Marketing Copywriting, Maslen on Marketing

Boring press releases get thrown in bin, says copywriter

Everyone wants to see their name in the papers. So why do they write such boring press releases? You know the kind of thing: “Watkins Widgets of Wolverhampton is delighted to announce the purchase of a new WidgetMaster extruding press.”

The key to a good press release lies in the subject matter; and how you present it. Remember that journalists are looking for something that they think will interest their readers. They want something that will fit the overall style and tone of their paper/magazine/programme/website.

Before you put pen to paper (quaint expression, I know, but I like it), write a plan. What is the big story? Is there a secondary story? How and why will this be of interest to your target audience? Seems obvious, but local papers like a local angle, national papers like a broader angle that appeals to everyone, and specialist media like something that is more focused.

The classical PR method is to answer ‘Who? What? Where? When? and Why?’ in your opening paragraph. This is certainly a great way to begin but remember also to inject at least a small spark – something that will catch the journalist’s imagination and/or curiosity.

Says who?

Quotes are an excellent way to enliven press releases. Journalists like to be able to give the impression that they have researched a story before writing it. Provide them with a few quotes and you make their lives easier – a service for which they will thank you. Here’s the classic format:

“Writing press releases opened my eyes to a whole new sphere of linguistic contortions,” said Andy Maslen, Managing Director of Sunfish. “Knowing what journalists wanted made it far easier to get started, too,” he added.

Some people like to put their quotes in the present tense (says, continues). This is fine – really more a matter of taste than anything else. Just be consistent.

Headlines and how to write them

Try to come up with a really good headline, one that will arrest the journo’s instinct to lob your carefully crafted missive into the trash (whether literally or virtually). News is good, but ask yourself whether the news you want to get talked about is news from their point of view.

Your new product might have the sales team and half the Board dancing naked in the streets with joy unconfined, but will it have that effect on a bunch of cynical hacks? Here are a few things that I have found worked in the past:

  • Promising a list, eg “Sunfish points the finger at top seven copywriting sins”
  • Using a cliché, eg “Sunfish names and shames brand pirates”
  • Using sex, eg “Lie back and think of England, says new report”
  • Using gender, eg “Women now better copywriters than men, says Sunfish”
  • Using geography, eg “No good copywriters west of Chiswick, says report”
  • Using wordplay, eg “Black day for white goods, says research firm”
  • Using statistics, eg “One in four copywriters now vegetarian, says Sunfish”

How long is a piece of string?

I have been told by apparently experienced PR people that “you should never write more than one page for a press release”. They neglect to specify whether that is double spaced (which it should be if you are sending paper); but in any case, they have a limited experience of what works.

This has usually been gained promoting Watkins Widgets of Wolverhampton or the humdrum corporate cog-turnings of new appointments, office openings and account wins.

I gained my experience writing press releases for a market analysis company. We’d publish a report on the global ice cream market and I would get it written up in the FT. With a six or seven page release as my offering to the journalists.

Why did they use it? Simple. The press release was interesting. And it kept on being interesting, right to the last sentence. So, as with direct mail and just about everything else, it ain’t how much you write that matters, it’s what you say and how you say it.

i-dotting and t-crossing

And speaking of which, you are writing for a primary audience of writers. So be especially careful not to commit any errors of grammar, punctuation or style. Journalists have a never-ending stream of press releases to pick through and will cheerfully discard any that flag the author’s lack of attention to detail.

This month’s message

PR really is free advertising. Without the taint of commercialism. But you do have to work a little harder. Journalists are under no obligation to print what you send them, unlike their more accommodating colleagues in the advertising department. So give them something usable, write it well, and sprinkle a few quotes around. Oh, and a decent lunch still seems to work.

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