Why do so many agency news releases read like sales promotions?

September 18, 2006 at 10:05 am 3 comments

That was the question asked by Don Bates of Media Distribution Services in a contributed article to the Bulldog Reporter. And he’s not wrong.

He posits the following reasons:

  • The writers don’t have anything newsworthy to write about. Either the story isn’t there to begin with or—and this is more likely—they haven’t figured out what the story is. But since they have to write something in order to justify their fees, they plow ahead with promotional puff, which may not please the press but always pleases the client. Instead of waiting until they have a newsworthy story to tell, they fall back on good old “spin.”
  • The writers don’t know how to write for the press. If they did, why would they send soapsuds instead of substance? Why wouldn’t they give the media what they want: real story not made-up stuff, simple language not jargon, short copy not long, substantive not gratuitous quotes, journalistic not idiosyncratic style, and so forth? What’s to fear in meeting your target audience’s needs?
  • The writers are often told what and how to write by bosses who themselves don’t know how to write good news releases. As a result, the writers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Rather than risk their jobs fighting for what they know would be better, they do what they’re told and hope for the best.

I’d like to add a few of my own:

  • The culture of hyperbole is so ingrained that it is just expected. Often, the person who approves the press release is not a PR person and feels that only overblown claims and marketing cliches can do their product/offering/service justice. And they see everyone else doing it – so it must be right! As an agency PR person, I was constantly pushing back on clients who insisted on inserting words such as “leading,” “unique,” and “pioneering” into press releases.
  • These days, the press release is written for every audience other than journalists. Companies post press releases on their web sites and issue them on the wire as a way to demonstrate corporate momentum to customers, partners and investors.

I have long said that the press release is dead as a way to communicate with reporters. The scattergun approach to PR has not been effective for a long time. In a similar vein, a former colleague recently described the press release as the “obituary of a story” – ie by the time you issue the press release, you’ve already briefed reporters, and their stories will probably appear at the same time the release crosses the wire.

Is there a solution? Or will the press release just wither away? Companies need to issue some form of approved communication when they make an announcement, so I don’t suppose the press release will disappear any time soon. It may, however, evolve. Todd Defren of Shift Communications is proposing a new format: the social media press release, which presents information in accessible chunks and includes RSS feeds, links to del.icio.us and tags. Of course, a different format won’t automatically make PR writing good, but maybe, just maybe, it might establish a new style of writing that relies less on hyperbole and more on facts.


Entry filed under: PR.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cornelius Puschmann  |  September 20, 2006 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks for the post Judy, I’m definitely putting “culture of hyperbole” and “the scattergun approach to PR” in my notebook under “descriptive of an outdated approach to PR”.

    I think part of the problem is that a) press releases talk to that nebulous chimera that is the press / investors / customers / competitors / the public at large, and therefore don’t talk to anyone at all and b) rely on established recipes because, as you aptly point out, everyone is doing it that way. Actually knowing who you’re talking to and trying to picture yourself keeping a straight face while you’re doing it could do miracles for the genre.

  • 2. Judy  |  September 21, 2006 at 6:27 pm

    I thought I knew something about grammar until I read your blog! Totally agree with your points, and would add that often I don’t think companies think about the audience at all when they write press releases – they just cut and paste the available information and ship the release out the door! I like your suggestion in b 🙂

  • 3. Todd Defren  |  September 22, 2006 at 7:25 am

    “[…] maybe, just maybe, it might establish a new style of writing that relies less on hyperbole and more on facts.”

    Exactly. That is the hope.


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