The Death and Rebirth of the Press Release

Coneheads-movie-01 I have always considered BrandWeek to be an insightful publication, and I spotted a recent piece by editor Todd Wasserman aimed directly at the PR community, “Just Hitting the Wire Now: Your Press Release Sucks.” In it, Todd makes some very valid points about the wooden language the PR profession has adopted to try to get their point across in news releases. As he says,

“These days, the odd, stilted prose lurking in most anything issued by the PR department stands out more than ever because few people talk or write with much formality anymore. Yet in Press Release Land, people converse like the narrators of Eisenhower-era educational films. Of course, strip away that Conehead syntax and you realize that these automatons aren’t saying much anyway.”

To make his point, Wasserman deconstructs an AT&T press release, pointing out that after you get past the verbal flourishes and the complex sentence structures, there’s really no news in the news release in any case. Why not just state your case? Why can’t you just say, “Sales fell last quarter by 5%” or “We think our new product is easy to use”? His point is that journalists in general hate press releases, and that they will uncover the real story in the release no matter how hard you try to hide it, assuming there is a story to be told.

“Journalists generally hate press releases, and for good reason. The quotes in them are so bizarrely written that they bring a false note to any story. Yet, if the quote was in plain English, reporters might be more apt to cite it.”

I don’t think so. I have never seen a journalist worth his salt take a quote from a press release. Beside, the major point that Todd is missing is that press releases are no longer written for journalists, and they haven’t been for some time. Although reporters can still get all the background details they need from a news release, even if they have to read around the superlatives and obfuscation, news announcements are aimed at a different audience.

Let’s consider the evolution of the press release.

Originally, in the days before e-mail and the Web, press releases actually were written for reporters. They were handed out at news events, distributed at trade shows, and I even remember spending countless hours stuffing envelopes to mail releases to press contacts. Then things changed. With the coming of the Web, consumers, prospects, and shareholders no longer waited for the press to digest and regurgitate press releases. Now they go right to the source, using Google or Yahoo or Bing to hone in on the news they want. Of course, the journalist’s role as interpreter is still essential; their job is to remove the obfuscation and reveal the true meaning under the painted prose. But for those who write them, press releases have become an effective tool to present their message directly to their audience. The form has evolved so even when you have to report bad news, you try to put a happy spin on the tidings to please your market.

So while the basic framework of the press release has remained intact, the content has evolved. Quotes aren’t supposed to be quotable; they are for posturing or injecting your opinion into a document that is supposed to be largely factual.

It has also become commonplace to use more adjectives and superlatives in news announcements, injecting phrases like “first” or “biggest” or industry jargon like “best of breed.” This is part of the evolution of the press release as sales tool. Many of my clients now look at press releases as a means to reach customers and contacts, not the press. So they want to see some sizzle in the copy, even if it detracts from the facts.

And these days, the news is being driven by the Web, and news release writing is being shaped by search engine optimization and key word search. In theory, a well-written press release is more searchable and SEO-friendly than a badly written release, but that doesn’t prevent the marketing team from adding key phrases and key words to try to improve search, which just obscures things even further.

Which brings me to probably the primary reason that press releases are so badly written; because they are written by committee. No matter how solid your training as a writer or journalist, no matter how lucid your headline, no matter how concise your lead, you know that somewhere along the chain of approval someone with a different perspective or agenda is going to introduce a different slant, add an adjective, or find some way to spin the message. The more sensitive the information, such as a drop in sales or a less-than-sterling product announcement, the harder the committee will attempt to bury their disappointment in obscure language.

I would like to think that the art of writing a clear, concise, informative news announcement is not dead. Even though the press release has taken on a wide range of new responsibilities, I hope that the form still retains value as a way to disseminate objective information to people who truly need to know. However, I also know that as long as the press continues to have an impact on society, my clients will continue to use press releases as a means to spin the news and tell their story in their own way with their own rules.

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