The 7 deadly sins of bad press releases
Updated: Aug 27, 2018
People spend thousands of dollars a year on press releases with little to show for it...because they're bad. Press releases often happen because someone in the company--usually an older executive--thinks they're supposed to have one, because that's just how it's done. This person will have some vague expectation of press coverage from it, but little understanding of how that coverage actually happens. And then it doesn't happen.
Here's why: your press releases are probably awful. Most are. Luckily, it's likely because of one--or all--7 reasons below, which are easily fixed. Note that these tips are for companies looking to get press coverage from a release. Putting a release across the wire simply to impress your investors or scare your competitors is common, but that limited purpose and audience isn't what I'm addressing here.
The press release alone isn't going to result in a story in most cases. Instead, it's your way in to talk to a journalist. It's a conversation-starter. And like real-life conversations, you need to be personable, valuable, and interesting. Just like you wouldn't start a conversation with a stranger at a bar by droning on for 5 minutes about how successful and great you are, you shouldn't be overly self-serving and one-sided in a press release. Get the reader to like you and your announcement and they're more likely to call you up for an interview.
Sin 1. It doesn't quote the right people.
The typical press release features a higher-up saying something non-exciting and usually too wordy to tweet. Not only does this approach fail to increase credibility, but it's boring.
But what's both interesting and adds credibility is quoting a neutral third party who's an expert on the topic of your announcement, like a doctor, VC, professor, or researcher. If they're willing to vouch for you, you're more appealing. Even better: getting the expert's permission to be available to speak to interested journalists and including their contact info in the release.
Quotes in press releases are generally helpful, so I'm not saying that you should never quote company execs. Just strive to support them with a valuable outside perspective. And don't do this:
Recap: he said "unique" twice in two lines consecutive lines and used faulty parallelism while saying nothing remotely interesting. Sorry, Richard.
Sin 2. It's too self-serving
Vanity is the number-one killer of press releases. Sure, some amount of egotism is unavoidable in press releases; it's actually kind of the point. But there's a difference between confidence and nauseating self-importance. Use your gut as a communications pro to walk that line.
Here's a bad one. Saying that you're at the forefront of something with a product that you call "perfect," and with no apparent reason for the release other than patting yourself on the back, isn't cool.
Sin 3. It doesn't get to the point
Make your most important point in the first sentence. Make it in the first part of the first sentence. The average Internet user has the attention span of a gnat, and they aren't wading through nearly the deluge of content that journalists are.
Ask yourself what the absolute most important point of your announcement is, get it out immediately, and use enough detail so it's clear what it actually is.
I'm going to pick on this company as an example of what not to do. Notice it's three entire paragraphs before you have any idea what their new products do. Even then, their description is pretty vague:
Sin 4. It's not tweetable
Press release language is gluttonous. Journalists and readers are scanning quickly for that one small, easily digestible morsel that they can tweet or share elsewhere that captures the point of your announcement. Make it easy for them with a killer opening sentence (see Sin #3 above) or a bulleted list of key points, keeping everything under 140 characters. Or be bolder and end the release with a noticeable (indented, larger font size, outlined, etc.) section with a "copy and share" CTA somewhere above the boilerplate section.
Make sure your tweetable bite doesn't contain a self-serving chunk, or people will feel awkward sharing it. Always play down the self-compliments and play up the facts. For example, instead of saying "Badgeville, the #1 gamification platform, doubles year-over-year revenue," say "Gamification company Badgeville doubles year-over-year-revenue in 2013."
Sin 5. The title is too long
Google only displays 65 characters of press release titles, so anything longer is missed or--even worse--confusing when it's cut off and leaves a fragmented headline. Be brief.
Sin 6. You're not using key phrases and words
Don't be so focused on our company and your news that you forget to step back and include relevant words and phrases that provide context. What's happening in the world right now that relates to your announcement? Which famous companies or people frequently come up in your industry, like Eric Schmidt and Facebook for privacy? What important event or holiday is approaching and can be tied to your release, like Black Friday or a big movie premiere? Many journalists will stumble upon releases through keyword searches, so include things that people are talking and writing about.
Sin 7. It's boring
Don't commit the cardinal sin of press releases: putting your reader to sleep. Actually, they won't stick around long enough for that; they'll click off the page within seconds of their eyes glazing over.
How do you avoid being boring? You should know this. Be human. Talk like a professional person without using business jargon. Tell a story, and make the people you quote your characters. Get to details and specifics quickly. And most of all, have something worth announcing…unlike this gem:
A company put out a release just to say that some guy came to their office. Like, a dude stopped by, and they mobilized their entire communications team to pay over a thousand dollars to tell the world about this.
I'll leave you with two closing thoughts. First, consider not doing a press release at all. There's good reason why some of the top companies in the world, like Google and Facebook, have stopped doing traditional releases and simply post updates on their own blogs: it's free, and the format lets them more comfortably use their own tone in their own space. If they want to spread news, they email the post to journalists and their usual audience sees it organically.
Second, you may get stuck with a CEO who's set on a release with very specific title and language, and you won't be able to argue your way out of eliminating these sins. But it's okay: at least you'll know how to do it right when you're in charge.