A few good releases

3 March 2006

Amid all the complaints of the appalling quality of most press releases - and the weary sighs of those who have heard the call for the death of the release once too often - it is easy to forget that, in some sectors, the information content of releases has remained pretty good. These rare beasts are written tightly and plainly enough for journalists work out their relevance with a skim through instead of having to work out what each phrase might mean. Some releases are still written as though they are news stories; the problem is that, in other sectors, this good style of release has been squashed by the corporate Nuspeak nightmare that always starts: "BigCo, Inc, the leader in high-mass total solutions, announces the availability of..."

The science research sector is one of the best examples of how the release can remain useful. So much so, that after lumping AlphaGalileo and Eurekalert into the main PR feed in NetNewsWire, I realised the error of my ways and put them in their own group so I can find them without wading through the other stuff - this is despite the fact that the feeds I use are not that precise in terms of the areas that I normally cover. The signal-ton-noise ratio is plenty good enough to inspect that group regularly. The rest of the releases can flounder in the main feed.

Science releases are not all paragons of good release style but, for the most part, I have no complaints about the way information is presented by the institutions that use services such as AlphaGalileo and Eurekalert to tell journalists (and anybody else) about their research work. One important factor in this is that a good number of universities employ specialist science writers to produce the releases, which are often formatted as stories that appear on the institution's own research-news pages. Those writers can often be the named first point of contact for journalists, or at least have their details provided alongside those of the lead researcher.

I picked out after a quick trawl through the feed something that would serve as an example. I won't pretend this is a random selection but I didn't cherrypick this one to back up my points. I just wanted one that I wasn't going to follow up (although, on reflection, it is something that could fit one of the mags I write for). It actually breaks a few news-style rules, but that doesn't matter because the important thing is that it gets its point across, fast:

Computer scientist sorts out confusable drug names

Was that Xanex or Xanax? Or maybe Zantac? If you're a health care professional you'd better know the difference--mistakes can be fatal.

An estimated 1.3 million people in the United States alone are injured each year from medication errors, and the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has been working to reduce the possibilities of these errors, such as a documented case in which a patient needed an injection of Narcan but received Norcuron and went into cardiac arrest.

A few years ago, the FDA turned to Project Performance Corporation (PPC), a U.S. software company, to ensure they don't approve the names of new drugs that may easily be confused with any one of the more than 4,400 drugs that have already been approved.

PPC looked at the problem and then, based on a tip from a professor at the University of Maryland, turned to Dr. Greg Kondrak, a professor in the University of Alberta Department of Computing Science.

"During my PhD research, I wrote a program called ALINE for identifying similar-sounding words in the world's languages. The program incorporates techniques developed in linguistics and bioinformatics," Kondrak said. "At the time some people criticized it because they felt it wouldn't ever have a practical application."

PPC analyzed Kondrak's program and felt it might help with their project. Kondrak gave them ALINE and then created a new program for them, BI SIM, which analyzes and compares the spelling of words.

PPC combined Kondrak's programs into a system that the FDA has been using for the past two years to analyze proposed drug names and rank them in terms of confusability, both phonetically and orthographically, with existing drugs...

Now, if you were feeling lazy, that is pretty much a fully formed story. There are some issues that would need following up, in reality. The number of people injured through medication errors is unsourced. It also sounds a little high for prescription drugs. However, there are a number of studies that contain that information. A medical journalist would have no problem identifying a suitable replacement figure, or to find the source for the 1.3 million (outside of checking with the author). Also, you would need to check with the FDA what stage this project is at: have drugs actually been renamed through the use of this program? However, that is not the point.

What is important is that the headline gets you in. If you are writing about IT or medicine, you know just from the headline as it appears in the list in your feed or email inbox, that this story could be for you. The first para neatly sums up the problem - you don't have to be a doctor to work out that confusable names are a problem in prescriptions. OK, you have to go to the third paragraph to get the 'what' and the 'who' of the story but, by this time, I've got an idea that this release is going somewhere.

The first quote is not wasted. It's not some guy saying how pleased he is that he is able to announce a world-leading solution. It tells you something. In this case, it gives you some history and a nice bit of colour - people thought the research had no application. Suddenly, there is a second possible angle on this story if the current top does not quite fit the bill for my magazine or newspaper. It could potentially fit into a wider feature about the demand for all technology research to have an identified application. Or collaboration: who was that professor at Maryland?

Now consider how it could have been:

Pharmaceutical naming solution helps FDA approval process

The University of Alberta is pleased to announce its collaboration with Project Performance Corporation (PPC), a leading consulting firm focusing on computer and internet e-Solutions and project delivery, in the successful delivery of a pharmaceutical naming solution for the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA).

Based on technology developed by researchers at the University of Alberta, PPC's solution is now in use at the FDA as part of a program to streamline the drug-approval process. The PPC solution analyses the names of pharmaceuticals for their differentiability from those of 4,400 compounds already available on the market.

"We are pleased to have played a key role in the FDA's program to improve the differentiability of pharmaceutical names," said (please fill in name and job title of made-up quote guy). "It demonstrates the power of collaboration between academic institutions and corporations. We look forward to other applications with regulatory agencies around the world."

PPC worked with the university for three years...

As Rolf Harris used to say as he sketched out something that always started off looking like a potato in the process of recreating some animal: "Can you see what it is yet?" Luckily, with the real version, we don't have to play guessing games. It's set out in plain English, using sentences that convey information rather than different ways of using the word 'solution'. You don't need tags, you don't need XML formatting, you just need content. But that does involve whoever is writing the release, asking the client - in this case a researcher - the kinds of questions that hacks will ask: "Who will this help?", "What's it do?", "What were the problems?" etc.

3 Comments

Great example Chris. Everyone starting in PR should read this. And quite a few of those who have been doing it for a while.

Chris,

You've hit the nail on the head. This is the same in every walk of life, there's a right and an wrong way to do something.

The right way is effective, the wrong way is annoying. While it could be argued that many press releaases are written badly that doesn't mean they don't serve a purpose!

Some people (read bloggers) are far too trigger happy with the ole doomsday scenario!

Thanks
Tom

Don't worry, I've got a doomsday scenario. However, it does not necessarily mean the end of the release per se, it just means certain people - that is, journalists - stop using releases almost completely. It also relies on the Web 2.0 priesthood being almost entirely right about their predictions of what is going to happen. And it'll take years.