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Full disclosure: I used to be a journalist. This is why I still get dozens of press releases every day in my inbox even even though my day job is Writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing. Some are decent, but some represent the worst of hype, BS and inefficiency.
It could be worse. Some of my friends who are still fighting in the press trenches are bombarded with hundreds of the things every day. I admit that some of them are useful but you very quickly develop the ability of scanning emails at a glance and binning the majority.
There’s clearly something wrong. As one former colleague of mine put it “PR companies pretend to be excited and journalists pretend to be interested.” I think the basic problem is that all the press releases I receive are still stuck in the analogue era.
There’s no intelligent design in press releases. They evolved in true Darwinian fashion to suit distribution channels which no-one uses any more. A couple of bits of A4 in the mail is precisely the wrong format for the digital age. And, simply pasting digital versions of the ‘couple of bits of paper’ into an email doesn’t solve the problem. In fact it totally misses the point. I’m not even going to get started on the quality of the actual writing – this is about the format and delivery mechanism.
Let’s look at a couple of effective ways of disseminating information online to see if there’s anything we can use to improve press releases.
- First, email newsletters. The good ones, such as the BBC daily news bulletin, are specifically designed for email. They kick off with strong subject lines, brief summaries, small but evocative pictures and – this is the key bit – links back to the full text which is stored on a website. They are designed to be scanned and they are designed to hook the reader into finding out more.
- Second, opt-in marketing emails. I’m not talking about unwanted spam but emails when someone chooses to receive more information from a company. A good example is Ontracks, a company that sells Hornby and Scalextric online. Their monthly newsletter is welcomed by 11,000 previous customers and generates 5% of their sales revenue. How do they know? Because they track it – each and every link and click.
Why not take the same approach to emailed press releases?
I was reminded of this when I received the following press release from Cambridge Consultants (a cool research company):
"In order to fill the large gap in the market for cost and performance sensitive ASIC processors, Cambridge Consultants has developed XAP4, a brand new 16-bit RISC microprocessor IP core. XAP4 is aimed at ASIC designers who currently use larger and more expensive 32-bit processor cores and where an advanced 16-bit core would offer both optimal performance and a reduction in cost."
It's hardly the most accessible copywriting, but this isn't a blog post. It's a press release. The subject matter is quite technical but the principle is clear and would work for most kinds of press releases. The brevity of the summary forces them to concentrate on the key points (”optimal performance and a reduction in cost” to my mind) without any waffle.
From my perspective as a reader it is an efficient use of my time. I can scan this in a couple of seconds and decide if it is going to be useful to me. Also, the call-to-action in the email was very clear and pointed me to where I needed to go on their website. Once on the landing page I easily found contact details and other PR collateral.
From Cambridge Consultant’s perspective, this method lets them track the performance of different press releases very accurately. How many PR companies can boast this about their press releases?
This approach also has the merit of making it easier to track the READERSHIP of the email rather than the DISTRIBUTION. You can send out a million press releases but if no-one reads them, you might as well not have bothered. However, Cambridge Consultants can track the number of people clicking through to the webpage and see what percentage of recipients are actually following up on the story. Data-driven PR - now that's a first!
The worst press release ever
For contrast to the above example, let's look at the other side of this press release story.
A good few years ago, I ran my first Articulate Seminar. It was tremendous fun and I found that talking about writing with people from different industries illuminated old problems in new ways for me. I've done a few since. For instance, if you're interested in learning all my copywriting secrets, check out this video.
Anyway, at the time, Andrew Yeomans came along from Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, and afterwards he sent me his delightful deconstruction of press release hype:
"This amazing, prestigious and sophisticated product is a quantum leap forward and performance is a greater order of magnitude, and will decimate the competition. The enormity of this tremendous advance indicates our commitment to servicing our customers in a forensically sound manner."
Various dictionaries give:
- amazing 1. Causing distraction, consternation, confusion, dismay; stupefying, terrifying, dreadful.
- prestigious 1. Practising juggling or legerdemain; of the nature of or characterised by juggling or magic; cheating, deluding, deceitful; deceptive, illusory.
- sophisticated 1. Mixed with some foreign substance; adulterated; not pure or genuine. 2. a. Altered from, deprived of, primitive simplicity or naturalness. Of a literary text: altered in the course of being copied or printed. 3. a. Falsified in a greater or less degree; not plain, honest, or straightforward.
- quantum 5. Physics. A minimum amount of a physical quantity which can exist and by multiples of which changes in the quantity occur.
- magnitude 3. A class in a system of classification determined by size. a. Each of the classes into which the fixed stars have been arranged according to their degree of brilliancy. Now regarded as a number on a continuous scale representing the negative logarithm of the brightness, such that a decrease of five magnitudes represents a hundred-fold increase in brightness and a decrease of one magnitude an increase of 2·512 times.
- decimate 4. transf. a. To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of.
- enormity (-nôrmt) n., pl. e·nor·mi·ties. 1. The quality of passing all moral bounds; excessive wickedness or outrageousness. 2. A monstrous offence or evil; an outrage.
- tremendous \Tre*men"dous\, a. [L. tremendus that is to be trembled at, fearful, fr. tremere to tremble.] Fitted to excite fear or terror; such as may astonish or terrify by its magnitude, force, or violence; terrible; dreadful; as, a tremendous wind; a tremendous shower; a tremendous shock or fall.
- advance \Ad*vance"\, v. t. 7. To furnish, as money or other value, before it becomes due, or in aid of an enterprise; to supply beforehand
- commitment \Com*mit"ment\, n. 4. A doing, or perpetration, in a bad sense, as of a crime or blunder; commission.
- service \Serv"ice\, n. 11. Copulation with a female; the act of mating by male animals
- forensic Relating to, used in, or appropriate for courts of law or for public discussion or argumentation.
- sound a. Meaningless noise. b. Thorough; complete: a sound flogging.
So, based on that, the (facetious, silly, fun) translation is:
"This confusing, dreadful, deceitful, illusory, adulterated, dishonest product is the smallest possible small step forward and provides less than half the performance, and will kill very few of our competitors. The monstrous evil of our releasing this dreadful product before it it ready demonstrates our crimes in screwing over our clients, see you in court where we will speak complete nonsense."
I rather liked that. What are some of the worst examples of bad writing that you've ever experienced?
[Note: originally published in 2006, but updated and refreshed with new content in 2019]