Monday, March 10

Pitching Fits: Why News Releases Might Die

If the news release is dying, it’s because public relations is killing it.

The vast majority of news releases being sent out today are nothing more than mass blast marketing-laced one sheets that attempt to decorate non-news as news, much in the same way someone might put silly hats and rubber noses on grumpy salespeople and call them the life of the party. It doesn’t really work. If anything, silly hats and rubber noses might just make them grumpier.

At least that seems to be the underlying consensus of reporters, journalists, editors, and even public relations professionals who are discouraged by the growing spam factor associated with public relations today. After speaking with dozens of professionals online and off, it all points to one thing — it doesn’t matter what they are — releases, pitch calls, e-mail teasers, blast faxes, etc. — there is no silver bullet, except one.

News that can be easily identified in the first sentence.

If you have real news, it hardly matters how you send it — by fax, e-mail, carrier pigeon, or on a roll of toilet paper. Why? Because, um, it’s news. Unfortunately, most companies do not release news at all. They tell their public relations firm to send out sales information, and the public relations firm sends it out. Once upon a time, a lead sentence sold the story. Now, the lead sentence sells nothing.

Here’s a sampling of lead lines bouncing around out there today:

Lead: “Ask police officers why they chose law enforcement as a profession, and very few would likely say they got into it for all the paperwork.”

Translated: “We have a new product and we hope all law enforcement will buy it.”

Lead: “Cruise West, a leading innovator of small-ship itineraries, has unveiled a new California Wine Country Spa Package to be paired with its California cruises for 2008.”

Translated: “We want to leverage journalists for advertorial space.”

Lead: “K-Swiss has announced the opening of its first US retail endeavor, which will take form as a branded "Pop-Up" store.”

Translated: “If you’ve never heard of a “Pop-Up” store, it must be news, maybe.” (I'm still stuck on opening an endeavor.)

Maybe it's not “news releases.” Maybe it's the people writing them.

It just might be. And that's not the worst of it. Ever since I asked how public relations gets the word out, I've been hearing some pretty tall tales.

I’ve been told public relations is anything and everything from leveraging relationships with reporters to having a super huge data base (and that it is a function of marketing). I’ve been told to never send releases and always send releases. I’ve been told that pitches work best by phone, by e-mail, and, my personal favorite, by casually dropping by the reporter’s desk after purchasing an advertisement.

Egad! Has the profession gone batty? What do these people do?

The seven deadly sins of the modern public relations professional as told to me by public relations professionals.

Lust — Relationship Pandering If you’re leveraging relationships with journalists to pick up more accounts or trying to convince reporters to run non-news like it is news, then it's not a relationship. It’s manipulation.

Greed — Client leveraging. If you’re leveraging one big client brand in order to secure smaller clients and then dovetail small client non-news onto big client real news, that’s not public relations. It’s greed, paid for by your big client.

Gluttony — Pitching Stories. Spam is not the answer. Journalists are directing people to pitch stories to whatever communication stream seems less inundated. But mostly, journalists just want news that focuses on what they write about. If you don’t know what they write about, then don’t spam them.

Sloth — Traditional Releases. Journalists are starting to prefer pitches over releases, but only because it’s easier to read two butchered sentences than several butchered paragraphs. Skip the fluff, stick to the facts, and if you're not willing to find news about your client or write something worth reading, then don’t write anything.

Wrath — Social Media Releases. They have their place, but they are not the end all to “modern” public relations. Using them as some sort of revenge mechanism against mainstream media for not running all the non-news stories is inappropriate. The simple truth is that most social media releases are truncated traditional releases with links and even more marketing puff.

Pride — Renaming Games. Everyone is renaming everything for the sake of sounding intelligent and it needs to stop. Seriously, just stop it. Renaming social media is out of control — social computing, new media, digital media, social networking, life streaming, buzz marketing, viral marketing, virtual branding, alternative media, Internet marketing, etc. — especially if the reason is to one up everyone with a new definition. Nobody cares who coined the term.

Envy — Insatiable Illusions. If you are promising clients that a certain amount of releases will run every month, that column inches or hits mean anything, that news embargoes work long term, that mix and matching headlines can turn entertainment news into business news and vice versa, or that your client putting his pants on one leg at a time deserves a press conference because their competitor got lucky last week, you are no longer in public relations. You’re a trickster selling envy.

What happened to performing work instead of working the performance?

First and foremost, none of this seems related to public relations as much as media relations. Second, media relations, much like public relations, does not fit in tidy little boxes with check lists, no matter what accidental successes imply. Third, like most communication, simple is better than complex.

Find some real news within a company (it’s not always obvious) and communicate that news to journalists who would have a real interest. Let them know by whatever means they prefer: phone, e-mail, release, toilet paper, whatever. You may want to write a factual well-written release in case they need a backgrounder (which you can also distribute via the wire or on a Web site). If you want to claim it’s a social media release with links, etc., oh boy, knock yourself out.

Do this a few times without wasting anyone’s time and you will likely develop some great relationships with the media built around trust and mutual respect. All that, without name-dropping who you had lunch with.

Digg!

12 comments:

terocious on 3/10/08, 8:22 PM said...

Hi Rich,
Recently there was a CBS release which extolled how well Jericho was doing as streaming online content. It was exciting and a real shot in the arm until some folks who claim to know the game began saying that this would not help save the show. Do you think this a matter of non news or is it news that is not created equal in the eyes of different departments at CBS? Or is it something else all together?

Rich on 3/11/08, 10:58 AM said...

B,

Absolutely true. Public relations would be silly to kill a communication tool that has a lot of legs. The key is in the writing; nobody likes marketing mush.

The CBS release was well-written, factual, and cut to the chase. It worked for the media, bloggers, and online readers.

The CBS release was big news because it proves the viability of programming on the Internet. It will be one of the fastest transformations of entertainment ever. Not five years, but more likely one or two.

Will is save Jericho? That's totally up to CBS. They have a choice to use broadcast only numbers and kill it, or they could choose to Go Boldly.

Best,
Rich

Geoff_Livingston on 3/11/08, 3:49 PM said...

Very well written, Rich. Notice how no one responded? i think it's because you hit the bull between the eyes.

PR sucks, they don't understand their business, and how to engage stakeholders. I am so down on the profession right now, I am distancing myself from the tag "PR pro" and moving towards a communicator.

Rich on 3/11/08, 5:06 PM said...

Thanks so much Geoff.

I think so too. Fortunately, the many feet that fit those shoes are balanced by a few good firms and some solid teachers who understand that public relations is about many publics, of which media is one part. Working with media is very easy, I find.

No spin. No sales. Just an honest effort to share news when there is news and answer questions when asked.

I think you will like the concept of a communicator better, which includes public relations. Generally, but not always, they do consider every public as part of the mix. And really, it's not all about sales.

Best,
Rich

Dave Fleet on 3/12/08, 9:44 AM said...

Hi Rich,

Great post. You're absolutely right about news releases. In fact, poor writing can kill any communications tactic.

One note, though - you mention social media releases alongside "Wrath." That's not where they came from - in fact, part of their design aims to mitigate the kind of horrendous writing you're talking about. The bullet-driven style leaves little room for flowery spin-laden leads. The idea that social media releases aim to punish journalists couldn't be further from the truth.

Back to your original point, though - social media releases aren't a silver bullet if your "story" isn't really news and the writing is bad. It's just another tactic; another way to get the message out, and it neither replaces the traditional release nor removes the need for clear writing. Put crap in and you'll get crap out.

Thanks!

Rich on 3/12/08, 5:12 PM said...

Hi David,

Thank you for the great comment. I agree that the social media release did not come from "Wrath," but rather its usage — calls that maybe the media is not needed or can be cut out of communication — is sometimes abused as such.

I have little doubt that some people will use the social media release correctly. Unfortunately, many will not. Personally, I see the social media release as a robust tool that can be used to communicate news, which can be very effective in conjunction with traditional tactics in order to communicate to various publics.

But you're underlying point says it all: Put crap in and you'll get crap out. So is it any wonder why public relations professionals (not all, by no means) complain about executives, clients, reporters, et all, as if these folks are impeding their jobs when the reality just might be the opposite.

It reminds me that its easy to say something the reporter made an error, when the reality is that public relations could have communicated more effectively, thereby dismissing errors.

Anyway, thank you again. You're one of many people, several who answered my questions on LinkedIn, who give me great faith that there is light amongst the clouded communication.

All my best,
Rich

Rich on 3/12/08, 5:56 PM said...

Add Item:

Sarah Wurrey had a comment too. She says I was "bemoaning" what some public relations folks told me. Not so, I was pointing out that there were accuracy issues, loading the facts with words like bemoaning that will eventually kill releases.

But I did have a good laugh on her take away.

Rich

Your PR Guy on 3/18/08, 8:30 AM said...

Rich,

What you preach is so true. I have battled my CEO over sending frivolous crap to the media. I've fought long and hard about sending frivolous crap to client too -- that's another story.

While you offer a scathing critique on PR's obsession with lust and greed and all the deadly sins many of us commit, what else can we do. If my CEO says do X, and I warn him that Y is better than X, but he insists on X, and if it's X or my job, I'm choosing X every time -- or at least until I get tired of that and find an new job.

Even if I manage my own agency, which I'd like to do someday, I've learned a valuable business lesson. Or, at least I was told it was valuable. "Do what the clients wants." Of course there's legal limits to this, as well as ethical.

While I agree whole-heartedly with you in principle, these are just my thoughts.

Rich on 3/18/08, 8:57 AM said...

Rodger,

I completely understand where you are coming from; it comes up in class often enough.

This what I tell my students: You always have to remember that working as a public relations professional places all responsibility squarely on you. It's your personal brand on the line.

If you lose your job tomorrow and get hired somewhere else, the media won't think you are suddenly PR guy for company X and no longer the patsy for company Y. They will only see you.

Your thoughts are valid. It's not always easy to walk when the issue isn't a breach of ethics. And I'm not suggesting walking is always the answer.

What can you do? You can find ways to make the non-news news by looking for relevant connections to lift it up or find alternative news that will resonate or limit the distribution. The answer is not always black and white, but in the public relations professionals ability to find alternate solutions.

Best,
Rich

Your PR Guy on 3/18/08, 6:49 PM said...

So true. My PR professor at IUPUI, who became my mentor after I entered the master's program has echoed much the same. I haven't had any breach of ethics where I work -- that is the CEO hasn't asked me to do anything unethical.

What's fascinating, however -- a side note from the focus of your post -- is that people in my communication department at IUPUI have the hardest time grasping basic PR strategy and thinking. I have two people who work in corporate communication jobs who call me at least twice a months with a problem or want to discuss something they don't understand --sometimes it's just to brainstorm. I guess that's the way it is -- we PR folk call each other and talk about things.

PR Advice said...

Rich:
Now more than ever press releases are a critical tool in public relations efforts. The media - newspapers in particular -- are so short-staffed these days that they are desperate for anything that is reasonably well-written and contains a shred of news.

Feeding that 24-hour news cycle beast is tough. Handing a reporter a story on a silver platter is like manna from heaven. Believe me, I've been there.

Even our small daily newspapers have begun offering online updates of "breaking news" online throughout the day. They are hungry for my "news" releases. Emphasis on news.

If these "press releases" are so devoid of real news, why do the media use them? And how do the PR professionals explain to their bosses when nothing appears in the media? Are the CEOs so vain that just having a press release prepared and distributed enough?

I think it is important to understand the needs of the media you are dealing with. I don't send the same release to the hometown weekly that I do to the big-city daily. and I don't send the same thing to local TV affiliate. It takes a little extra work but the payoff makes it worthwhile.

Rich on 4/4/08, 10:37 AM said...

PRAdvice,

You ask some interesting questions, and I think the answers are obvious...

Q. If these "press releases" are so devoid of real news, why do the media use them?
A. There are a small percentage of releases that actually contain news. And, once in awhile, journalists look pass the ramblings because there is news, buried in them, somewhere.

Q. And how do the PR professionals explain to their bosses when nothing appears in the media?
A. The outcome of effective public relations was never meant to be tied to column inches. The column inch counting concept was spun into existence. Case in point: sometimes what is not in the news is more valuable then what is in the news.

Q. Are the CEOs so vain that just having a press release prepared and distributed enough?
A. Yes, but this idea was created at the urging of the same public relations professionals who teased them by equating column inches with ad space. It's not the same.

You are very right in saying that releases that are better targeted work better, but a good release doesn't necessarily need to be rewritten for each media channel. If you have to rewrite the angle several times, then chances are it was never news to begin with. There is nothing wrong with that, but I think the abundance of marketing sheets creates more work for the media than it alleviates.

Best,
Rich

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