I vividly recall my first exposure to press release writing. Sitting in the basement of Fell Hall, I listened to my weathered professor dictate, word for word, a fictional release for “Acme Company.”
Without explanation, exotic words like “dateline” and “lead” were introduced to my lexicon. Requests for clarity or explanation were addressed with the sweep of an ink-stained hand. This went on for three straight classes and the message was clear: there is one way to write a press release, so save your ambition for something else, kiddo.
Surprisingly little has changed in the 20 years since I had that wisdom drilled into my head. Our profession has evolved its business model, adapted to digital communication and embraced social media, but we’ve done almost nothing to update or alter the form of the press releases we still churn out every day.
As it turns out, journalists are practically begging us to improve our approach. According to research my colleagues recently conducted, more than 88 percent of the journalists say press releases are still valuable if done correctly.
As many who have reported on our research have noted, this is hardly a new or novel topic for discussion. But it is one that has become increasingly urgent as journalists’ ranks continue to thin and media outlets continue to struggle with digital business models.
How do we prevent this from becoming yet another fruitless discussion? By starting a new dialogue — one that can only be championed by the leaders of our profession. Here are four initial areas where we have some work to do:
- Improve our quotes. In our research and focus groups, journalists told us that they would use quotes more frequently if they contained information of substance. Most of our quotes are too stilted and whitewashed to be of any value. One of the best ways to improve is by obtaining open access to the executives we quote in our releases to prompt an authentic dialogue. These executives are far more likely to engage in this type of dialogue with a firm’s senior leaders than with the junior associates we usually assign to compose releases.
- Break the rules. Forget the old “fake-news” format. Abandon AP style. You heard me correctly. Let it go. In our survey and focus groups with journalists, we asked them whose releases they appreciated most. Several named a surprising source: police departments. Their releases are concise, refreshingly easy to read and they don’t conform to AP style. As one journalist told us: “I don’t need to be hooked. I just need to find the main point quickly.”
- Protect the “news” in “news release.” Take a quick scan of the major wire services and see how many releases contain newsworthy information. Sadly, there aren’t many. This is another classic reporters’ complaint that we’ve allowed to perpetuate. News releases are a tool for journalists, rooted in trust and mutual respect. We erode that trust and respect when we try to dress up marketing as news.
- Bring the press release into a leadership agenda. The leaders of our profession, many of them former journalists, don’t talk about the role of the press release enough. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a release, which means I’m part of the problem. With so many different ways to disseminate content today, press releases are ripe for innovation from the top. Perhaps certain releases should only be released via the web, shared through Twitter and other social media. Regardless, let’s agree to preserve the news release for journalists and, in turn, honor our role in their reporting process.
The ability to help organizations develop functional, mutually beneficial relationships with media remains a fundamental and unique trait of our profession. Matched with our ability to communicate with empathy, this has enabled us to stake out valuable ground in emerging disciplines like content marketing.
As a profession we have become obsessed with defending our right to manage reputations in the numerous uncontrolled spaces that confront organizations today. But we risk abandoning the core competency that allows us to make this claim in the first place. How can we own the emerging content market when we have largely ignored the content vehicle our profession invented?
We should embrace the potential to transform the press release into a more useful and strategic tool. One journalist in our research put it bluntly: “You’ve got three seconds to get my attention.”
What if we transformed the press release into such a useful tool that journalists were clamoring for more time with them? If anyone can do it, it’s the dynamic, passionate leaders of this profession.
Aaron Schoenherr is a Founding Partner of Greentarget Global Group. Follow Greeentarget: @Greentarget