology or you can’t tap into your inner geek, it’s pretty hard to find interesting things to say about it. If you prefer handbags to HPC, tech PR probably isn’t for you (handbag PR definitely is).
  • Put it in a nutshell: The ability to understand, digest and then communicate complex technical information in a few simple sentences cannot be underrated.
  • Project confidence: It’s a PR-eat-PR world out there, and you can be sure every other agency in the world is pitching for that national cloud feature. So being able to confidentlytell a journalist exactly why they should talk to your client is going to come in handy.
  • Be literate: Tech PRs very often find themselves writing about topics that could charitably be called ‘dry’, being able to inject some life and soul into your writing is invaluable.

So, now we’ve covered some of the attributes of successful tech PR pros, what about our clients? It takes two to tango you know, and we’ll take a look from the other side of the aisle next week.

5 tips in 5 minutes – making sure media interviews run to plan

Media interviews are a much-vaunted, much-loved staple of any PR programme worth its salt, but, like anything in PR, they can go horribly wrong. But even when an interview isn’t a complete car crash, as any PR pro will know, a lot of interviews can end up being merely a so-so experience – instead of being a sound-bite stuffed, charming-the-pants-off-journalists result that we all hope for.

It’s important to remember that every spokesperson you have is different. Some will have been media trained up the eyeballs over a long career in the C-Suite, others will be doing their first ever interview having never knowingly spoken to a journalist in their life. It’s also important to remember that interviews are arranged for any number of reasons, and so the approach you and your spokesperson take will differ accordingly. It might be a ten-minute chat on the phone to grab a few quotes for a feature, or it might be an in-depth hour-long profile piece.

Whatever the reason and however experienced your spokesperson might be – ensuring that you prepare the spokesperson thoroughly and give them all the information and context they need to feel confident, will pay dividends down the line. It goes without saying that providing a briefing note with valuable background on journalists, publications and talking points is essential. But often, more important that simply sending a document, is personally pre-briefing your spokesperson. Your spokesperson is highly likely to be a very busy individual, fully digesting all the info in a briefing document may not be high on their list of priorities.

So if nothing else, grab that five minutes before your spokesperson even utters a word and remember to reiterate the basics – here are just a few to get started:

  • Speak slow – remind spokespeople not to hurry or speak quickly, and to make a conscious effort to slow down – ensuring that the journalist can catch/record comments
  • Press pause – hand in hand with speaking too fast, is not giving the journalist a chance to speak, tell your spokesperson to pause when they’ve finished speaking to allow the journalist to ask questions
  • Check in – periodically, it’s useful for spokespeople to check with the journalist that they understand the comments they are making
  • Listen closely – remind spokespeople to really listen to the question a journalist poses and do their best to answer it specifically rather than too generally
  • Not knowing is OK – it’s fine not to know something, your spokesperson shouldn’t be afraid to decline to answer a question if they can’t answer, it’s far better than fudging it!

Has there ever been a more perfect PR topic than the smartphone?

If you work in PR you get used to seeing the same themes cropping up year after year (cloud, anyone?), and while they are not quite old-hat for us PR bods, we are certainly becoming very well-versed in them indeed. What it means in reality is that a lot of people are talking about the same thing and the same issues, so you have to work extra hard to come up with more creative and proactive ideas for clients.

But smartphones, well, they are just the gift that keeps on giving. Recent news from Ofcom shows they are more popular than ever with internet use on smartphones growing seven times faster than on laptops and desktops. And in a business sense, they are now deemed the most important tool for running a business. Smartphones are also one of those rare B2B technologies that actually cross the business-consumer divide which makes them even more interesting to readers. So, although it sometimes feels like every business in the world is talking about smartphones and mobile devices (they probably are), their ubiquitous nature means there is always plenty of stuff for us PR folk to talk about.

Being so pervasive therefore results in the vast majority of our PR content and campaigns having a strong mobile angle. It also further opens up areas we can talk about because smartphones are so important to the business world. As a result, they give rise to lots of other, linked issues like data security; which is a shape-shifting constant companion of the smartphone. As smartphones continue to get harder, better, faster, stronger, the issues constantly change – which for PR purposes is great, as it gives rise to emerging topics such as second-screening.

Smartphones are one of those technologies that we all here at Spark personally use on an hourly basis so we can get even more excited about them than normal (and we get excited about the weirdest technologies, let me tell you). The beauty of mobile is that it has so many facets we’re never short of something to say about it; like whether consumers prefer mobile apps or mobile websites, the average number of workers using their own smartphones, thesecurity of mobile wallets, or the importance of a mobile first strategy.

So, after my paean to that perfect PR technology, it does beg the question – what’s next? Will Google Glass be the next indispensable business tool, will devices we can swallow become the next omnipresent technology or will driverless cars be the de facto vehicle on driveways around the world? Whatever the answer, it’ll certainly be fun finding out and we’ll no doubt have plenty to say about it too.

Click here to download your latest PR Executive, version 3.6

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.

PR vs. Journalism. World War…not sure, I’ve lost count.

It’s the world’s worst kept secret that PR practitioners and journalists have what can most generously be called a fractious relationship. To any new entrant into the PR industry, it can still come as something of a shock. I have seen people reduced to tears mid sell-in by some particularly rude treatment. In all honesty, the industry probably isn’t for them if that’s the result. You need a thick skin to get by, and you need to acquire it quickly. Having said that, being reduced to tears in your workplace is absolutely not right and no one should feel it’s acceptable to do so.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a few journalist rants and have found the best method for dealing with them can be summed up thus: style it out. It’s going to happen, you’ll learn from it, and next time you allocate a press list you’ll probably give that particular journo a swerve.

Whilst the tear-inducing, apocalyptic journalist rants are thankfully few and far between, they do still happen. And it begs the question, why? I am lucky in my job that, in the main, I deal with journalists who are respectful and rarely give me the rude treatment; and I like to think that I am equally as approachable. I think the problem, like with any relationship, is all about understanding. That is, PRs and journalists seem to rarely understand each other, what each other wants/needs, and what each other can do/deliver.

My biggest tip from a PR point of view to gain that understanding would be research. What interests the journalist you’re about to call? What to they write, what are the angles, what do they tweet about, have you tailored your pitch, are you calling on press day, have you spoken to this journalist before? And the biggest question, is this actually news? This (and more) should be standard protocol before picking up the phone, though anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

And if I could suggest for our journo friends a little understanding too? We all have a job to do, and our jobs involve ringing you sometimes. And you never know, it might be useful/interesting/fruitful. I know you get a lot of phone-calls, and so do I, but let’s refrain from outright shoutiness and nastiness, eh?

Can’t we all just get along?!

And now, from our correspondent in….

Listen to the doomsayers, and traditional journalism is dead. With the advent of The Times paywall, which no one can seem to decide if it is successful or not, and Wikileaks rising prominence, ‘stateless journalism’ according to some; then old news is dead. But this is old news in itself really, it’s been many years since print media relied on people buying their publications for revenue. I personally still buy newspapers and magazines, and think there is nothing better than flicking through the pages and soaking it up. Which is not to say I don’t read news online or via other sources, I do that all day every day. But I’m not going to stop buying newspapers, or Time, or Economist or Guardian Weekly. I like the pages in my hand.

I’m a bit more hardcore when it comes to books though, because I’m a geek, and I love to read. To me, there is nothing like holding a book in my very own hands, turning the pages, putting it on my bedside table, marking my page and not being able to wait to get back to it. Yes, I know I could do all this with a Kindle or iPad, but I’m just not interested, I love the feel of a book, and I’m not going to give up my Waterstones addiction any time soon.

There is little doubt though, that breaking news is the domain of the internet, with Twitter leading the pack. Although interestingly, Wikileaks, a firmly web-based service, announced it’s big Afghan war log leaks in print. With The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times sharing the landmark leak. Proof then, that newspapers still have a part to play. The three papers have had this particular bit of news for months, but have spent that time analysing, documenting and presenting the information. Which would have been impossible if they had released the leaks online as soon as they had received them; once it’s out there on the web, it’s also out of control.

This also brings me to another old grumble of mine, concerning journalism and responsibility. Don’t journalists have some responsibility to national security? I thought the same thing when I blogged way way back when about senior anti-terror officer Bob Quick’s unfortunate security lapse, which this countries newspapers reported in technicolour glee. He subsequently lost his job – as the press bayed for blood, and conveniently ignored the fact that the operation he accidentally exposed was carried out safely and successfully.

Julian Assange launching the leak

UK and US sources have accused Wikileaks of having complete disregard for national security, and of having ‘blood on their hands’. Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and chief is unapologetic, he is simply exposing a ‘truth’. But at what cost? Pertinent facts have again gone ignored by the media, the Afghan war logs are actually quite old, and document activity before new rules of engagement were introduced this year, and very few commentators have reflected on the indiscriminate behaviour of the hostile forces the coalition troops come up against. War is painful, ugly and lamentable, but that is nothing new – it’s only now it can be reported in full, graphic detail that we get a sense of it. The media have largely made up their mind in the UK that this War on Terror is an illegal failure. I’m undecided myself, but I see no reason for putting the lives of coalition troops and Afghan informers at risk, or desperately trying to highlight how immoral coalition forces are. Lest we forget that they are doing a job, and the vast majority are not murderous occupiers as portrayed; it’s a job I certainly wouldn’t like, or have to guts to do, but I respect and support completely.

Bob Quick lost his job over his widely reported blunder, Tony Hayward, on behalf of BP, would probably have had a much quieter and gentler exit were it not for the hacks, bloggers, and vociferous media attacks calling for his scalp. Will someone lost their job over the Wikileaks bombshells? Probably, Bradley Manning is the first low-ranking sacrificial lamb. Will this kind of thing happen again? Probably.

We are all journalists now, and we can all report what and when we like, and with whatever bias or viewpoint we hold. I think this is a good thing, but it’s also a little bit dangerous – there are very few boundaries left – and it’s not just chucked into the ether, this kind of leak or reportage has a direct effect on the lives of real people.

Still, I make the case for print media again, consider this blog post by a fellow Guardian Weekly reader, there is nothing like actually holding those pages in your hands.