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Flash! Press releases don't work

Press releases rarely do what they pretend to intend, although they often do what they really intend.

This was made to clear to me by a brilliant article written by my friend and Cluetrain conspirator Doc Searls, published in a 1992 issue of Upside. You'll never be able to write a press release with a clear conscience again. (Which, for many of us, simply means we won't have clear consciences.)

As Doc points out, press releases are written in the form of an article, as if the newspapers were simply going to retype it (presumably after yelling "Stop the presses!"). In fact, a junior editor sifts through hundreds of press releases received every week. To be one of the few pulled out, companies use words in the headlines such as "Revolutionary," "The First," and "Unique" ... just like every other press release trying to break through the clutter.

The problem is that press releases serve several functions that don't go together so well. If you identify and separate the functions, you can actually design instruments and procedures that address each of the functions more effectively.

First, press releases let a company try on and then decide on a positioning. This is an extremely useful function; it's how the company tells itself its story. So, do so explicitly. Write up fantasy articles: If everything were perfect, here's how our story would appear in the press. Write these stories, share them, argue about them, but don't actually send them out to the newspapers. They're not going to run your fantasies. Duh.

Second, they tell management that you're doing a bang-up job. "We shipped the Rangolator 2000 on time, and it's the first uniquely revolutionary enterprise Web-based portal solutionizer. See, it says so right in this fake newspaper article, boss!" So, make it a policy to write up and publicize important company news. Make heroes of the people who are doing their job well. Circulate it widely. But internally.

Third, press releases give management the illusion that they're going to be quoted in a magazine article. And sometimes these quotes are picked up by very lazy journalists. So, include quotes in what you send to the press.

Fourth, press releases are supposed to make it easy for the press to write a story about your news. In fact, they make it hard. The information the journalist needs usually is buried in the effusive self-congratulations that bulk up the release. So, imagine you're a journalist on deadline. What information do you need? How would you like it presented to you? You'll likely devise a form with neatly labeled headings for items such as: What's New, Why This Is Unique, Customer Contacts, Quote from Management, Quotes from Customers, Quote from Paid Industry Analyst, Price, Availability, and even perhaps Competitive Products.

Fifth, press releases are supposed to stimulate an article in the first place. But being this week's 423rd press release does nothing to move a journalist to write. Instead, stop your search for magic and instead undertake two solemn programs:

1. Don't bombard journalists with feel-good trivia you know they won't cover. Wait until you actually have news.

2. Build relationships with journalists by becoming a trusted source of news rather than a blathering, short-sighted, self-centered jerk. Any PR agency worth its salt will tell you this and will stand up to the senior managers who measure PR effectiveness in RPM's (releases per month).

In short: Stop the presses!

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