10 Ways to Ruin a Press Release

cat on the head
Do something gross at SXSW. Tweet something inappropriate. Put a cat on your head.

Getting attention is easy. But getting the right attention … especially if you represent a company or brand … well, that's quite a different story. So what happens if you're the one responsible for telling your company's story?

We've been sharing tips for years about writing great press releases, optimizing their distribution and maximizing their value with various digital technologies. But sometimes you need something a little more direct — a crack on the head, so to speak. And we don't mean by a cat.

What Not to Do

Hamish Thompson is managing director of the London-based public relations agency Twelve Thirty Eight. We introduced him to CMSWire readers a few months ago as the man who created a tool to strip jargon out of press releases.

But Thompson thinks that prevention is really the better medicine. So he invented something else – a How Not to Guide to Public Relations — and he updates it every three months. The latest version, which features input from hundreds of editors, reporters and bloggers in the US and the UK, just came out.

Thompson said more than 25,000 public relations people worldwide have accessed the guide since he put it online early last year. It’s an impressive statistic, but still begs the question. Why are so many press releases so lame?

Yep. We all need to share every possible intimate detail about our lives. But shhh! Let's keep our sweaters secret.

5 Top Suggestions

The guide is hefty. If it were a book instead of an online manual, you'd probably need two hands to pick it up. It contains 15,000 words, Thompson said. So we're going to help you out. Here's a selection of some of our favorite advice.

1.  Get to the point. The guide estimates that national correspondents have an average of more than 300 emails waiting in their inboxes when they arrive at the office. Don't waste their time with convoluted pitches, spurious connections and off-topic suggestions.

Patience is not a natural journalistic trait. Most journalists are under intense pressure and have little time for waffle and pleasantries, especially ones with even the faintest whiff of insincerity."

2. Lose the hyperbole. Journalists are, by nature, a cynical, jaded bunch. They cut their writing teeth on skepticism and sarcasm, and bemoan the overuse of so called hip words like “awesome” and “super-excited.”

One correspondent said: 'I’m all for a pleasant chat, but there are probably two things in the average life that deserve being referred to as ‘awesome’ or ‘super-exciting.’ Cauliflowers and biscuits aren’t amongst them.”

3. Don't tell me what to say. Or write. Or — worst of all — tweet. While providing the recipient of a press release with an allegedly clever 140-character synopsis may seem helpful from the perspective of the company sending the pitch, it comes off as nothing but patronizing.

Social media, for instance, is giving rise to a whole series of bugbears, including, for example, the ‘suggested tweet,’ usually a condensed version of a press release that some wet behind the ears PRs are bravely suggesting that journalists tweet."

4. Stop spraying and praying. You know how some companies send mass press releases to every possible news organization? Well, it's annoying. Don't send a release on honey-baked beef jerky to a site on lifestyles of modern vegans. Make the oh-so-slightest effort to find out what the news outlet covers before making a pitch.

Rising obesity rates for household pets? No. 45 percent of all American men have moustaches? No again. I cover race and ethnicity and all the things affected by it. Fat doggies and hairy upper-lipped gentlemen aren’t part of the package."

5. Lose meaningless quotes. Quotes should support the information in the press release, not push the product or service. Moreover, they should actually mean something.

Mergers or alliance with quotes from one 'We are delighted' and from the second party, 'We are pleased …' Really, how much work does it take to get them to say something meaningful about the value of this alliance in real terms, and please leave out 'synergy.'"

And 5 More

1. Don't try to sell flawed research. A survey of 100 people done inside your store is not sound, and neither are the claims made off the back of it.

2. Don't send follow up emails to check on the first email in the first place. If someone ignored it, there’s a reason why.

3. Don't be overly friendly, or as one reporter told Thompson, "sign off with awful phrases. I got one recently that said “love and kittens” – NOOOOOO!"

4. Don't ignore the obvious. If you are pitching a story that screams out for a picture, then include one. If you want a return call, include a contact number.

5. Don’t tease. Make sure you can deliver what you promise. The worst scenario: Someone pitches an interview, the reporter immediately accepts. After several hours of silence, the rep responds — and says the person isn’t available.

Final Thoughts

It’s challenging to win the respect of a reporter, editor or blogger. Be clear. Be brief. Be focused. And remember: If it's a great story, you don't have to sell it. It'll sell itself — without multiple calls or emails. Even without a cat.