"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

Press Releases for Human Beings

Press releases are an enormous hoax. They're written by people who pretend to be excited and received by people who pretend to be interested. It's time for a change.

In the bizarre love triangle between companies, PR firms and the media, nobody wins except the PR firms who get paid whether the press releases are read or not.

In my former life as full-time journalist I received (and ignored) thousands. I've seen editors scan through a hundred email press releases in five minutes and delete the lot. Before that, as a CEO, I paid tens of thousands of pounds for shiny press releases that got us no coverage whatsoever.

Expectations are low and cynicism is high. I think it's time to re-evaluate the whole concept and go back to basics.

Why are they so dreadful?

Press releases suffer from committee writing that turns steak into baby food. Not only that but marketing people compensate for lack of bite by adding hype words, jargon and self-important throat clearing.

The worst sin is "Frankenquoting." Here's an example:

"Nortel has established a legacy in innovation and will continue to push the envelope in delivering faster and more efficient wireless capabilities with industry leaders like QUALCOMM," said Jean-Luc Jezouin, vice-president, GSM/UMTS product line management, Nortel.

Nobody talks to their friends like this but PR people think that they can excuse purple prose by pretending that someone with a big title said it.

Press releases could also be improved by banning the use of the following words: empower, solution, best-of-breed, flexible, powerful, cost-effective, ROI, value, strategic... Well, you can guess the rest.

How to make them better?

Here's my recipe for better press releases. I'd like to think that any company that adopts this approach will stand out from the pack so much that they will be overwhelmed with gratitude and coverage. Your mileage may differ.

  1. Write descriptive headlines that explain why the story is interesting. If you can't, it isn't. So don't put out a press release.
  2. Keep them short and factual. 250 words should be the upper limit. By all means link to a website that contains more detailed information.
  3. Make the first sentence and the first paragraph work for their living.
  4. Always include contact details. Many don't. What's the point of that?
  5. If you quote anyone, do a real interview and pick a good quote. Customers and independent experts are more interesting that company notables.
  6. One writer, one subeditor, one proofreader, one lawyer. Everyone else has an opinion but not a veto.
  7. Try writing a letter to your grandmother explaining why the news in the press release is important. Bingo, there's your opening paragraph.
  8. Alternatively try telling a story. What, who, where, when, how and why.
  9. Make sure you redact any version control history from Word documents. There's usually a better story for journalists in the stuff you removed at the last minute than in what you actually wrote.
  10. Try a new medium such as podcasts or blogs. If nothing else it will force you to abandon the tired old press release template.

Lastly I have a message for PR people everywhere. Please don't call journalists twenty minutes after you email a press release to see if they have received it. What you call "selling in the story," journalists call "wasting time."


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 20th 2006, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Peter M.
Excellent description of what's wrong with press releases. I've sent this to my company's CEO and VP of Business Development with the hope that they will take it to heart.

Thanks,
Pete Mellor
Thursday June 22nd 2006, 12:24 AM
Comment by: Dave R.
Three cheers on your press release article!
Friday June 23rd 2006, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Valerie Anne B.
Matthew Stibbe's neologism "Frankenquoting" made my day. I passed the article along to our communications director, whom I could hear chortling on the other side of the cubicle wall.
Wednesday June 28th 2006, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Thor J.
I just enjoyed one of your articles. Good to know you're writers, too. Why not put an 'email to a friend' button on each article? Might help you promote the VT.

Best,
Thor Johnson
Saunderstown, RI
Monday July 10th 2006, 7:55 PM
Comment by: Scott W.
Outstanding article, indeed. I'm going to try and explain this to my Guru clients ... we shall see if any of them listen to reason. I'm tired of writing dreck simply because that's what is expected and all that will be accepted.
Wednesday July 26th 2006, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Brenda L.
As president of a small non-profit looking for ways to be more productive and gain visibility, this is good information to know.
Tuesday September 5th 2006, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Nupur C.
I hope every PR person prints this article and puts it in front of him or her, and save the world from uninvited tripe!!

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