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Let's Do Away With Press Releases

By: Andy Marken

In his nearly 25 years in the advertising/public relations field, Andy has been involved with a broad range of corporate and marketing activities. Prior to forming Marken Communications in mid-1977, Andy was vice president of Bozell & Jacobs and its predecessor agencies. During his 12 years with these agencies, he developed and coordinated a wide variety of highly visible and successful promotional campaigns and activities for clients. A graduate of Iowa State University, Andy received his Bachelor's Degree with majors in Radio & Television and Journalism. Widely published in the industry and trade press, he is an accredited member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

If there's one universal statement we hear as public relations professionals, it's that editors seldom look through the stacks of news releases they receive. The electronic form is just as bad because they can more rapidly hit the garbage can simply by looking at the name/subject. When they do, they find that the majority are a waste of time, money of and effort.

All too often, their disdain is well-founded.

Many editors receive 800 to 1,000 releases a month, a large percentage of which don't even relate to the editorial direction of their publications. Even if a release is pertinent to the publication, many are written so poorly that they defy the editor to find the news.

Nevertheless, the volume of press releases continues to increase. With the Internet the volume has increased sharply because it is extremely easy and very economic to send a release to hundreds if not thousands of editors with the right spam mail software. Perhaps it's because they take very little time to produce and require very little creativity. Anyone who has ever written a book report or a memo is certain that he or she can write a press release.

If the editor must wade through a stack of such profound corporate pronouncements to find the few that are really newsworthy, it's little wonder that your release wasn't printed. After all, it was probably sandwiched between the latest "corporate reorganization that will prepare the company for the next generation of new products" and the "new product that is so easy to use that your mother-in-law could balance the federal budget with it."

Don't blame the harried editor for not finding the rose among the brambles.

Expand Your Horizons

If you're truly interested in expanding your horizons and doing a better job for your company or clients, you need to look beyond the lowly news release. There are many other ways to effectively get your message across to the media and your target audiences.

Here are some proven concepts you can use to get your message across:
Media Alert. If your organization is going to be doing something that's clearly newsworthy, don't bury the facts in a drawn-out press release. Use a media alert -- a short, punchy announcement of who, what, when, where and why -- designed to catch the attention of the press.

A media alert is never larger than a one-page bulletin or fact sheet. It quickly tells the editor or reporter the essentials of the upcoming event and immediately shows them why they should attend.

For example, we were once assigned the task of launching a new video game product in two key cities (New York City and Los Angeles) just prior to the holiday shopping season. We wanted immediate local coverage, while limiting the exposure in other areas of the country where the product wasn't available.

To do it, we scheduled a press conference in each city two days prior to Thanksgiving.

Western Union Mailgram and email media alerts were sent to area newspaper, radio and television news departments a week prior to the event. Two days before the conferences, we sent a slightly revised media alert over BusinessWire to key media in each city.

Despite the fact that a hurricane passed through the New England area the evening before the event, we had television news crews and reporters from the major press outlets in both cities.

The strategy succeeded. The media alerts got the attention of assignment editors, who made certain they had crews and reporters at the conference. Those who couldn't attend were had all of the basic information on the product and knew exactly who to call for phone interviews. The result was excellent coverage -- in spite of the poor weather.

Captioned Photos. Regardless of the publication -- newspaper, consumer magazine, business/trade publication or technical magazine -- editors are always looking for good graphics to enliven their pages.

A quality photograph that tells an interesting story and a tight, well-written caption can get you broader coverage and higher visibility than any product enhancement or contract announcement.

For example, for one of our clients involved in the optical mass storage industry, we prepared a variety of what might be termed "artistic shots," showing the history of information storage and including attractive shots of the storage media. We also developed a portfolio of photos showing the products in various applications--legal, medical, banking, finance, government, general business and so forth.

When talking with editors about special issues and special reports, we describe some of the photos to get a feeling for the kind of art they want for that particular issue or article. When we mutually agree on the type of photography that an editor wanted to consider, we send him or her a selection of transparencies, along with concise, descriptive captions.

This approach yielded a multitude of cover photography and lead article photos, as well as standard product shots in a broad range of consumer, trade and technical publications.

This coverage is worth the extra effort and expense. The key is to understand and anticipate the editorial needs of the publications you are targeting. Many trade magazines only use static product shots, while others want major graphic photos that go beyond the norm.

While business, user and news publications generally lean toward informative user photos and unique graphics, other publications prefer to discuss graphic concepts with you and their art department. Once they've settled on a photographic theme, you'll be asked to loan them products so they can shoot their own photos.

The key is to determine the publication's needs so you can give them useful materials that will be published.

Pitch Letter. The news release is an excellent example of all that can be wrong with mass production. Generally, the two- or three-page release is carefully crafted word-by-word. It is then sent to all of the editors and reporters on your carefully developed mailing list.

The pitch letter represents an individualized approach of hitting a specific editor or a group of non-competitive editors with a specific story concept. The pitch letter isn't designed to flush out a story; it is designed to plant the germ of an idea in his or her mind. Then the editor can use his or her creativity and investigative reporting capabilities to develop the article.

In one instance, we used the pitch letter approach as a part of a guerrilla and relationship marketing effort, briefly explaining the difference between two product approaches (our client's and a competitor's). We explained how two firms were using the different approaches. Then, we encouraged the editors to contact people at the two firms (we provided names/phone numbers) to explore the differences in cost, performance and results for their readers.

Once the seeds had been sown, we let them germinate and grow. In this case, the results included a point/counterpoint article and three user comparison articles. Our efforts for the client's customer not only solidified vendor-customer relations, but also made the customer's management ardent spokespersons for our client and its products.

On another occasion, we met with the founder of one of our clients to discuss her views of the changes taking place in the industry and to measure the impact technology was having on corporate managers and their staffs.

After summarizing her ideas and thoughts, we prepared three versions of pitch letters. Over an eight-week period, we sent the letters to specific editors of major industry business and trade publications.

We followed up each letter with phone calls to discuss story ideas and to provide additional information. The materials we provided included product information as well as descriptions of various customer applications and phone contacts at the users' locations.

As a result of these efforts, several publications asked the corporate founder for articles on her topic, which we prepared. Three others assigned articles to editors and reporters, which included interviews with our client.

The results far exceeded the coverage we would have obtained had we prepared a speech summary news release or a white paper.

Editorial briefings. These can be conducted at the publication's headquarters, regional editorial offices or at the company's offices. They can even be done over breakfast or lunch. But the objective should be more than simply "taking an editor out to lunch." The goal should be to give the editor(s) and reporter(s) a stronger idea of the company, its marketing and product development activities, its products and general market trends.

This is also an excellent time to give the editor or reporter a look at what the company is planning for the future and the time-frames involved so they can plan better coverage (if the product deserves it). Most of the time, these are very focused mini-press conferences where the news is used as the main hook for the meeting.

Given sufficient scheduling time, these briefings generally include a senior manager of the company, a PR representative and one or more editors/reporters. You have the opportunity to explain, in a controlled manner, the specific news you want to present, as well as some of the background information surrounding the announcement. In addition, the editors/reporters have a direct line of communication with decision-makers and can guide the discussion toward their readers' specific areas of interest.

In short, you're putting an industry authority at the editors' disposal to provide them with instant information on the company, products, product plans, applications and the competition.

Keep in mind that you must plan the editorial briefing well in advance-- with a specific idea and objective in mind--so that you don't waste the editors' time. The topic area must be thoroughly discussed before the briefing so that your company officer can easily handle even tough questions when they arise.

You'll do your corporate manager and yourself more harm than good if the briefing looks unfocused and you aren't prepared to answer the questions that inevitably arise.

Fact sheets. Editors and reporters are as busy as you are. They don't always have time to study releases and backgrounders to ferret out potentially good story ideas. One of the best vehicles to use in presenting a storyline or article concept is a fact sheet that highlights concepts and ideas.

This allows editors to quickly scan the page and pick out the highlights to determine if there is an idea they can develop into a meaningful piece for their readers.

For one of our clients, we developed a series of fact sheets we headlined "The Less Paper Office." The pitch was designed to interest the editors in covering document and image processing. The fact sheets cited the time, money and effort savings that could be achieved using optical disk storage systems.

To heighten editorial interest in specific areas, we had a standard section discussing the general savings but also tailored the data to specific application markets--medical/health care, banking, legal, government and computer networking. Each of the tailored fact sheets contained summaries of specific users and their applications, customer contact names and phone numbers, as well as client and agency contact information.

By constantly updating the fact sheets with new industry data and user information, the fact sheets have been the primary source of information for more than 30 major articles in both horizontal and vertical market publications. Each new article generates hundreds of reader inquiries--and a growing number of sales in each market area.

For another client, our objective was to develop a large number of user case study articles on a limited budget. Rather than interview each customer and write the articles for placement as we normally do (time equating to dollars), we developed user profile fact sheets on their customer/support activities before and after installing the client's system.

Although many magazines in the trade press accept completed user case studies (if they aren't veiled ads for the company and product), others want to prepare their own articles. By giving them an overview of the situation and highlighting the benefits firms are receiving, we give the editors an overview of the potential article. At the end of the fact sheets, we list the customer name and phone contact information.

Once we have convinced an editor of the worthiness of the article, we also provide background information on the client's system so it can be used to develop and enhance their own article.

It takes considerable time to interview the customer and prepare the materials to ensure that the information presented is favorable to our client. However, the results are generally more flattering than if we had done the articles ourselves.

In each of these examples, our job is to develop good article concepts, present them to the appropriate editors or reporters, nurture the article concepts, and make it as easy as possible for editors to carry out their interviews and prepare the articles. In addition, it's very important to follow up with the editor to ensure that he or she has all of the information and art necessary to support the article.

Phone calls. When you're in their offices, you'll wonder how editors ever get a chance to write anything. The phone rings almost constantly--even when they are on deadline. But the phone is still the fastest and most economical means of pitching a story idea.

One of our people used a variation of the phone contact with an editor who was particularly difficult to contact. After two weeks of unsuccessful phone calls, he faxed the editor a quick memo on what he wanted to discuss and gave him choices of three different times when he could call to discuss the idea further. The editor circled a time/date and faxed back the memo; they had their phone conversation and the article appeared. Best of all, everyone was happy with the results.

When you call an editor, the first thing you should ask is if he or she is on deadline. Evening paper reporters don't have time for anything but late breaking news until after 10 or 11 a.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays are bad for editors and reporters for weekly publications; and deadlines for monthly publications range all over the calendar.

If your timing is wrong, tell them you'll call in two days--if that is convenient. If it is, let them get back to work. If it isn't, let ask him or her to suggest a better time.

Assuming the time is right, quickly tell the editor why you're calling and how you think the story angle would be
interesting for the publication's readers. If the editor or reporter doesn't like the first story idea, have a spare idea or two ready to discuss.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Nothing irritates an editor or reporter more than a person who calls up and doesn't have the foggiest idea of the publication's editorial direction, circulation or the types of news/information they cover. No editor wants to take his or her time to educate you about the publication. Don't insult them with your ignorance.

Email contacts. The major benefits of email is that people able to read your communications at their convenience rather than have it as an interruption to their work and you can be relatively certain they received your message. But if you think you get a lot of email you haven't seen anything compared to what editors and reporters receive. They get megabytes if not gigabytes of email every day.

As a result it is even more important to have a strong message to lead with and a concise presentation of your idea or proposition. They have neither the time nor the desire to wade through 2-3 screens just to find the little gem of a great idea you have sent to them. 
As you can see from the above list, there are some excellent replacements for the overused and abused press release.
They require a lot more creative effort than a school term paper,
interoffice memo or standard two-page news release.

Go Beyond Releases

However, in each instance, these tools do a much better jobof positioning the company and its products/services. They strengthen the company's relationships with its customers and the editorial community. In addition, because the coverage is generally greater than that garnered by a standard release, these tools can also be used to enhance the the company's image and its credibility in the marketplace.

Yes, there are times when product, personnel, earnings or contract releases are sufficient. And, when that time is right, by all means, use the release. But don't try to make a simple announcement bigger than it is. Take a straightforward, professional approach in developing the release and send it to the appropriate editors and publications. Whenever possible, try something different to reach the harried editors. They'll thank you for it. Your boss will thank you for it. And the people who take the trash out at night will thank you.

© Copyright 1999, G.A.Marken, Marken Communications

Other Articles by Andy Marken

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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