In 1906, Ivy Lee invented media management by distributing the story of a railway accident from the perspective of his company. He got his key messages out to journalists and in so doing pre-empted their own take on the story. What a great idea!
For one hundred years, press releases might as well have been stamped “For Journalists’ Eyes Only.” Recently, this workhorse of the PR toolkit has been transformed from a piece of paper in a reporter’s hands to a digitalized message. In terms of form, function and content, this has been a game-changer.
“If Ivy Lee were alive today, he’d revamp his own creation. PR professionals must realize that they are no longer writing exclusively for journalists. Their audience has expanded to everyone with an Internet connection.” – Michelle Sullivan, president of Michelle Sullivan Communications
Writing for the public means adjusting content, language, tone and voice.
Here are some of the new rules PR practitioners should take into consideration when they craft a press release.
- Create content that anticipates the end-user’s questions and answers them. It can’t be all about “me, my company, my product, my goals”. No one cares.
- Speak with the voice of your brand. For example, when “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” changed his name (his brand, really) to a custom symbol, traditional media didn’t pick it up. On his own website, he is free to brand himself anything he likes.
- Choose and reuse your words carefully. Text must contain the magic words or combination of words that work to amplify reach. Key words, 1-3 words long, have to be determined and included in the headline, sub-heading and body of the text.
- Use simple language that everyone understands and craft headlines carefully as they must appeal to a broad audience. Keep it short.
Formatting is key to getting your message across.
The best written press is worthless if no one sees it: that’s nothing new. Today’s online version has an easier time of it when optimized for search. This means including titles that make the 140-character cut off for Twitter as well as key words, hyperlinks, bullet-points and headings.
Looks count more than ever.
The essential add-on used to be photographs. Now it is multimedia. “Multimedia content is a big plus, given the very visual nature of the internet,” according to Michelle Sullivan. Research shows the video press release gets 55% more views and 36% more link clicks.1 All news outlets – TV, magazines, newspapers – now include a visual component. The press release is news, too, and should follow suit.
Perhaps the biggest change to the modern press release is in its distribution and tracking. No more licking of stamps, printing of papers or development of photos. No more emailing or faxing to individuals. Best of all, no more combing periodicals, scissors in hand, in order to track publication. And good riddance. Today, analytics takes care of all that.
In my opinion, no tweaking will ever replace clear, concise writing and solid information as the basis of a successful press release. Reach remains key – that hasn’t changed. The biggest change is in terms of the skillset required to succeed. In the words of Sherrilynne Starkie, vice-president of Thornley Fallis Communications, “Successful digital PR takes the skills of a journalist, the attitude of a publisher, the expertise of a data analyst, the eye of a graphic designer and the internet savviness of an IT pro.”2