Dying for some recognition

27 February 2006

Determined that the PR industry should not escape unscathed from carnage in the world of newsprint, Tom Foremski has demanded the execution of the press release, everyone's least favourite mode of communication, unless it gets a serious makeover. In the same way that PR predates an independent press - think roaming minstrels telling tales of derring-do - I suspect PR will have an easier time of post-press communication than Foremski believes. But that does not mean that I think the release is destined for much else than as search-engine fodder.

On the subject of news, Journalists often talk of the inverted pyramid. It is the only structure you need to know about when writing news - and is best avoided for any other type of article. You get the important stuff out in the first paragraph. Everything after that is just layer upon layer of progressively finer-grained detail. Press releases rarely follow this structure. Most of them are more like icebergs. The bit you can see does not give you any idea what the story really is.

Foremski identifies the DNA of the useless release:

They typically start with a tremendous amount of top-spin, they contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes. Often they will contain quotes from C-level executives praising their customer focus. They often contain praise from analysts, (who are almost always paid or have a customer relationship.) And so on...

I have never been particularly unhappy with this state of affairs. There is something unsettling about receiving a press release so well put together there is nothing you can do but run it unchanged short of finding a completely different story buried inside it. If spin removal is the only thing you have to do as a journalist, then life is very easy, if a bit dull. The most troublesome releases are those that promise much but deliver little. These are the timewasters. You see the germ of a story in its first paragraph but after a little analysis you suddenly realise that it's not an iceberg at all but a piece of jetsam. There is no story there, just some vague intention. You could argue the spin strategy worked, albeit temporarily. And, clearly, some stories get to print that held together before anyone realises that the underlying content does not hold it up.

Foremski's prescription is simple enough: let the substance speak for itself. Don't spin, just state. Get rid of the canned CEO quotes explaining how pleased everyone is in Company X about their latest launch. And provide a load of backup material ready for assimilation into a finished story that fits the audience profile. However, I can't see how anyone is going to abide by these new rules, notwithstanding the fact that quote sheets are used in some releases. I can't see why a quote sheet full of canned, approved quotes is so much better than having them in the release. Live interviews are always going to trump pre-canned material of this kind whatever happens - and this is where most releases fall down, as all too often the people you need to talk to suddenly get all coy.

Putting tags in releases to make things such as inter-quarter financial comparisons easier is all very well - and that can be done to some extent using XBRL today. But I can't see how PRs and their clients necessarily gain. Take a financial release, for example. These can be works of arts in their attempts at legerdemain. A rule of thumb when dealing with any financial results release is to look at the first paragraph and work out what information is missing. Nothing on profits? Oh dear, sounds like they are down. Pro-forma prominent? Extensive pumping of EBITDA results? Regular metrics not looking so healthy. But if the release can convince an observer that operating profits matter more than net profits, well, I guess you cannot blame someone for trying.

And it is what happens to today's releases that determines the shape of future releases. If some PRs get away with positive spin with no substance, they are going to keep at it. The unfortunate truth is that PR is involved in a game of follow the leader - we reached the situation we are in because people who put together the first releases using the format that Foremski decries worked. Why is the language of the release so stilted? Because people look at the releases of the market leaders and copy what they see. "Well that works, let's do that," they can muse to themselves.

Following the market leaders is a poor strategy for new entrants. They have no reputation, no-one is following them. They need to stand out. But I doubt that any PR company will move away from what works unless an alternative turns out to deliver extraordinary results. And spin is inherent in the act of putting out a release. Companies only put out bad news release if they really have to. Named executives join with a fanfare through the front door, and are ushered quietly out the back with a binbag of personal effects. PR is not a public service: it exists to portray the client in the most positive light possible. If transparency works, then PRs will use it. But many companies do reasonably well on a diet of opaque announcements. It remains up to those outside the company - whether journalists, bloggers, activists and other parties - to work out what is going on.

In the meantime, I am going to stick with my current strategy. Ninety percent of all releases are of no value to me. I don't spend a lot of time, therefore, trying to decipher them.

3 Comments

Excellent. "90 percent of all press releases are of no value to me." And to most others too. What a colossal wasted effort. But I guess it doesn't matter because the client pays the bill, assuming the PR professionals are doing something useful!

It's certainly a wasted effort. But I'm not sure that it's a new thing. I don't reckon the proportion of ditched releases has changed all that much in 10, maybe 15 years.

But I think the number will rise to close to 100 per cent for most journalists not this year, not next year, but within several years as disaggregation in media takes hold. But I think PRs will still be charging handsomely for what they do because the relationship between PR and the press is gradually being shaken loose.

Thanks for the comments.

I think that Swan feathers hold the ink so well and press releases are cute too.

Its also nice to see journalists going back to the Fleet where they can meet people again.

Next up, meetings in bars - wow!

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