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August 23, 2005

The Traditional Press Release Is Dead!

Our New Medium Needs A New Message
by B.L. Ochman

The Internet is the medium of instant communication, constant change, rocket speed. So why hasn't the message changed with the medium? Why is the format for electronic press releases the same as that of print?

What's next for online publicity?

A new format for a new medium.

This article pre-supposes that those writing press releases understand what constitutes news...that the content of releases are worthy of news coverage. In question here is how to transmit a message to fit the new medium.

Online, Time Is Everything
While the release on an 8½ by 11 inch page can be scanned with a glance, the electronic form of the same release requires scrolling. Says BusinessWeek marketing reporter Ellen Neuborne, "I hate having to scroll past contact information and the obligatory company description just to get to the subject of the release. Who has time to do that all day?"

Companies spend anywhere from $150 to $1,000 to have news distribution services send out each electronic press release. The results? Their headlines are listed by time of transmission along with hundreds of others sent that day on Business Wire, PR News Wire and other distribution services.

Clicking on a random sampling on Business Wire headlines shows releases with lead paragraphs containing 156, 94, 83 and 97 words. These are far too long for reading off a computer screen. Complete releases on Business Wire and PR Newswire average about 350 words on three 8½ inch wide, single-spaced screens. That is about 200 words too many!

Online, Time Is Everything
The Internet needs a new method of company information dissemination that fits the medium. But first a new form of Internet news release needs to be adopted.

One of the major problems with the formats allowed on BusinessWire and PR Newswire is that they were created for print releases. Both companies have simply moved their traditional print business to the Internet. However, one online press release distribution service -- XpressPress News Service -- currently will let you use a non-traditional, Internet-ready format.

Back in the pre-Web days, smart publicists knew that they had to format releases for radio stations differently than those for print. They were taught to format radio releases like 30-second scripts. Whether for print or broadcast, releases were double-spaced for easy reading on a maximum of 2 pages.

Any experienced publicist pitching a story by phone knows there is only a 30-second window of opportunity. That's how long you get to grab a journalist's attention. If your pitch interests the reporter, s/he will ask you to continue with your story. The same thing will happen after a reporter reads an Internet-ready press release.

Why shouldn't information-overloaded editors trying to wade through releases on their computer monitors be given the same consideration?

What new format will work?
What format would work better? Writing made-for-print press releases ignores the two chief constraints of reporters and editors - lack of time and the fact that they must read your information from a computer screen.

What's needed is a made-for-the-Internet press release format. Think of the electronic news release as a teaser to get a reporter or editor to your web site for additional information. Here's how the Internet-ready news release should work:

  • The lead paragraph of a release should state its point in 40 words or less. Of those 40 words, no more than six words should be used to describe what the company does.
  • Additional material about the company that is not directly related to the point of the story can be compiled in a separate paragraph below the lead or at the bottom of the page.
  • Writing style? Think of how you'd describe the story to a friend on a 30-second elevator ride. Pay attention to the way the stories on the nightly news are described during a 10-second commercial break on an earlier show. Listen carefully to the way radio news broadcasts relate the top stories of the day.
  • The lead should stand on its own as a description of the story. To learn how, study the home page of the online New York Times; page one of the interactive Journal or Yahoo! News Alerts. They all manage to tell what each story is about in a sentence or two. So can you.
  • Make your entire release a maximum of 200 words or less, in 5 short paragraphs.
  • Use the bulleted points "Who? What? Where? When? Why?" as paragraph headings
  • Write only two to three short sentences in each of the five paragraphs.
  • Above the headline or at the bottom of the release, be sure to provide a contact name, phone number, email address and URL for additional information.
  • If you have compiled your own media list, consider not using a press release at all, but rather a three-paragraph, short-sentence, e-mail pitch letter or memo. The only news release distribution service that will allow you to use a pitch letter or memo format at this time is http://www.XpressPress.com/.

It's not easy to write tight. Mark Twain summed it up best when he said "If I had more time I would have written less." Writing is about re-writing. And re-writing. Writing well takes time.

Respect today's reality: take the time to write less and make it mean more.

Want to win coverage? Start by throwing out the tattered old print press release. Write like you have 10 seconds to make a point. Because online, you do.

 

How good or bad has your experience been with press releases? Please write!BLOchman@whatsnextonline.com


About B.L. Ochman: Internet and Outernet marketing strategist, publicist, journalist and sought-after corporate speaker B.L. Ochman heads the creative team of whatsnextonline.com.
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