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January 21, 2014
Free Advertising in Disguise
Every week, my newspaper inbox is filled with press releases from individuals and businesses hoping to get some free publicity. It's the field known as PR, and it's big business, because no matter what you pay your PR pro, it's less than you'll pay for almost any other type of promotion, unless you're doing the work yourself. So it always astonishes me how very difficult the press release writers make it for me to publish their pieces!
If you want your press releases published, try not to make your editor jump through so many hoops:

Make Sure it's News
First, keep in mind, newspapers publish news. The press release you send in must be newsworthy. But most of what I get just talks about attributes of the company, or what product or service it is selling, or what new software its using, along with streams of adjectives and repetitive details. Even when those come in the form of quotes, they still aren't news. Give your editor something the public should know. When you do that, you help her do her job and make her happy, instead of wasting her time.
Bad: ABC is the greatest company ever, with a beautiful store and 10 locations, educated staff, etc.

So-so: ABC has won a well-known prestigious award.
Good: In light of the poor economy (or recent storm, or approaching storm, or upcoming town events, or holiday, or...), ABC offers the following tips…

Better: ABC recaps, elaborates on, demystifies, and localizes a recent industry study that was released. (Find useful information that relates to your business, but also has some connection to a wider audience. Help readers make sense of it.)

Best: ABC is hosting a local community service or free business event that will appeal to a wide audience. (Make sure it does, and if you can find a tie-in to your main business product or service, all the better.)

Always keep your audience in mind, and ask yourself whether the information you're providing is actually interesting or useful to them. If it's not, the paper or magazine may not publish it, and even if it does, chances are that few people will read it.
Remember That News Should be Objective
Even when I do get a newsworthy release, I often have to remove half of the sentences because of statements like “leading physician,” “top firm,” “largest retailer,” “only company that provides...” and superfluous quotes such as, “We are thrilled to have the best in the business right here in town.” Most of these are entirely subjective. It may hurt to take out those adjectives, but who do you believe more when you read the newspaper? Someone who is clearly self promoting, or an expert offering valuable information or advice? You can always use facts, such as years in business, number of clients serviced, and so on. Don't tell, show. (But only after you've offered something of value to the reader first!)
I also don't feel comfortable printing something like “XYZ Law firm is the only firm in town to offer free consultations.” The writer of the release may believe that, but there could be a small firm he doesn't know about, offering the same. Or another firm may have started to this very day. It's just too risky for a purveyor of news to print statements like that. And every phrase, fact, sentence you put in the release that has to be taken out, makes more work for the editor, which leads me to:
Butter Up the Editor
No, I don't take bribes or yield to flattery. Few editors do. But if I have two equally newsworthy stories and only have room for one, the one that makes me do less work is the one I'm going with. That means, submit a piece that is news, not description, run spell check, and refrain from using italics, bold, all caps, centering and other promotional or convoluted formatting, excessive capitalization (Generally, only sentence starters and proper names should be capitalized), hard returns, colored fonts, backgrounds, any logos or graphics. (Photographs and art meant to accompany the story should be sent as a separate file, and should be the original art, in full resolution). If you really, really want to get into a specific paper, find out what style they use (i.e. AP, Chicago, New York Times), and use it in the press release you send. The editor and proofreaders will love you.
Know Your Audience, and Write for Them
Since I work for a local newspaper, I'm interested in local news. If I get a press release about a new study on the health benefits of blueberries, my question will be: “What does this have to do with my town?” There are a number of ways you can localize this example. You could find a health expert or fitness guru or organic market owner in town, and interview him for a quote. You could research a bit about the town and integrate relevant information (i.e. the town has four health food stores or a pick-your-own blueberry orchard you can reference). Some papers report national and international news, but they still have a niche. Find out what that is, and customize your release accordingly.
Include all the Facts
Nothing is as frustrating as having a good news story, working on deadline, and realizing that some key information is missing — information required for publication. Include times, dates, full names and titles, websites, and contact information. Who, what, why, when, where, and how, in relation to all facts, events, and people in the story. If there are important connections, make sure you have clarified them. You can be brief, but be certain your information is complete.
Quality Over Quantity
Often times, people just fire off the same release to 500 publications and hope for the best. Taking a little extra time, using a template story, and customizing it to the most important publications will absolutely pay off. Not only will you be more likely to get published in more publications, but your releases will be of higher quality. They will read like news stories instead of throw-away filler, you will come across as an expert instead of an advertiser, and you may get more prominent placement as well.
Even for online publications that publish any and all releases, “as is” it always shouts “press release” (instead of “potentially interesting news story”) when I see those giveaways I mentioned above – ALL CAPS, bolds, italics, Too Many Caps In Too Many Places,         non-newsy formatting,             strings of silly, irrelevant, misplaced, strange adjectives and wildly, insanely inflated claims. Think “refined expert” instead of “shouting neon sign” and you'll always do better. (Shhh, you'll be advertising in disguise (for free!), and that's when PR really pays off). 

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Jennifer Leavitt divides her time between editing for the Scarsdale Inquirer, managing content at Talent Zoo, teaching SEO and PR, and writing feature articles for magazines, newspapers and web sites.She has won writing, editorial, and advertorial awards from the New York Press Association, and an advertising award from The New York Times.
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