The Well-Tempered Press Release
by Daniel P. Dern
(c) Copyright 1994, 1997 Daniel P. Dern
This originally appeared as my "PR Tips and Techniques" column in the Computer Media Directory, March 1994. CMD was a quarterly looseleaf of editorial contacts and other info.
Like an Elizabethan sonnet, a Broadway ballad, a haiku, or a meatloaf, the press release is a well-defined art form, with certain rules, do's and don't's. The experienced PR practitioner may decide to bend or break the form at times -- but you can only do this once you know what you're doing, and why. And in order to do that, you have to know how to write and issue a standard, "vanilla" press release. In this column, we'll go over those basics, complete with a Mad Lib style, fill-in-the-blanks, generic press release sample. * The press release is one of the staples of public relations. It's that one-plus page document issued periodically by the Marketing Communications, Public Affairs, or PR department, announcing some Very Important Fact. Typical reasons for press releases include: o New product (announced, available, shipped, etc) o Major new customers, contracts, relationships (signed, shipped, working, etc) o Corporate activities -- CEO, management and other high-level hirings, promotions, reassignments (and leavings -- we've seen a lot of all these lately); layoffs and other "reductions in force," facilities changes o Financials -- quarterly/annual earnings, revenues o Technology updates and backgrounders o Events, other new items. Given a "shopping" list like this, it's easy for any company to generate a dozen or more releases each year -- and a big player, such as IBM, Ma Bell, Digital or Northern Telecom can easily have that many in each week! And most, in the eyes of their issuers, are important, world- shaking, stop-the-presses info. (Some, such as personnel and financial announcements, are acknowledged to be pro forma, as much for editorial background as anything.) Trade press editors estimate that several THOUSAND press releases cross their desks each month. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know there isn't room for each magazine to print them all. Heck, there isn't time for editors to READ them all. But by understanding how to write and issue a press release, you can maximize your releases' chances for being opened, read, and used or otherwise followed up on. CONTENTS: SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY The world doesn't need yet another hype-heavy release over-dense with unsubstantiated qualifiers like "unique," overuse of terms like "price- performance," "functionality," and "customer benefit." Mark Kellner, [who at the time was] a free-lance reporter whose credits include being former news editor of MIS Week, advises release writers: "What nobody likes to see is hype like 'proudly announces' or other self-serving phrases. Concentrate on the five W's -- Who, When, What, Where and Why, and try to make it interesting to the editor. [ Mark's now a PR person, I believe; we'll see if he's still singing the same tune :-) - DPD ] "Start with the facts -- what it is, who you are, and who/what it is for. Cut to the chase -- and write clearly so that people who aren't in your specific niche will get the necessary context, and explanation of any jargon and acronyms." Jean Young, President of Young and Associates, a nine-year old high-tech PR firm in Gaithersburg, MD, observes, "The main mistake I see is that the person writing the release assumes too much -- that the journalist will be familiar with the product, company, jargon and industry. Often the reader may have this familiarity -- but journalists are reading about hundreds of products, industries, etc., every week. Be sure you make statements that the readers can translate and understand your company's information easily." Consider including a glossary, with your company's terms, and the industry ones you use, as an add-on piece. (I assure you, this is an invaluable piece, and may often make the difference in getting a) placement and b) accurate coverage.) * Because the press is often on deadline, working at odd hours or otherwise not in a position to reach you, the more self-contained your release is, the greater the chance of its being used, adds Young. An added benefit -- "Once you've established this level of reliability for your organization's releases, reporters will be more likely to grab them first -- because they'll know they'll get what they need for a usable story." Another caveat from Young: "Avoid editorializing in the text of your news releases. A 'news release' is expected to contain news. Editorializing belongs within any quotes." INCLUDE USER AND ANALYST REFERENCES! If the press release is a product announcement, few editors will give it a first, much less second glance these days unless it includes: o Price o Availability/shipping date o Beta sites or customer names available for comment. "The press is not doing rip'n'read, single-source stories any more, even on what might be a simple story," says Kellner. "The reporters are expected to contact analysts, users and other expects, and deliver not only the facts as provided by the vendor, but also community response, and some analytical context. Wherever possible, press releases should include names and contract information for two or three beta sites or customers, and two or three industry analysts who have been briefed prior to the announcement." That late, great American fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, advised his students to "never underestimate the readers' intelligence, and never overestimate their information." I have found this to be true in high-tech PR as well. The trick is to assess the current position of the readership's familiarity with up-and- coming acronyms and terms. The best us PR folks can do, as a rule, is write a release that would be clear assuming the reader knows enough, and then add just a smidgin more information for good measure. And sometimes lobby for a backgrounder to go with it. THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE: CONTEXT COUNTS AS MUCH AS CONTENT Every release should include the following information: o Company name and full address o Contact name and phone number. If possible, a REACHABLE public affairs/PR person within the company. An agency contact is also acceptable -- what counts most is that it's someone who will answer their phone or otherwise respond PROMPTLY to messages, requests for further information and interviews, etc. o SHORT (3-6 line) corporate summary at end, including full company name, headquarter location, and recent revenues. In the PACKAGING, don't forget: o Your card o Company/technology backgrounder, if appropriate o Photo, if appropriate -- with company name and a caption attached in some non-losable way. To be helpful, consider putting a sticker or stamp on the outside of the envelope indicating "Press Release Enclosed." THOSE EXCITING QUOTES No press release is complete without quotes -- a quote from the corporate prexy or CEO, from any other relevant marketing manager, someone high up in the customer organization, and an analyst. Do these people really say these quotes? Perhaps. But just as often, they come from the MarComm boilerplate -- usually, variations on the same quote will serve for almost all releases -- or are made up by somebody like you or me, and passed up the line. (Really. We make them up, or recyle old ones.) Whatever the case, what counts is that the quotees have agreed in advance that they said these things. Getting corporate and legal approval for said quotes, particularly from customers and in large bureaucratic-intensive places, usually takes up most of the time in the process. A FEW OTHER DO'S AND DON'T'S: This will get you started on the road to proper releasing. ** DO: ** o Make sure your release has been reviewed by top management, technical management, and any users or other cited parties. o Make sure everything is spell-checked o Include appropriate copyright and trademark notes. o Check your mailing list EVERY TIME before using it, to be sure it's up to date, accurate, and reflects the target editorial readership FOR THIS RELEASE. o When in doubt, say "NEWS EDITOR" instead of a name. o Include your business card. o Be ready to e-mail the text. ** DON'T: ** o Go overboard on fancy fonts or presentation. o Include unnecessary cardboard, paper, or other packaging o Fax or courier anything that can go through regular mail o Call editors "to see if you got our press release" unnecessarily (i.e., most of the time) o Put in too much other materials. If you follow this advice, and use common sense, you, too, can write press releases the press will open, read, and maybe even use. Now here's that "instant press release" I promised: ** INSTANT PRESS RELEASE STARTER KIT: ** [ On company stationary, in a clear, easy-to-read font ] [ Top of first page should include:] "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE" "For more information, contact:" <PR or Marketing name, phone #> [ Clear summary headline, e.g., ] BIG WAZOO CORP. INTRO'S NEW RELEASE OF WINDOWS-COMPATIBLE MICROWAVE OVEN AND MIXER/BLENDER "Blah blah blah," exclaims over-dressed company figurehead. [ Now skip a few lines and start the text ] MONTH DAY#, YEAR (CITY, STATE) -- YOUR-COMPANY announced today PRODUCT-NAME version VERSION#, its new WHATEVER-IT-IS, for WHAT-IS-DOES-AND-FOR-WHO. "By enabling our customers to DO-SOMETHING, PRODUCT-NAME strengthens our strategic position in the ____________ market(s)," according to NAME, TITLE of YOUR-COMPANY. "PRODUCT- NAME also follows our demonstrated plan for ANNOUNCED-PLAN-IF- ANY." Products like PRODUCT-NAME are an important part of the growing market for _____________, estimated by MARKET-RESEARCH- GROUP to be BIG-NUMBER in the coming ## years. "More and more companies are using PRODUCTS-LIKE-THIS in bottom-line, mission- critical applications," says RESEARCHER. "PRODUCT-NAME can be a major player in this arena." Already, YOUR-COMPANY has sold over NUMBER of RELATED-STUFF, to NUMBER Fortune 100, banking, government and manufacturing corporations (OR OTHER APPROPRIATE NAME-DROPPING). Available in DATE, the new YOUR-COMPANY PRODUCT-NAME consists of/requires [PRODUCT INFO HERE], and will cost $NUMBER. # Headquartered in CITY, STATE, YOUR-COMPANY is a world leader in INDUSTRY/MARKET-SEGMENT, with ( over NUMBER users ) in ( NUMBER cities/states/countries/Fortune 100 corporations/etc ), with FY YEAR annual revenues of $NUMBER. Founded in YEAR, YOUR- COMPANY has over NUMBER employees, and ANY-OTHER-NEATO-FACT. COMPANY-NAME is listed on the STOCK-EXCHANGE as XXXXX. Beta Site Contacts: User Contacts: Briefed Analysts: Attached: Company/Technology backgrounders Photos and caption lists Terminology summary - END SAMPLE RELEASE - - END ALL -
Copyright © Daniel P. Dern