Tossing a few editorial ideas around this month I thought, ‘why not write an editorial about how to write a newsletter.’ In the end I decided not to because a) the audience for such an editorial is vanishingly small and b) I would be giving too much away.
Information food chain
I realized also that what I really wanted to do was make my life easier by trying to ‘fix’ a problem that exists further up the information food chain. This also may be of more interest to the bulk of our readership. I will therefore address the much more interesting topic, in a sense the inverse of ‘how to write a newsletter,’ that is, ‘how to write a press release.’
Before we get into the ‘how to’ part, it is worth considering why you are writing your press release in the first place. A few obvious reasons spring to mind. First there are the ‘reporting’ requirement-related releases. ‘We are about to release financial information,’ ‘Here are our Q4 results for financial year X,’ or ‘We have just released a 32K’ (I made that one up).
These strictly choreographed releases follow a pattern that can be anything from a careful exercise in information retention to an opportunity for some wild puffery as a start up reports that it has found some cash and avoided going down the tubes. Since Enron showed that the actual numbers companies produce can be completely meaningless, I expect that most editors, like me, skip the numbers and scroll down to the comments in the hope of finding an indiscretion or similar insight. But the pickings are usually rather thin in the regulatory release.
In the run in to a major tradeshow, companies often issue a press release about a new partnering deal, a new software release or some great achievement or other. While some of these may be attempts to generate news ex nihilo, I have to say that the formulaic press release can be a great help to the hard-pressed editor. The combo of tradeshow presence, press release and interview, even if it is a bit hackneyed, remains the sure-fire route to publication. It’s a shame therefore that it is an activity in serious decline.
While I encourage a degree of inventiveness in a release, sometimes companies seem to be acting in desperation in their attempts to ‘entrap’ the unwitting editor. First on my pet hate list is the undated release. This is popular on some websites. No doubt the reasoning is that the news in an undated release stays permanently fresh. It doesn’t.
A related trick is the ‘rehash’ of an old story. Both techniques work occasionally—although I like to think that Oil IT Journal’s ‘stale news’ radar is pretty effective. But when the trick does work, the effect is not necessarily what was intended. Savvy readers of technical journals are very likely to pick up on the story’s age and spot the originator’s desperation. As for the editor in the middle, ever heard of ‘once bitten twice shy’?
Speaking of readers, writers of releases should be aware of a couple of obstacles between them and the recipients of their message. I like to think of these as impedance mismatches, but then I used to be a geophysicist! The first mismatch is in the perceived importance of the players. If you are LittleServiceCo (LSC) and you have sold a widget to BigOil (BO) then the news is not, ‘LSC sells widget to BO,’ but ‘BO buys widget from LSC!’
Another issue is that of the target audience. Often press releases are written with the main objective of not treading on any C-level toes! Releases like this offer ‘quotes’ from COO, CFO, CTO whatever—all saying the same thing that was already said in the preamble! The most amusing example of this is when a quote is attributed to two individuals. Or when the same quote is recycled in different releases—hilarious!
Another own goal is the indulgence of plethoric product references with and © notices attached to biZZarrePRODUCTSM typographic atrocities. Apart from making the release look like spam for V1*gra, it’s clear that the intended audience for this stuff is not the reader. Quite who it is I’m not sure. The lawyers? If there are more than a couple of clearly distinct product names in your PR, then the likelihood is that your marketing is as confused as your readers will be.
I realize now that I have opened a can of worms. This topic is better suited to a PhD thesis than an editorial. I was going to say that I am too old for a PhD. But then I heard about Brian May*...
* Queen guitarist Brain May has just resumed work on his 1971 astronomy PhD at the tender age of 60!
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