HOW TO WRITE THE WORKING PRESS RELEASE
Whatís the difference between a journalist and a public relations practitioner?
Not much, if the public relations writer understands journalism.
Whatís the difference between the old journalism and the new journalism? A great deal, which is important to understand if you want to get your media releases used, whether it be in print, in social media, or on the air.
Publicity, which is a basic purpose of the media release, uses the release as a basic tool. Itís not an end in itself, despite the artistry of a good release. Its purpose is to communicate ó an idea, a fact, a productís value or superiority. It should inform, it should be read by a target audience, it should clarify or persuade. And it should get published. Granted, good pubic relations is more than the press release, but it all boils down to the media ó to telling the story.
In the early days, well before many of todayís public relations practitioners were born, media consisted primarily of the publication and the broadcast media. It was somewhat easier then than it is today. We learned a few things that are still applicable today ó if today itís somewhat more complex.
We learned that the press release competes for space with the publicationís staff journalists. Therefore, it had to be consistent with the publicationís editorial style and substance.
We learned that every release had at least two target audiences Ö the first was the editor, who decided what got published and what didnít. Therefore, the style and substance of every release had to be consistent with the style and substance of the publication. Not merely an imitation, but the journalistic essence of the publication. In any kind of mass mailing, this was sometimes difficult, because different publications have different styles and different target audiences. Thus the second target audience may well have been different for each publication. There was, of course, news that was more universal, and that had to be considered in writing the release.
We learned that lawyers should not write press releases, unless they have some journalistic should the accountant ó even the ones with a degree in English. The legalistic view is not the same as the journalistic view. Itís a specialized form of writing, essentially honed over hundreds of years. At least since the invention of the printing press, and maybe before that. Itís a specialized form of communication. I once got into a discussion with a lawyer from an old white shoe law firm who tried to give a legalistic slant to a release I had written for a client in a litigation situation. After a heated discussion I said to the lawyer: ďYou have an obligation to see that nothing we write can be used against the client in court. I have an obligation to keep my clientís service viable in the marketplace. Iíll respect your obligation if you respect mine.Ē After a momentís reflection, he said, ďOK.Ē This is a problem that arose frequently in investor relations, and still arises today. I once had a lawyer tell me that if youíre a lawyer youíre smart enough to do your own advertising. I told him that if youíre a lawyer youíre smart enough to be a nuclear physicist ó but it doesnít make you one.
We learned to target audiences ó to read a publication before sending a release to it. One of the earliest sins was to write to please the client, and not to please the editor. A great mistake. It still is. And we learned that mass mailings are often wasted on publications with readerships far removed from the clientís business.
We also learned, by the way, that sometimes a letter to individuals in the media that is succinct, to the point, and relevant to the specific mediumís audience, is better than a press release.
And once we learned these things, and more, what happened?
The media changed.
First came the new media Ö the social stuff. The writers for the social media opened a new world of communication ó anybody could play. Because many of the bloggers and online news writers, not steeped in the traditions of journalism (they didnít know from the five Ws, and didnít care), knew how to talk to their target audiences. Oddly, not being professional journalists didnít seem to matter. They got the point across.
Then journalism itself changed. It became more vibrant, faster Ö more pertinent to the readers needs. On the good side, it got to the point more quickly and relevantly. Gone were the five Ws, and the formalistic writing based on them. On the bad side, it became more personal, even when more objectivity was needed. In entire sections of The New York Times ó once the iconic journalistic edifice ó the most ubiquitous word is ďI.Ē You learn more about the journalist than the subject the journalist is writing about. I donít know whether the newspapers started doing it before the Internet writers did, or if they did it because the Internet writers did. Itís depressing. Maybe itís the sign of a time when the formality of the necktie is diminishing.
The language and grammar began to change. Him and her became they or them ó the plural to modify the singular. A grammarianís nightmare.
Certainty in writing became a hedge, first like, then the statement with a rising inflection as in a question. And now, the ubiquitous sort of, as if certainty is too dangerous. ďIt was sort of raining.Ē Whatís sort of about raining? It either is or it isnít. Are we afraid of the positive statement? Are we afraid of commitment?
Itís all as if your old English teacher has been co-opted, and made irrelevant. Itís as if the English language has been deemed inadequate to the ability to express a thought clearly.
And so it leaves the press release writer far removed from the roots of the past.
OK, so how do you write a good press release?
It starts with the lead ó or lede, as it now seems to be called. No more five Ws. Ask yourself the key question I use in all my writing: What do you want the reader to know, think, or feel after reading this? The answer to that question is the key to the lede ó the first sentence. Everything after that is exposition. But concise and to the point. Who has time to read a novel based on just one point? Think in terms of the audience, and what your subject means ó or can mean ó to that audience. Then proof read it.
Too many press releases today are written mechanically, with no sense of communication to a target audience. The mailing list services, which didnít exist in the early days of public relations, are the second rate public relations practitionersí easy way out. Releases are sent to publications and web sites that are in no way relevant to the recipientsí audience. The Marcus Letter on Professional Services Marketing gets releases that have nothing to do with marketing for its audience of lawyers and accountants. They are irrelevant or illiterate, and do a great disservice to their clientsí needs. (In the immortal words of the great philosopher, Yogi Berra, ďAinít nobody here knows how to play this game?Ē I once got taken to task by an old time PR guy and former journalist who took umbrage to an article I wrote saying that the five Ws were out of date in todayís fast paced journalism. Some people die hard. I told him to spend more time reading The NY Times or The Washington Post. I think he burned me in effigy.
So where does that all leave us?
We live in a dynamic world, in which everything seems speeded up. Print journalism is in decline, and newspapers survive by being jazzier and more boisterous. Personality journalism seems to pervade ó not only in the blogs and social media, but in the best of our papers. The New York Timesí traditional Sunday Week In Review Section is hardly that anymore ó itís a collection of opinion pieces, most of which are written by people whose opinions arenít worth the ink theyíre granted. But the Times had to do it, I guess, in order to survive and make a profit ó which itís doing. As are, I suppose those few other papers that havenít evolved as more than corporate mouthpieces for their owners. With exceptions, the best and most reliable news seems to come from the social media ó so much of which is written by people with no journalistic training or experience.
There are three points here to remember.
- The old journalism, for all that and all that, wasnít all that bad. It worked;
- Todayís journalism is running on excitement and nervous energy, (but caution: it can sometimes misrepresent the story itself); and
- The old rule of look before you leap in press release writing is as good today as it always was.
Hearken, you old press release writers.
Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com), the author of PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group, 2011 http://bit.ly/MarcusBook), from which this article is adapted and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.