I’ve been there. You turn on your computer and find an Inbox full of press releases. Before you’ve had a chance to peruse them, there’s the dreaded phone call. “Did you receive my press release?” the caller asks. “When do you think you might use it?”
As an editor, you glance at the press release in question and often you want to reply, “Never.” But that’s not good for business. You sigh and begin another day of editing poorly written press releases into a format you can use.
“Too much of my valuable time is spent going through emails. It gets worse year to year,” says Editor Jane McClure, who has been an editor for nearly four decades. “My biggest gripe is folks who just spew out crap, frankly. They don’t even check to see if what they’re sending is a fit for the newspaper. The so-called paperless society is a giant waste of my time.”
When a company circulates content like that described above, editors stop taking it seriously. But what happens if a company becomes known by editors as one providing well-written and newsworthy press releases, whitepapers, advertorials and case studies?
As an editor with more than two decades of experience, I can tell you exactly what happens. Their news is picked up immediately. It will post online within hours, or even minutes; it might make the cut for an upcoming print issue; or even become part of a larger story about an important topic facing the industry. In short, their press releases become messages that matter.
PDFs and Other Pet Peeves
I recently asked a group of editors for their pet peeves and suggestions for press releases. Their tally of don’ts quickly added up.
Editor David Griffith notes, “My least favorite thing is the non-press release. Companies will send us a sell sheet or worse just a catalog page and we must create a press release. Or they put their company names in all caps when they are not acronyms. They use superlatives such as ideal, perfect, unique [all of which must be removed], and sing the praises of the company in the first paragraph. If you really are the top company in the market, we know it and so do the readers.”
News content put into PDFs tops Editor Clair Urbain’s list of no-nos. However attractive these documents are, PDFs present huge problems for editors. They simply don’t play well when cutting and pasting into Word. They also do not work well with the content management systems (CMS) editors use to post PR on websites. Unless an editor has access to Adobe Acrobat Pro, it is very difficult and time consuming to retrieve content from a PDF.
Double spaces after periods. The words “we are pleased to announce,” “world’s first” or “world’s only” also make the don’t list as does failing to attach images or logos. Editor Rebecca Kanable adds, “Big sentences, lots of words and little substance” to the list, while others report recalling a release then sending new versions multiple times as a frustration.
The most egregious pet peeve of all? Sending content that isn’t a fit for the publication. McClure explains, “My readers are largely low-income people with disabilities — in Minnesota. I get all kinds of stuff that has no correlation to my readers. None. The poor spam folder is bulging many days. If you’re not in Minnesota and your event or news release is not about disability, I don’t need to see it.”
Four Rules for Better PR Results
Don’t despair. There are a few easy steps you can take to ensure your messages matter to the editors of the publications you target. Following a few simple rules helps get your press releases read.
Rule #1: Know Your Audience
McClure explains, “Check the publication and know what you’re sending where. I look for Minnesota people and places type news. I look for events for people with disabilities, and in my world, I need to know if you are providing accommodations. If you don’t know what those are, I’m not interested in dealing with you. Telling me you have a wheelchair ramp is not enough.”
Sending a press release to the wrong audience is a sure-fire way for it to land in the virtual trash. Do your homework. Know the demographics of the audience you hope to reach. Write to that audience. And, before hitting send and distributing that press release, research the publications you are sending it to. As editor of an RV consumer publication, I once regularly received pitches from a neuroscience company. Guess where those releases ended up?
Rule #2: Is the content really news?
Press releases must contain newsworthy information. No, it’s not news that you feel your company provides a quality product. It is news, however, if your products were nominated for a quality award, consumers publicly praised the product’s quality, or the products recently received third-party quality certification.
Here are some examples of press announcements editors consider news: Innovative and new product offerings; industry firsts (please make sure it really is a first before making that claim); new executive hires; acquisitions and partnerships; awards and big company announcements; for instance, a new manufacturing plant going online, a group of sizable layoffs, or unprecedented sales. The list could go on forever. Just remember to think it through and ask: Is this information newsworthy?
Rule #3: Know how to write a press release
Underneath this umbrella, there are a few guidelines to follow:
- Create an email subject line that clearly details what the email is about. This should never be an afterthought. Editors receive hundreds of emails a day; often that subject line is your only chance to be seen.
- Create a catchy headline that gets to the point in seven words or less. If a headline catches an editor’s attention, he or she will likely keep reading. Use active verbs, avoid fancy adjectives, remove unnecessary words, and make it memorable. Put the headline in a larger, bold font, but do not capitalize every letter. This requires editors to re-key the text and introduces the potential for errors along the way.
- Get to the point. In other words, keep it simple and short. Editors decide whether to use or trash within a few sentences. Put the most important information at the top and present it in a compelling way.
- Stick to the basics. Provide the who, what, where, when, why and how.
- Avoid marketing hype and jargon. A press release should never be an attempt to land a free ad, but many are blatantly written as such. If editors see your PR as a poorly-disguised bid for free advertising, hitting the delete button is often their next step.
- Edit. Edit. EDIT. Make sure your release is well written and free of errors. Editors fix minor errors, but it’s best to provide a clean document from the get-go.
- Pay attention to editor don’ts–and don’t do them. Do not put your release in a PDF, use a Word document instead. Don’t put double spaces after periods. Don’t put your company name in all caps, unless that is how it is really written. Follow AP Style. Remove superlatives such as ideal, best, world’s only and so on; an editor is going to delete them anyway. Same goes for exclamation points. Put a period in their place.
- Include a photo with the release and a company logo. This gives editors everything they need to post your content quickly.
- Provide contact information. While listing your web address is nice, providing an email and phone number makes follow up a breeze. Just a hint: Editors prefer email addresses to phone numbers. They also prefer company contacts to agency ones.
Rule #4: Get some help.
If you have never written a press release before, consider hiring someone who has. A professional copywriter can help craft messages that matter, and more importantly, releases that are read.
Ronnie Wendt of In Good Company Communications has spent time on both sides of the editorial fence. She knows what editors want and how to help companies craft noteworthy news for publication.