Press Release Cheat Sheet: 8 Fatal PR Flaws to Avoid

If you're committing one of these 8 fatal flaws with your press releases, you're killing more than your news—you're killing your reputation.
August 05, 2013

Every time you write a mediocre news release or misuse a well-written one, a basketful of kittens falls into a meat grinder.

So tell me—are you killing kittens with your less-than-professional press release tactics? To help you from killing one more kitten and, frankly, wasting your time writing press releases that won’t get read, I’ve created this press release cheat sheet. Let’s keep your news out of the digital trash by slaying all-too-common press release mistakes with some insider know-how.

I asked two PR pros—Doyle Albee, president of Metzger Associates in Boulder, Colorado, and Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment-Dietrich in Chicago—as well as career journalist Arik Hesseldahl, senior editor of AllThingsD in New York City, about their top press release pet peeves and how you can stop making them.

Writing Press Releases

Mistake #1: Your release has no style. You’d be better off not writing a press release if you’re just going to end up writing a crappy one. Press releases that get read are worth reading.

“Not only does the media expect and respect releases to be in AP style,” Albee says, “when a consumer finds your story in Google News, it should look like a professionally written news story.”

If you’re not up on proper punctuation and other grammar and usage guidelines, there are two books that can boost your know-how in no time: Elements of Style (free for Kindle) and The AP Stylebook Online (available for $26/year).

Mistake #2: Your release has too much style. When your press release goes through too many hands in the approval chain, messages can get muddied. I call this “peeing on the tree,” when everyone on the executive team has to put an edit in. Keep your approval chain to a bare minimum, agree on quotes in advance, and no—not everyone gets a say.

Pitching and Distributing Press Releases

Mistake #3: What you're sending isn't really news. “The boy who cried wolf? He grew up and now has a career in PR,” Albee says. Don’t send out a press release if your news isn’t news to anyone but you. When you send out an endless string of press releases, you’re training the press to tune out all of your releases and pitches.

Keep this in mind, especially if you’re an agency, when you have one client that insists on a high-volume press release strategy. Your compliance with your client’s wishes can put all of your clients at risk when your email address is blacklisted.

Mistake #4: You're using spray-and-pray tactics. Mass emails to a herd of bloggers and reporters don’t work either. Mass emails are nothing but the spray-and-pray of the PR world—it’s like using buckshot to kill gnats. Avoid this approach to getting media hits by getting personal. Dietrich recommends personalizing every pitch for every client—look up what they write about, find a relationship between what the writer covers and the news you have to offer, and use that in your pitch.

Mistake #5: You don't do your journalist or blogger research. And since we’re on the subject of getting personal, even the most brilliant press release will be deleted when you pitch it to the wrong person. “I’ll get press releases for some new smartphone game and the person sending it clearly isn't clued in to the fact that I cover enterprise IT,” Hesseldahl says. Details matter. Hesseldahl also recommends digging beyond the surface. Don’t just read the past couple articles someone’s written. Get a feel for the writer’s body of work with that particular publication. While it might appear that he covered a certain topic, he may have really only covered it once and it’s not in his general repertoire.  

Mistake #6: Your release is long-winded. The “lead” of a press release or article is the first one or two sentences. This is where you have to state your case and create your hook. Bottom line? If you can’t say what needs saying in one to two sentences, your press release isn’t ready to go out. And the honest truth is that no member of the media has time to read your gazillion-paragraph email with an attachment. Dietrich recommends using three sentences at most when you’re crafting pitch emails and trying to get the news that’s in your press release out there. “State what the pitch is about, why you feel it’s a good fit for the writer’s readership, and ask if they’d like more information. That’s it,” Dietrich says.

Mistake #7: You're not targeting the right industry reporters. “Great news pointed at the wrong target is also crap,” Albee says. “What's news to a reporter depends on many factors: beat, geography, other news/assignments on their plate, and the day’s news in general.” When sending out a press release or pitching news, make sure you’re connecting all the dots: industry, geography, news outlet, readership personality, writer personality and why your news is news to this specific audience.

Mistake #8: You have terrible timing. I consider insensitive timing to be the cardinal sin of press release distribution and media pitching in general. I wish I could say that I didn’t know the story about the client that wanted to know why their press release hadn’t gone out. The answer was the bombing at the Boston Marathon. The client’s response? “That’s in Boston—we’re in California! What does that have to do with us?” Everything. It has everything to do with “us.”

Regardless of whether or not any of us have news to disseminate, the world spins on. Tragedies happen, headlines are made, royal babies pop onto the scene. When those things happen, the media and bloggers alike go into a gridlock. They don’t really care about your news. And any PR professional worth their salt will tell you that they’re going to hold your news until it won’t be guaranteed to fall on deaf ears. They’ll also be protecting their relationships with journalists by not dropping your news in their inboxes. The last thing they need is to get blacklisted on account of an over-eager client.

Pop culture dictates what people will hear and when. Take your industry’s pulse alongside the world’s pulse—share news when both can stand a blip on the radar and not when the radar’s jammed with other deafening noise.

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