Archive for March 31st, 2008

Every day, thousands of news releases are emailed. And, every day, thousands of news releases are deleted unread or only partially unread — all because their writers don’t bother to make their news sound important.

Let me explain. Not counting duplicates, I receive several hundred news releases a week. However, I only read about 30-40. I can discard most of them because their distributors haven’t bothered to target their work, and the releases have nothing to do with free software or GNU/Linux. But I also discard many of the rest without reading beyond the first paragraph because they fail to make me care about their news. If the PR people can’t focus enough to make their news interesting, why should I waste more than a minimal amount of time reading their releases?

That may sound harsh. Yet, without ruthless tactics, I would hardly have time to do anything except read releases. Nor did I (or would I) ask for most of the releases I receive.

Besides, I am hardly alone. If anything, I probably receive fewer releases than many computer journalists. A public relations writer who doesn’t know this reality is ignorant about one of the basics facts of their trade. So, really, it is only common sense that they should do what they can to emphasize the relevance of their news, especially when the task is fairly simple.

I always say that, to write successful PR, you need to assume that your everyone in your audience has an attention deficit disorder. They see so many releases that they’re easily bored. A PR writer’s job is to break through that lack of attention so that journalists will read the details and be roused to do a story based on the news.

The best way to attract attention would be to write a custom release for every long term connection. However, that’s hardly practical (although targeting your release is, despite the modern PR writer’s fondness for spamming techniques). But. with a little effort a writer can craft a release that keeps recipients reading.

If you want to attract interest in a release, the place to start is with the head – which should also probably be the subject line if you send the release in an email. Far from being the after-thought that many PR writers seem to make it, the head should be a pithy summary of the news and why it matters. It should not be – as so many PR writers make it – something as bland as “News release from MyPR.”

In fact, it should not just be a bare statement of fact, no matter how specific. For instance, instead of “Jack Parker becomes company CTO” try “Company refocuses on core values by appointing Jack Parker CTO.” The first head sounds irrelevant, while the second explains how the news might affect the company.

A head is usually less than a dozen words, but if you’ve struggled with them the way you should, you won’t need a sub-head. Many long-time writers will actually tell you not to bother with a sub-head, because it’s usually just one more chance to lose the reader. However, if your news is especially complex, those few more words might help keep readers’ attention.

However, most of the time, you’ll want to get directly into the lede. Like the opening of a short story, your first sentence should be the hook you use to catch readers’ attention. You can use the rest of the first paragraph to expand on the gist of what you have to say, but if readers flounder on the first sentence, many of them won’t read beyond the rest of the paragraph, let alone the release.

One thing you do not do is throw away the first sentence with long sentences and cliches. Yes, you want the lede to summarize your news and its importance. But it won’t fill this goal if it’s a compound-complex sentence, and even the most sympathetic reader has trouble following through its entire ten line.

Nor do you want to lose interest by describing your client as a “world leader” in its field or by using any other cliche that the reader has heard thousands of times before. Cliches lose readers’ attention, accomplishing the exact opposite of what you should be trying to do.

Once past the head and the lede, you can relax a bit. However, keep the release short for all but the most monumental news, and put a few quotes in to break up the bald recital of facts. But remember that the quotes should be people talking like people, not like an animated dictionary. Like a cliche, lame prose is just going to lose the reader.

Don’t worry, either, about giving a company bio until the end. Anything more than a clause half a dozen words long will only complicate your basic message unnecessarily. The only reason that anyone will want more about the company is because they are going ahead with a story based on your release. Providing a corporate bio is a courtesy you do journalists, not something that will help you drum up interest in your story.

The idea that a news release should explain why the information it carries is important sounds obvious. Apparently, though, the idea has never occurred to the majority of people working in public relations. Perhaps they are so busy writing a release that pleases their boss or client that they don’t stop to think that they are being paid to offer their expertise as well as please. Or, perhaps, they think the importance of their news is self-evident; the fact that their company has a new point release of a product has kept everyone in the office working overtime for weeks, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world be concerned?

I suspect, though, that many PR writers simply find mass mailouts easier than taking the time to craft a release that journalists will read. Spam, after all, is easy, and effective writing hard. But it is only by effective writing that the composers of news releases can even hope to have their efforts read. Otherwise, they may as well not even bother.

Read Full Post »