Monday, October 27, 2008

How to write more powerfully for PR, offline and online

Author: Suzan St Maur

Years ago when my Dad owned a group of local newspapers I spent my school and college vacations working in the editorial office. We used to amuse ourselves over our sandwiches at lunchtime looking through and trashing the endless press releases that would arrive in the mail each day, all beautifully produced with glossy photographs (this was in pre-internet days).

We trashed them because all but the odd one or two were ill-considered, highly subjective, barely camouflaged advertising copy that had about as much editorial news value as last week's shopping list.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because despite the fact that this happened many years ago, it's still happening today. Both offline and now online editors continue to laugh sardonically at the self-promoting garbage they receive from corporate sources exactly as my Dad and I laughed umpty-dump years ago. I salivate just thinking about how I could spend the fortunes wasted on those releases and photographs over so many years.

And why does this continue to happen? I believe it is because the organizations who send out this stuff – particularly their financial managers – just can't get their heads around the difference in culture between what they want to say, and what editors need to deliver to their audiences.

Good PR advisers try hard to compensate, but ultimately it's the client who pays their fees, and if the client insists on issuing garbage there's not much a PR adviser can do other than resign the business.

Time after time after time I'm called into companies and asked to comment on why the PR coverage they get in the media is so poor. 99 times out of a 100 it's because they've issued press releases that are only of interest to themselves and their bosses. And yet when I point this out to them they can't understand it.

"But our development team worked 14 hours a day for three years to win that contract!" they shout indignantly. "And the CEO had to cut short his vacation in Turks & Caicos just so he could sign the documents by the deadline! I mean, it's the most important thing to have happened to us in the history of the company!"

"I know," I croon soothingly, "but those points aren't of much interest to the readers of your regional business press, or your trade press for that matter."

"Well, maybe not," they reply. "But they are very relevant to us, and to our shareholders. That's why we made such an elaborate issue of those points in the press release."

Ah, I think to myself as I gaze out of the window to see if my creatively-parked car is going to attract the attention of passing traffic policepersons. Here is another problem we encounter with press releases.

It's called "when is a press release not a press release?" The answer is, when a press release is to be used to impress all sorts of people who are not members of the press. Only we want them to think that this is what the press will write about us, so we put it in a press release. That would be okay as long as that's as far as it goes.

But the awful truth is the same document (paper or electronic) really does get sent out to the press. And quite rightly they ignore it, once again because it is of no interest to the readership of the publication concerned.

For Heaven's sake, you folks who do this sort of thing, please grow up and face reality. If you want to promote your achievements to your share/stockholders or staff or suppliers or whoever, then just go ahead and do it and dress it up in "press release" costume if you must, although I don't think that fools anybody.

But whatever you do, don't send it to the press – and don't kid yourself or anyone else that to use the same document for both purposes is a way to economize. It's a sure way to shoot yourself through the foot and indirectly could cost you a fortune.

If you want to get coverage in the media then you must forget all elements of self-congratulation. Whatever information you send out has to have something "in it for them" (the audience) - something new, interesting and relevant. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering, just worth reading.

If your organisation has done something brilliant and you're proud of it, by all means say so; just be sure to emphasise what's great about it for the audience and/or the rest of the world, not merely for yourselves. Let the facts tell the story. If your organisation genuinely deserves to be congratulated, it will be.

And you don't simply have the audience to consider in this case, because unlike the forms of communication you control, with media coverage the decision of whether or not to transmit your message rests with someone else – usually the editor. Editors and journalists are either very busy or very lazy or both (and don't chastise me for admitting that, guys. I've been there, done it, got the T shirt and drank too much in the brasserie at lunchtime too.)

If you supply them with material they can see is relevant to their readers and preferably is usable with the minimum of editing, they will warm to it a lot faster than something that may hold a grain of interest but will take someone a whole evening to rewrite and several phone calls or e-mails to check for accuracy.

Try to match the style and writing approach of the publication. If you're sending a release out to several publications that circulate among the same readership, then one release should be relevant to all. But if you're aiming at different press groups – say the trade journals and the business pages of the regional dailies – you will need to rework the approach of your press release according to the different audiences.

You'll usually find that the basic core of a press release can remain pretty well the same across all media groups, because it consists (or should consist) of the pure facts – the old journalist's formula of who, what, how, where, when and why.

What changes is the angle, and particularly the lead-in. That means the headline, which should be short and attention-grabbing, and then the first two or three sentences that support the headline and set up the whole story. Often it's worth trying to work in a clever bit of word-play with headlines, but be very careful – a pun or play on the words that doesn't work is worse than writing the headline straight.

By far the best guidance you'll get, though, comes from studying the audience – the people who read the publications. What in your story is going to interest them?

·Readers of a trade journal will be interested in what's new and different about your new product and how it could improve the way they do business.

·Readers of local or regional business sections will be interested more in how your new product's manufacturing and distribution, say, will impact on the local business community and economy.

·Local general newspapers and other media will be interested in the human side, i.e. how many new jobs the factory producing the new product will create.

·…etc.

And one last tip on how to get the best from press releases – use "quotes" from the key people involved in the story.

Not those awful, meaningless corporate-babble quotes you so often see in company press releases … "We are delighted to be able to announce the new contract at this moment in time and we have every confidence that our latest investment will be of significant benefit to our…" you know the type of thing. These are usually the first elements that get chopped out by the editor.

It's perfectly OK to write quotes for your senior people, by the way. They very rarely give real quotes for anything other than TV or radio interviews but don't seem to mind quotes being written for them, provided they're given the opportunity to check them before they're issued.

So, write them quotes that – far from being beatific banalities – actually are telling important parts of the story. This is good for two reasons:

1.It makes your senior exec look intelligent and aware of what's going on in the organization, which is 100% more than the banality-quote will do for him/her.

2.Because it's an important part of the story and contains useful facts, the publication's staff will be far less likely to edit it out.

Possibly you're beginning to feel that in order to get press coverage you'll have to turn yourself, your product and your entire board inside out and upside down. You could be right, but that's PR. Remember that press coverage is not advertising**. Yes, it's free and that's wonderful, but as always there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Editors will only put your stuff in, for free, if it is genuinely good for their publication and their readers, not for you. They do not care about your sales figures. They care about their own sales figures. Successful PR people and writers of press releases always, always bear these points in mind; in fact that's why they're successful.

**An exception to this is what's known (in the UK at least) as "advertorial." In case you don't already know this is advertising copy written in editorial style, but the space it occupies is really an advertisement you pay for. If you're obliged to write it, please just try to make it as honest as you can. Not easy.

Online tips

Nearly all the theory pertaining to offline PR is relevant to the online equivalent – especially in terms of what content is of interest to publishers and what isn't.

Online publishing of relevance to organizations usually falls into one of two pretty obvious groups; one, websites, portals etc that are totally independent and uniquely on the web, and two, those which are the online alter egos of offline publications.

In either group if you want the publications to take your releases or submissions seriously, it's very important that you follow the format and structure of articles that appear on the websites concerned. Whatever you do don't make the mistake of submitting a general press release to these organizations, even though you do it by e-mail.

Check first how long the teaser paragraph is that appears on the home or section page, and check how they lay out the full articles. Then submit material that fits perfectly, both in style and in word counts. Here's why:

1.You will be saving them the trouble of reworking your piece which makes it attractive in the first place

2.Because it fits so perfectly you will discourage them from changing anything, which is also a huge advantage for you.

The other point I would make about online press work is don't assume that just because you submit a release to the offline publication (and even if they run it) it will be forwarded automatically to the publication's website. It won't. At least not necessarily. And I've found that one out the hard way, believe me.

Treat offline and online versions as entirely separate entities; find out who the movers and shakers are on each, and often you'll see that the online version is run by an entirely different group of people.

About the author: Canadian-born Suzan St Maur is an international business writer and author based in the United Kingdom. Read more - and check out her free biweekly business writing tips eZine, Tipz from Suze , - at her website, SuzanStMaur.com © Suzan St Maur 2003-2005

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