PR With Benefits: What ‘Mad Men’ Can Teach Us About Writing Press Releases

Ad copywriting principles from Mad Men can be applied to press releases. 

As any journalist will emphatically tell you, a press release is not an advertisement. An ad is a paid media message over which the buyer has essentially complete control. A press release is a suggestion for an article, TV news story or other media coverage.

From a business perspective, however, the two often have the same objective: to raise awareness about a product or service and persuade consumers to buy it. As anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Mad Men knows, ad copywriters have turned that kind of persuasion into both an art and a science. So what can Madison Avenue teach us about writing more effective press releases?

One secret that advertising copywriters have long known is that the benefits of a product or service are far more compelling to potential customers than its features. What’s the difference? Features describe the positive qualities of a product or service. Benefits describe the ways those qualities positively affect the consumer—usually by making his or her life better or easier.

For example, a car’s features might include side airbags, a 250-horsepower engine and a 70-cubic-foot cargo area. But its benefits are that it’s safe, fun to drive and roomy enough to bring three kids, two dogs and a pumpkin pie to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving.

I recently saw an ad for a self-storage facility whose features included clean, well-lighted facilities, 24-hour security and a convenient location. But the ad’s headline—“Reclaim your Garage!”—focused on a single, compelling benefit.

To see the difference that focusing on benefits can make in a press release, take a look at the first paragraph of an announcement from Apple:

GarageBand Now Available for iPhone and iPod touch Users

CUPERTINO, California—November 1, 2011—Apple® today announced that GarageBand®, its breakthrough music creation app, is now available for iPhone® and iPod touch® users. Introduced earlier this year on iPad®, GarageBand uses Apple’s revolutionary Multi-Touch™ interface to make it easy for anyone to create and record their own songs, even if they’ve never played an instrument before.

The release mentions a feature, “Multi-Touch Interface,” which by itself is not that exciting. But the app’s impressive benefit is simply stated in the last sentence: it makes it easy to record music even if you don’t play an instrument.

Now compare that to a press release from another computer maker:

Lenovo and Polycom to Deliver RealPresence Video Software and Voice Communications to PCs and Mobile Devices

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C., and PLEASANTON, Calif.—January 19, 2012—Lenovo (HKSE: 992) (ADR: LNVGY) and Polycom, Inc. (Nasdaq: PLCM), the global leader in standards-based unified communications (UC), today announced an agreement to deliver Polycom® RealPresence™ HD video and HD Voice™ solutions on Lenovo laptops and tablets. The two companies will develop innovative solutions that optimize and embed Polycom RealPresence video collaboration solutions on Lenovo laptops and tablets to deliver high-quality collaboration experiences to end-users from any location. Polycom and Lenovo are ensuring a number of devices—including select laptops in the ThinkPad T, X, L, and W Series—are Polycom-ready, providing certification and assurance that the device will perform optimally with Polycom solutions.

After reading this paragraph several times I still have no idea what the release is about or why I should care. Although it manages to include the word "solutions" three times in one paragraph, I don’t know what problem the product is solving. Buried amid the techno jargon is the phrase “high-quality collaboration experiences to end users from any location,” which probably describes some sort of benefit, though in the vaguest possible terms.

I assume the release is targeting computer engineers or IT executives whom the writer believes will understand it. But as we said earlier, a press release is not an ad. For it to receive media coverage, journalists, who are not always experts in every topic they cover—especially in today’s lean newsrooms—need to grasp both the meaning of the announcement and its news value. If they don’t, they’re going to hit the delete key faster than you can say “high-quality collaboration experience.”

So the next time you write a release, whether it’s for a client or your own company, make sure you clearly explain how your product or service makes your customers' lives better or easier.

The benefits will be huge.

Andrew Hindes is president of The In-House Writer, a Los Angeles-based PR and marketing copywriting firm that specializes in creating press materials for companies in a broad range of industries. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter @inhousewriter



5 responses to “PR With Benefits: What ‘Mad Men’ Can Teach Us About Writing Press Releases

  1. Amen to that! As a publisher/editor for more than 30 years, I’m amazed that the simplistic features/benefits distinction eludes so many PR people. Then again, if you change them every six months (or eliminate them completely), I guess that knowledge is bound to remain novel.

  2. In the last year before I left the BBC I started re-writing poorly composed releases and sending them back. I got some very defensive replies and the most common excuse was that the client insisted on that version of the copy. Surely you should grow a pair and tell the client that they are wrong. I have often told the agency they could forward my comments to the client. Sheesh, did I ever get some c**p.

  3. Andrew, sometimes the client insists and the best you can do is suck it up. If overall they’re decent clients, I’ve found that on occasion you have to let them “win one” and see how the chips fall. Sometimes they don’t believe that your way is better until they see the comparative results. Unfortunately, we are in a business that everyone thinks they can do better… or at least, they have a nephew who can do it better. Pushing back too hard can get you fired — either as an employee or as a consultant. That said, I’ve also worked at agencies where they couldn’t put together a single sentence without using “robust,” “cutting-edge,” “end-to-end solution,” or “revolutionary.” And the executive quotes were full of expressions about how great the company is. I told them that if the quote makes the boss look stupid, leave it out… unless they really believed the boss was stupid.

  4. I want to congratulated you for such a good article. Those are the things that advertising copywriters and publicist sometimes forget and it cost them clients because doesn’t get the results they expect. Also to let you know that I am fully bilingual PR Expertise and I will like to get in touch with you in case you work with hispanics clients.

    Thank you so much

  5. Apples to oranges in your examples, although your point still stands. I would love to see another enterprise technology release that you think does the customer value point well. Its much easier to show value for a consumer app versus a firewall or new server chip..

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