Two press-release e-mails that landed in my inbox last season illustrate both the good and the bad of strategies to catch the attention of a journalist. One is effective in several ways and one is a good example of what will send your bit of news straight to the round file.
Hi Carey: As part of Heritage Foods’ No Goat Left Behind program (link) to create demand for male goat meat, [Restaurant X] will purchase a whole male goat once a week in October. [Chef G] will prepare weekend specials each week with the goat, creating 10 different goat dishes over the course of the month. Are you interested in doing a slideshow of [Restaurant X]'s goat dishes, or even just including one or two of them in a roundup of restaurants serving goat dishes? [Restaurant X] is not the only restaurant participating in this initiative.
Hi Carey: [Chef O] is inviting diners to discover his unique culinary creations through five exquisitely prepared and artfully presented courses on his new Fall Menu ($P) at [Restaurant Y]. Transforming the entire dining experience into a deliciously personal affair between the diner and the chef, the restaurant is now offering housemade bread and a sumptuous amuse-bouche, along with intricate yet minimalist dishes that highlight locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. [7 sentences on menu dishes] So if you’re looking for a truly exquisite fine-dining experience prepared by one of the most innovative chefs in the city, [Restaurant Y]'s autumn offerings will leave you more than satisfied.
On a quick read, these two aren't that different. Both of these tell me about a new menu offering at an acclaimed New York restaurant. But one resulted in an elaborate article featuring Restaurant X's dishes. The other was filed into my "bad press releases to write about" e-mail folder (yes, I do have one).
What separates a good press release from a bad one? Let's take a look.
1. Know the publication
Serious Eats readers are interested in animals they don't see every day (goat). They like bigger-picture tie-ins. (Male goats are rarely used? Most readers don't know that.) They love seeing what different chefs around the city are doing with a certain ingredient. So "a round-up of restaurant goat dishes" is a dead-on pitch, and exactly the article we did. (This happened to come from a PR firm, but it would have been just as good coming the restaurant itself.)
On the other hand, Restaurant Y wants us to know about their fall menu, which is useful, I suppose. But we'd never do an article simply saying "Restaurant Y updated its menu," because restaurants do that all the time. "Housemade bread and a sumptuous amuse-bouche" is not newsmaking. Is there anything we can write about? Suggest a way in, because we don't see one.
2. Inform, don't promote
The first press release didn't promise that "Chef G will prepare mindblowingly delicious specials that change the way you think of the humble goat forever." It didn't promise that "Restaurant X is doing the best goat dishes in the city, bar none." It simply mentioned the special goat project.
From there, we took the idea and ran with it. But because we researched, tried and photographed each restaurant dish, it was a good idea that turned into an article. It was not us trusting the PR firm that their restaurant was worth writing about.
Let's look at Restaurant Y. Nothing but opinion. We hear about a "truly exquisite fine-dining experience," "one of the most innovative chefs in the city," "exquisitely prepared and artfully presented courses." (Yes, that's two exquisites in about as many sentences.)
But who are we hearing this from? The source itself. It's silly for a journalist to trust a restaurant or PR firm's opinion of its own (or its client's) product.
That's why information trumps opinion every time. Don't try to sell yourself.
Think of it like a dating profile. Are you going to kick off with "I'm brilliant, witty, dashingly handsome, an incomparable lover, and women can't get enough of me?" Or are you going to write something about yourself that gently showcases your personality? Show, don't tell.
3. Understand your business in context
The biggest strength of the first press release is that, by acknowledging that we also write about other restaurants, the writer created an opportunity for the agency's client. Ultimately, our article concerned the different goat dishes around the city, with two of theirs making it in. It's not an article about their restaurant only.
By presenting an idea that acknowledged the broader reality of restaurants around the city, and tapping into what readers actually want to know about, the writer of the e-mail opened a door for that restaurant.
Is there a risk that we'll just steal the idea and ignore the restaurant? Perhaps, but it's better to take that risk than present an unusable idea.
On the other hand, the second release just pounds on about Restaurant Y, Restaurant Y, Restaurant Y, without any context.
The second release could have pitched an article about the best new fall dishes from high-end New York restaurants, including Restaurant Y. Or, an article about unusual presentations of foie gras, like the foie "sandwich" at Restaurant Y. Maybe suggest a look at six new pastry chefs, including the new chef at Restaurant Y.
There's no guarantee that we would have written about any of these. But at least it gets the wheels turning, so we're thinking, "Hmm, Restaurant Y might be interesting in this larger article." Not "Too many words about Restaurant Y." Delete.
4. Don't be weird
"Transforming the entire dining experience into a deliciously personal affair between the diner and the chef" is what really earned this press release a one-way ticket to my bad-press-release archives.
5. Make it a conversation, not a one-way wall
Let's be clear about this: Starting off a pitch with a fake personalized "Hi editor! How was your weekend?? Ugh, the Mondays!" is 10 times worse than a pitch that doesn't seem directed at the reader personally.
But the first press release strikes a casual balance: "I have an idea about this restaurant I know well" and "I think it'd be a good idea, but I'd like to hear what you think." It targets our magazine: "This is just for your publication. E-mail me back if you want to chat." Whereas the second is just a firehose of information and a song-and-dance show about the virtues of Restaurant Y.
Whether you're the PR firm or the owner or manager of the restaurant, remember that you're positioning yourself as a resource for media. Not a commercial for the place.