Top signs of a horrendous press release

When I was in journalism school, I got a big fat F on a paper. My
professor liked my story about a couple who had spent three years
sailing around the world, visiting more than 30 countries along the way.
But I had misspelled “Colombia” as “Columbia,” and at my school, factual errors (she considered it one) slashed 50 points off your score.

I thought it was a little extreme, but the F made me keenly aware of the
consequences of mistakes in reporting. When I left journalism for
public relations and marketing, I applied the same gun-to-the-head
approach to press release writing.

Now about the word “press.” I know press releases are no longer just
being sent to the media. Distribution services such PR Web and Business
Wire (not to mention Google Alerts, Twitter, Facebook, and other tools
people can use to monitor and share content) now allow for a strategy
that targets customers directly. David Meerman Scott, author of “The New Rules of Marketing and PR,” prefers to call them “news releases” instead of “press releases,” so it doesn’t sound like they’re exclusively for the press.

But someone else’s writing an article about your business does more for
its credibility than your writing an article about it—especially if that
someone works for a reputable publication. So if engaging the media is
still part of your strategy—and it should be—here are 10 press release
boo-boos that far too many pitches contain. Do your best to avoid them.

1. It did not go through an editor/fact-checker. I got an F for
misspelling Colombia. In business, it could be worse. Several years ago,
a communications manager for a skin care company in San Jose, Calif., sent out a press release
encouraging readers to call a 1-800 number. It had one incorrect digit.
It didn’t take long before the manager was flooded with calls from
editors and customers angry or amused at having dialed a number for
phone sex.

2. It doesn’t contain news. That your CEO got an award is not
news—not unless the award was for a revolutionary medical device that
saves people’s lives or software that reduces waiting times at hospital
ERs. When you’re writing a press release, always ask: Why should the
publication’s readers care about this product/service/milestone? What
value does it provide to readers? What problem does it solve? If you
don’t have an answer, then it’s not newsworthy.

3. It’s salesy. Press releases are not sales letters. They’re not
ad copy. So take out the “you,” “we,” and “us.” Don’t use overly hyped
words such as “miracle,” “breakthrough,” and “cure.” Refrain from
peppering it with flowery adjectives to describe your service. Just
stick to the facts. You can—and should—accommodate opinions by adding
quotes, but don’t let them leak into the narrative. A press release
should be formatted like an article. If you’re not familiar with that
format, check out the publication you’re targeting and copy theirs.

4. It doesn’t have a story. You might have something worth
reporting, but if it’s all facts and figures, your readers won’t see it.
Their eyes will already have glazed over. Always tell a story.
Complement facts with quotes that express insight or convey an
emotional reaction to the data. Frame your release around a challenge
that was or can be overcome, a problem that was or can be solved. That’s
how you portray your company as a hero—by showing, through
storytelling, how it has helped or can help others, and not by indulging
in self-praise.

5. It lacks focus. I get it. You’re doing all these awesome
things. Heck, you’re changing the world. But focus on just one thing.
One project. One product. One campaign. Save the others for separate
releases. You can talk about them if they’re related and build on each
other, but only one can be the star. Having multiple angles will run you
into all sorts of problems. Not only will your press release be too
long and your headline incomprehensible—which will confuse and annoy
editors—they also won’t be search-friendly. Search engines see content
that’s about too many things as content that’s about nothing.

6. It buries the lede. If you don’t state your point in the first
paragraph, editors will toss out your pitch before getting to the
second. But like me, you sometimes might want to lead with an anecdote.
That’s OK, as long as it’s related to the point of the release. It
should also be interesting enough to make readers want to know what
happens next. It should flow smoothly to the second paragraph, where the
big reveal takes place. And it should be short. If your release is
about an anti-stroke campaign, you should hit the campaign after three
or four sentences.

7. It doesn’t have a news-like headline. A headline can make or
break a release. Advertising executive David Ogilvy once said that on
average, five times as many people read the headline as they do the body
copy. So if you don’t sell something in your headline, you’ve wasted 80
percent of your money. It’s the same with a press release that you’re
selling to reporters. A news-like headline communicates direct benefits
that are relevant to your target audience. It’s not cryptic,
promotional, or overly clever.

8. It’s too long. Stick to a single page, no more than 400 words.
Begin with an anecdote or a reference to a high-profile issue or event;
immediately connect it with the product, service, or cause you wish to
publicize; put in a paragraph with statistics from reputable sources for
credibility and context; energize it with a quote or two; and then end
with some boilerplate text about your company. That’s it. Length should
not be a problem if you avoid mistake No. 4.

9. It doesn’t have any quotes. Quotes make opinion, insight, and
emotion possible in a press release. They take readers beyond the
traditional five Ws (who, what, where, when, and why) to the hows. To
answer questions like, “How do employees feel about the change in
overtime policy?” Or, “How can you explain that concept using a metaphor
or analogy?” Emotion is at the core of storytelling. Avoid quotes that
simply state facts and figures, because they’re a waste of space. Also,
don’t use quotes that blatantly promote your product, unless they’re
from impartial sources.

10. It’s riddled with jargon. Don’t write “myocardial infarction”
if you can write “heart attack.” Don’t write “remunerate” when “pay”
works just as well. Unless you’re writing to colleagues (and sometimes
even if you are), jargon makes you sound pompous and difficult to relate
to. It also forces reporters to look up certain terms (in which case
they might just say, forget it). It’s also not search-friendly, because
search engines favor natural language.

The press release is still the workhorse of many PR campaigns, even
after social media allowed businesses to engage directly with customers.
Knowing that a journalist wrote about you, that his or her article was
vetted by at least one professional editor, and that someone else’s
money was spent to publish it, lends credibility to the publicity that
your own blogging, newsletter-writing, and Facebook and Twitter posting
just can’t match. You know it, and so do your customers. So do your best
to get it right.

Maggie Holley is a
marketing writer who helps healthcare companies tell stories that show
and sell their science. You can follow her on Twitter @maggiedholley. A version of this post first appeared on her blog, Selling Through Storytelling.

This story first appeared on in July 2012. 

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