Category Archives: Journalism

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.

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.

It’s about them (i.e. content strategy)

My local paper ran a story last week asking members of the state’s congressional delegation – and the people who hope to run against them in November – where they stood on the recently passed health care bill.

Guess what?

All the Democrats were for it and all the Republicans were against it.

Not only that, they all sounded the same common talking points echoing across the media landscape. And they weren’t even that colorful about it.

Now, I’m not writing to mock my local paper or the reporter who wrote the article, what I’m trying to mock is the journalism groupthink that considers this is news, or, to put a finer point on it, useful news.

If I know what everyone is going to say in an article before I read it, why should I read it? There’s so little time to spend on anything, I want to spend time on things that matter to me.

How about using the space taken up by that article to run a Q&A or analysis from a wire service that might actually help readers understand the bigger picture or learn something they didn’t know? How about giving the reporter a few more days to dig into how the bill would actually impact the state or region?

Yes, I’m talking about a specific industry here – journalism, which faces daily deadlines that many other organizations don’t – but this issue can affect any business trying to create content.

Putting something up just to “fill a hole” doesn’t serve you or your audience. The value of your content is proportional to how useful it is to your customers: Tell them something they don’t know, and why it matters to them.

What you want, baby, I got it

A new post by Gina Chen on the Neiman Journalism Lab points out something obvious that not everyone gets: convenience plus content equals customer loyalty.

The post describes how useful it was to learn that her kids had a snow day via a free text alert service provided by a local TV station and how the station, while not directly making any money off her, earned a lot of goodwill by giving her the information “the way I wanted it and when I wanted it.”

While point of the post is that one way for news organizations to remain relevant and useful is by focusing on user’s needs, the concept can – and should – apply to any organization seeking to strengthen its brand.

Again, neither she nor I are saying this is a radical concept, but all you have to do is look around to know that not everyone gets it.

Content is still king

A few days ago, I wrote that there are actually places journalists can use their skills beyond the newsroom and, voila, this post by someone who knows more about this stuff than I do – Kristina Halvorson , blogging on Brain Traffic – comes along to bolster my opinion. 

While the post is about developing a content strategy, not specifically about hiring journalists, it’s no secret that many of the demands of managing a sustainable content marketing strategy require people skilled in writing, editing and reporting on multiple platforms (i.e. journalists). 

 This passage struck me the most:

“Content strategy is more or less on the same trajectory as social media was three years ago. Why?

“I think it’s because the reality of social media initiatives—that they’re internal commitments, not advertising campaigns—has derailed more than a few organizations from really implementing effective, measurable programs. Most companies can’t sustain social media engagement because they lack the internal editorial infrastructure to support it.”

At first blush, this sounds great to a newshound like me. “Editorial infrastructure” is what I’ve been doing for years, and, regardless of the platform, the basic tenets of good content development are fairly consistent. If you don’t believe me, check out these blogging and content development tips, which touch on many of the same concepts you’d get in a Journalism 101 course. (And that’s meant as a compliment.)  

Then again, good content costs money. Are businesses willing to pony up to put a sustainable long-term content strategy in place? Or will behavioral ad targeting or some other technological magic bullet – perhaps paying Ashton Kutcher to mention your product on Twitter – provide a bigger ROI and thereby make content irrelevant?

Thankfully, I don’t see that happening. And I’m not alone: Among the findings in a recent study by the Custom Publishing Council, “78% of respondents reported that branded content is more effective than advertising.”

Migrating journalist

For a group that’s supposed to be up to speed on everything, a significant number of my journalist friends give me blank expressions when I talk about the explosion of content-producing jobs outside the newsroom.

Of course, I’m not pointing fingers. I can’t. Not that long ago, I was one of them.

After a recent layoff, I decided I needed to make a clean break with traditional journalism. The first thing I did was develop a job search plan that included a heavy dose of networking. Luckily, I’m one of those people who have never burned a bridge in my life. (If I were a German sapper in World War II, Patton would have been in Berlin before FDR even got to Yalta.)

I contacted as many former colleagues as I could, and one of them, who has been in the tech sector for nearly a decade, met me for breakfast at a hole in the wall in Milford, N.H. It was there – a few feet from a stool that had “Gore sat here” written on the leg in permanent marker – that he used two words that I’d never heard together before: content marketing.

He gave me a brief overview of how organizations are cutting back on traditional advertising models and outreach to traditional media to focus on creating compelling, meaningful content on their own Web sites and through social media. He explained that this marketing revolution has many different names – custom publishing, branded media, customer media, etc. – but that the common thread was the need for people who could develop and create useful information that strengthens the relationship between the content provider and the content producer, whether the provider was a business, a university, or a nonprofit.

Whoa, I thought, I can do that. Not only that, I can be excited about doing that.

When I later mentioned this to my newspaper friends – and even a friend of mine who’s a former journalism professor – they gave me a puzzled look. But the more I learned, the more I saw this is a great new career opportunity for someone with my skill set, and, just as importantly, my personality.

I’m learning that many of the things that drew me to journalism – the rush of deadline, the fun of trying new things and building a community, the joy of hanging out with smart, clever people and learning something new every day – aren’t exclusive to a newsroom. In fact, as newsrooms have been decimated by layoffs and attrition, those remaining smart, clever people are too damn busy bailing water to have much time left over to do the meaningful, fun things that drew them to the business in the first place. That’s not to say they aren’t trying, but the odds keep growing exponentially against them.

So, where does this leave me? I’m learning more every day and finding that many of the skills I though were unique to journalism – finding and telling interesting stories, organizing complex content into useful packages, engaging an audience – aren’t going anywhere; they’re just transitioning into another vehicle – one that I can’t wait to help drive.