Press Releases: Four Perennial Hazards and How to Avoid Them

In my other line of work as a journalist I receive lots of interesting press releases. Except when I say, “receive lots”, I mean, “get carpet-bombed” and when I say, “interesting” I just mean, “crap”.

Whether you’re in TV, magazines, trade journals: you will find editors and reporters searching in vain for meaning in these mysterious pieces of promotional material. Sometimes press releases are endearing or amusingly bad. More often they’re just bad and get deleted/binned/incinerated in a moment.

Let’s be fair though. People in marketing, PR, even individuals trying to push their own start-up, rarely have reason or the means to understand the dark workings of the journalistic-mind. And why should they?

Before you start a press release it’s good to know that it can all go wrong in the very first sentence. So, using some typical examples all mailed on the same day in late January – and by no means the worst offenders – here are a few of the big pitfalls…

  • Overcomplicated/Clever First Sentences.

It seems that the younger generation of UK adults have been putting the selfless in selfie as social media campaigns have sparked a generous average of charitable contributions amongst 16-24’s.

Never try to be clever in your first sentence if it will prevent you from getting to the point. Journalists think they’re smarter than everyone, particularly when it comes to crafting a good pun, so crowbarring something dubiously witty into the top line is a waste of your time and theirs. The first sentence must explain the whole release in one punchy sentence, like an actual news story.

To work through the example:

Press releases should never begin: “It seems”. Journalists want facts or hard evidence. Not airy observations.

“Putting the selfless in selfie” is quite cute but forcing it into the first sentence is clumsy and awkward.

“A generous average of charitable contributions”. Besides being too wordy, what the hell does this even mean?

A better top line might have been:

Social media encourages young people to become more charitable according to a landmark new study.

  • Insipid news angles.

The leading ____ company, ____, in a groundbreaking collaboration with ____, is proud to announce the publication of a new report.

For something to be classed as news it must be significant. A new report is totally banal. Find the most exciting or surprising thing in your report and use that to drive the press release.

  • Assuming that old news is newsworthy.

Reading together is an important element to a child’s success and creates many special memories that involve you and your child. The importance of bedtime stories also includes instilling vital elements of communication in your child. We all communicate through written word, verbal methods, listening, and body language.

For the purposes of a book or a catalogue, the above is perfectly suitable. But as the first paragraph of a press release it is utterly hopeless.  It makes the common mistake of giving prominence to general opinion. And in fact we don’t get to the meat of the story – a new survey – until the fourth paragraph.

Press releases should be about the here and now. They must not be a collection of airy remarks about something that happened last year or even a month ago for that matter.

  • Meaningless surveys

According to a new study by an online travel agency in the UK, couples who go on holiday together regularly end up having longer relationships, on average; with people also admitting that they feel at their happiest in their relationship when they are away on a trip.

Well hold the front page! Again, this is a terrible top line, but of more concern, the team behind this press release actually seem to be suggesting that people in a close relationship are more likely to holiday together.

The body of the press release includes some other knock-out revelations:

 The majority 52% (of those polled) said they felt happiest when ‘on holiday’ with their partner.

beaver_med_hrI’m not trying to rubbish the author’s intentions here – clearly a lot of effort went into the survey of 2,000 respondents no less. The problem is that there is nothing surprising about it. The normal reaction is, so what?

Sometimes a survey is the only tool you have at your disposal to generate a news story. But it should be a last resort. And then it should be scientific with a large number of respondents and clear-cut answers.

So after all that, what about an example of a winning press release I received yesterday? Well, it started with a picture, not a headline:

And the first sentence?

It’s official – beavers are back! 

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