7 keys to a successful press release

Marty Karlon: The Blog (NASDAQ: MKB) is pleased to announce an innovative, full-featured post that contains cutting-edge common sense in a simple, easy-to-use interface.

“We are pleased to share this post with our valued audience. We feel it provides the out-of-the-box thinking and industry-leading best practices that people have come to expect from …”

(Cue fingernails on chalkboard).

SCREECH!

If you’re still reading – and I pray you are – you’ll know that the first two paragraphs were an unsuccessful attempt at parodying a press release. I say unsuccessful because it would only work as a parody if it wasn’t so darn close to the real thing.

As an editor, I was on the receiving end of some comically bad press releases. I probably should have saved some for laughs, but, honestly, there were so many that it wasn’t worth the effort.

Although I firmly believe inbound marketing is where organizations should focus their energies these days, a well-crafted press release can still be worth the effort. With perpetually shrinking staffs, editors are often just looking for something (anything) to fill a hole. While the merits of this approach to journalism are debatable, it’s become a fact of life in many newsrooms. An entertaining, informative release can catch the eye of a harried editor looking to assign a quick turnaround story. And even if it doesn’t, a well-written press release that reads like a news story is more likely than ever to be run by smaller papers that no longer have the resources to do everything themselves.

Here are the seven elements of a well-crafted press release:

1. State your business: In the first two paragraphs of my attempted parody, the subject of the post is never mentioned. You have to read further down to get to the point. And guess what? Ninety percent of readers won’t ever get there.

2. The “So What?” factor: Why is this news? What does it mean for your customers, or the public in general? If your announcement doesn’t matter to anyone but you, it isn’t newsworthy.

3. Be clever: Pretend, just for a second, that everyone isn’t anxiously checking their inbox, waiting for your next press release. Pretend that you have to actually make it interesting. Ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t have to write this, would I actually read it?” If the honest answer is no, then spend some time looking for an angle that would make you – and others – want to keep reading.

4. Close the thesaurus: Everything isn’t “innovative” and “game-changing,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Be conversational and don’t let hyperbole get the best of you.

5. Skip the useless quotes: Don’t plug in a series of repetitive, redundant quotes from the CEO, COO, SVP for Global Strategy, etc. If you quote someone, make sure they say something that adds to the narrative, or something memorable that might get used in a “real” news story. (Since most of these quotes are ghostwritten anyway, save some time and don’t even bother making them up.)

6. Provide useful contact info: As an editor, I occasionally received press releases interesting or meaningful enough for me to want learn more. On more than one occasion, however, the contact person knew little or nothing about the actual content of the release. If you’ve done a good job convincing a news organization to pursue your release, don’t mess things up by making them jump through hoops to speak to the person they need to reach.

7. Write a good headline: Don’t oversell, but make it clever (see No. 3).

There’s one more thing, although it’s so insultingly obvious I didn’t include it in the list: Don’t lie.

Several years ago, one of the two local hospitals my newspaper covered sent out a press release saying they were the first one in the state to have a new type of medical device. My paper dutifully assigned a story, and the morning it ran, the other hospital called to say they’d been using a device that did the same thing for the past year. When we followed up with the first hospital, they said their machine was from a different manufacturer, so they actually did have the “first” device of “this kind” in the state. That answer was, to be polite, total crap, and it made everyone skeptical of their PR department for years.

The lesson: Make sure you don’t bend the truth, leave out pertinent facts or oversell your news. If you do, and you’re caught, you may never fully recover the trust you lose.

If  you follow these steps and your release gets published or becomes the basis of a news story, let me know. Just don’t tell me you are “pleased to announce” the news.

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The care and feeding of a potential brand evangelist

I miss Nancy.

Not that I ever met her face-to-face, but we spoke on the phone many times when I was editor of a weekly newspaper.

Nancy (not her real name) was, depending on your perspective, a pain-in-the-neck old lady or the conscience of our brand. I prefer to think of her as the latter, although, admittedly, getting a call from her on deadline could sometimes change my opinion, briefly.

In a nutshell, Nancy would call me up when something was wrong in the newspaper. Usually, a church listing concerning her congregation, but sometimes complaints about why we put the story about the teenage drinking party on the front page and the story about a local teen volunteering for City Year on the back.

A younger, more tightly wound colleague couldn’t stand hearing from her, but to me, she was something the newspaper had far too few of – a reader who cared deeply about her community and her local paper.

Our first chat concerned a messed up church listing. In it, she explained that she first went to the church secretary and the pastor, who told her that they didn’t bother calling the paper because they didn’t think we cared about things like church listings. Nancy told them she’d take care of it, and she called me straight away. When she explained the chain of events to me, I thanked her for caring enough to let me know. I explained to her that the newspaper wanted to know when it was doing something wrong, and too many people would rather badmouth us over an error than actually contact us to get it fixed. I invited her to call me anytime she saw something wrong or had a question.

She took me up on the offer.

I didn’t really think about it in marketing terms at the time, but in hindsight Nancy was a critic who cared enough about the product to become a brand evangelist.

Just from talking to her, I knew she wasn’t one to mince words and that she gladly shared her opinion with anyone who would listen, so I knew that if we fixed any mistakes she pointed out or gave her a reasonable explanation of how and why we played certain stories, she’d tell her neighbors that the paper really cared about getting things right and making reasoned decisions.

I didn’t do this to turn her into a brand evangelist. I did it because it was the right thing to do, and any editor or reporter who blows off people like Nancy is shooting themself in the foot.

Even though about 80 percent of what Nancy called me about concerned things we were doing wrong – or what she thought we were doing wrong – I found myself enjoying our chats. She was always civil and pleasant – it was like chatting with my grandmother. On many occasions, we agreed to disagree, but we always ended out conversation on a friendly note.

So what’s the point of this trip down memory lane? It should be obvious. Every brand has its Nancys, and every organization needs to realize that they aren’t necessarily the enemy.

15 ideas in 15 minutes: A Slice of NH

A pair of good friends recently started a really cool blog – A Slice of New Hampshire.

Their self-stated goal – “Touring the Granite State to create the ultimate guide for the ultimate food” – is to eat their way through the state’s pizza joints, one pie at a time.

Their site is a work in progress. Over a recent lunch (surprisingly, not pizza), I offered to share a few suggestions with them and they agreed to let me blog about it.

The shtick of this post is that I only gave myself 15 minutes to tool around the site and I had to come up with at least 15 viable, not-too-difficult ideas concerning design, content, or marketing.

Here goes:

1. Give the most recent review a more “centerpiece-style” look to give the home page more impact.

2. Whether you go to a centerpiece module or not, there are too many reviews on the home page. Try limiting the home page to four or five posts, tops.

3. Even if you’re unable to consistently go statewide, try to get a bigger geographic sampling of reviews. Maybe plan weekend getaways to the North Country, Upper Valley, Keene, etc. and hit a couple places that way. Maybe as a gimmick, go to the northernmost and southernmost pizza places in the state.

4. Once you get more geographically spread out, a Google map of the state with push-pins marking places you reviewed would be cool. In the short term, add a Google map to each review page so people can get directions easily if they want to act on your recommendations.

5. Create a gallery for all the pizza photos you have. Ask readers to share their pizza photos, too. Maybe take some funny shots with slices arranged like Pac-Man or a Jack-O-Lantern and/or ask readers to submit their own creative “pizza art.”

6. A weekly poll question would be fun for the home page – pepperoni or sausage, all veggies vs. all meat, etc.

7. Add a Twitter feed to the open spot on the right rail of the home page that tracks any references to @pizzanh.

8. A couple design tweaks: On the little wrap-around banner above each review, take the hyperlink to the home page off your names, it makes it really hard to read with the red background and since you are the only two reviewers you really don’t need a link there. Also, the plus-sign graphics next to the county names makes me think they would open a collapsible list, which they don’t. Use a different kind of bullet.

9. At the end of the reviews, put a “rate this review” widget so people who don’t want to leave a comment can still participate in the conversation.

10. Think about adding videos – maybe interview a pizza chef about secrets a home cook can use, or do a tongue-in-cheek video showing the best way to eat cold pizza. Nothing fancy, just fun.

11. In terms of monetizing the blog, try selling ads. You can also offer to post full menus of places you reviewed for an annual fee.

12. Notify a pizza place after you review them positively and invite them to post the review on their bulletin board – it’s a free ad for your site.

13. When you review a place or two in a new geographic area, send a news release to the local paper. If they run anything, it’s free PR for the site.

14. Offer your reviews to print publications, such as Hippo Press or the Union Leader’s NH Weekend to build influence and reach for your blog. You could also try to land a weekly gig on a morning radio program.

15. Find and link to all other NH-related food sites and see if you can get links back to your site. Also, if there are any sites that list NH blogs, add your blog to the list.

Take an inbound marketing approach to crisis management

You’ll never face a crisis as big as the one BP is mired in, but no matter how well you do what you do, chances are your business will someday be involved in an unfortunate situation.

And when that crisis hits, here’s the absolute best PR and marketing advice you can get: Come clean.

Why? Because the genie is already out of the bottle. Problems ignored or downplayed have a way of getting worse – and of bleeding away the trust and goodwill you’ve been working years to build.

Once you’re in crisis mode, nothing can do you more harm than trying to “manage” the problem. It’s better to explain how the problem occurred, explain your response to the problem, and, most importantly, fix the problem.

If you look at crisis management from an inbound marketing perspective, this is a no-brainer. But it sure as hell wasn’t obvious to BP (and many other corporations, politicians and entertainers in recent years). Through inbound marketing, you are providing your audience with the information they need to succeed. You are finding out what they care about and creating content that helps them. You are not interrupting them with a sales pitch and the hype that accompanies traditional marketing efforts.

So why don’t more organizations go this route? Because in a crisis, you revert to old habits, which typically involve circling the wagons, lying on the ground and hoping people don’t notice that anything is wrong. And in a Web 2.0 world, that’s a recipe for failure because plenty of people are going to notice, and social media gives them the tools to tell an exponential amount of others.

Of course none of this really matters in BP’s case. The gulf spill is too big to not poison their brand and no amount of transparency could change that. But for your business, if you have a software bug, or a security breach, or some other embarrassing situation, a rapid, transparent response is your best strategy.

Think about it – your customers thought enough of you and your product or service to buy it. They will certainly be more understanding and forgiving if you alert them to an issue and take immediate steps to make it right than if they find out about the problem from a third party.

And from a media relations perspective, nothing stops the news cycle better than complete disclosure (How many second-day stories have you seen about Company X or politician Z not fully coming clean? Too many for it to happen to you.)

So there you have it, the simple secret to dealing with a crisis: Come clean quickly. Come clean constructively. And come clean completely.

Oh, and one last thing, don’t ever refer to your audience as “small people.”

The social media magnifying glass

I’d like to thank Pete’s Tire Barn for today’s lesson on how, thanks to social media, treating a customer well can be worth its weight in marketing gold.

A few weeks back, when I was getting my riding lawnmower ready for spring, I found that the front tire had gone flat over the winter. It was a tubeless tire and, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t create enough air pressure for the tire to seal itself to the rim.

I brought the tire to Pete’s – having no prior experience with the business – because it was the closest tire shop to my house. I expected to end up paying a few bucks for getting the tire inflated.

The guy at the front desk took the tire out back, filled it with air, and handed it back to me in about 42 seconds. When I asked him how much, he said it was on the house.

Granted, it took him all of 42 seconds, but I’ve dealt with places in the past that would still charge you for something minor. If he asked me for two or three bucks, I’d have gladly paid and gone on my way; after all, he provided a service that I couldn’t replicate on my own. (Heck, I had to pay 75 cents for air at a mini-mart only to find out that their compressor couldn’t provide any more pressure than my hand pump!). Now, if he asked me for $10, I would have felt taken advantage of and made a mental note not to go back there for anything.

Instead, for the “price” of some free air and 42 seconds labor, Pete’s Tire Barn got a shout-out from me on Facebook (and in this blog post and in the link I’ll put on Twitter to this blog post). On top of that, Pete’s is on my radar the next time I need tires.

In the past, an experience like this may have stayed with the individual customer, but now, thanks to the magnifying glass of social media, these touchpoints can have far wider reach.

In fact, as I was thinking about whether this experience was enough to hang a blog post on, two more examples appeared a few hours apart on my Facebook news feed. One friend was thanking an auto glass company that replaced his six-month-old windshield for free after it was cracked by a rock and another friend was calling out a gym for making her jump through ridiculous hoops to cancel her membership.

Both of these messages had a greater impact – for better and for worse – on my future buying decisions than any commercial, print ad, website, billboard or direct mail piece I’ll ever see from either of these businesses. My experience at Pete’s may have a similar impact on some of my friends.

So, what’s the lesson here? It’s obvious: Businesses that understand this will own the future.

I was Bruce Ismay on Twitter

I conceived and implemented my first live Twitter event in less than a day last week. It didn’t work out nearly as well as I hoped, but I still think it has some potential.

Potential for what, I have no idea.

Maybe it’s the next Fake AP Stylebook or maybe it’s clever enough that an employer will see it and hire me on the spot. Of course, that’s not why I did it. This was just for fun, which, it seems to me, is how a lot of good things start out.

Anyway, flash back to last Tuesday night, when I saw a reference about the April 15 anniversary of the Titanic sinking from someone I follow on Twitter. Somehow, I got the idea that it would be fun if I could get a bunch of my friends to create Twitter accounts representing real people on the Titanic, spend a few minutes researching who they were, and then tweet in real time for a few hours leading up to when the ship went down (2:20 a.m., April 15, 1912).

I figured that I knew enough quick wits with a penchant for gallows humor – i.e. current or former journalists – and other assorted wise-acres that if we could reach a critical mass, we could share some laughs.

I made the pitch on Facebook, sending a message to a dozen or so friends. Or course, since I thought this up at 8 p.m. on a work night – which also was the night when “Lost” had a new, Hurley-centric episode and “Glee” was back after a four-month hiatus – I didn’t have a lot of success reaching people and only got three others to play along.

It wasn’t enough to make the event, which was a little too heavy on foreshadowing and a little to light on really killer tweets, super memorable. Still, I’m grateful for their efforts, which produced exchanges like this:

You can click here to see the whole thread or search Twitter for the hashtag #titanicsinking.

Now, this being the Internet and all, I’m 99 percent certain someone else already came up with the idea doing limited-duration, real-time historical parodies/reenactments. However, a non-exhaustive Google search only turned up examples of ongoing parodies and legitimate historical reenactments on Twitter, which I already knew about as a follower of “UK War Cabinet.”

So, what’s the future for these events? I’d like to try to do others with more lead time and see how they turn out. The one that comes to mind right now is the fiftieth anniversary of Election Day 1960 (“AmbassadorK: @jfk – Mayor D says people are ‘dying’ to vote for you in Chicago, wink wink”).

Anyone have other ideas?

Dear Facebook: Knock it off

In the pre-YouTube era that future generations will regard (incorrectly) with pity, I got hooked on watching Laurel and Hardy movies on my local UHF station.

In one my favorites, “Utopia” (also released as “Atoll K”), Stan and Ollie and a few others end up shipwrecked on an atoll that magically pokes up out of the ocean. The group forms a new country – Robinson Crusoeland – with no laws, no taxes and no government. When word of the new nation gets out, crooks, bums and other lowlifes descend on the place, take over and sentence our heroes to the gallows. (p.s. They survive, even though it ended up being their last film.)

For some reason, the plot reminds me of Facebook.

No, thousands of people haven’t taken over the company to push their own selfish ends. They don’t have to. The company seems to be doing it for them – at the expense of the “utopia” where one could keep up with friends, both current and long-lost, and not be bothered.

These days, it seems every other week brings us a minor redesign or a change in the privacy settings, which were hard enough to figure out in the first place. These minor tweaks, which seem cryptic or annoying to most of us – such as changing “Become a fan” to “Like”  and the whole Facebook Connect idea – are geared to making it easier for businesses to use the site as a marketing tool. (Before the “Fan/Like” tweak, Facebook alerted advertisers that “Like” links offer “a simple, consistent way for people to connect with the things they are interested in … in fact, people click ‘Like’ almost two times more than they click ‘Become a Fan’ everyday,” according to an e-mail obtained by MediaMemo.)

Now, I’m a huge believer in social media marketing, with its emphasis on creating value, providing solutions and building community. In fact, this is about the only sort of marketing that actually appeals to me as a consumer.

 Yet … Something about Facebook’s recent steps rubs me the wrong way. I want a business to earn its way into my consciousness, not sneak in – and I think many social media marketers might agree .

Trust and respect are a big deal, and Facebook isn’t doing anyone any favors by trying to game the system.