New-format press release. It's...er...lovely

27 May 2006

I'm not sure whether Tom Foremski has had a look at the new-format press release that his February tirade set in train, but I can't help feeling that the result that Shift Communications came up with was not quite what he had in mind. Maybe it's a bit like Christmas where what you hoped you were getting turned out to be a chartreuse and puce Fair Isle sweater with three sleeves. "Mmm, thank you. How...different."

Personally, I have no problem with the existing format of press releases. It's what goes into them that is the problem. All that Shift has done with its format is split all the bits up and reorder them, and add in some social-media fairy dust for a bit of extra gloss. It does not address the central problem of companies telling you how great they are without actually providing any evidence. And no format is going to do that, only an understanding of what gets a release picked up.

If anything the social-media add-ons, like ready-to-roll Technorati and Del.icio.us tags make the new format harder for anyone to use. Just try to work out what is going on in the example release. First, you've got a bunch of bullet points and quotes.

  • There is nothing particularly wrong with bullet points.
  • Except that that the bullet points read just like the first lines of a traditional press release.
  • But with fewer verbs.
  • And broken up to make each element look important.
  • So why not just have an intro para like, erm...a press release or a news story!
  • Maybe this is easier to edit and, ahem, remix.
  • For those too slow-witted to work out how to select sentences in a conventional release.

Following the bullets, we have all the Del.icio.us stuff. It's a purpose-built Del.icio.us page, apparently. And it contains all the stuff tagged to Shift, not anything directly relevant to this release. If you wanted to know why the release was put together this way, you are so out of luck if you thought clicking on that link for more information was going to get you anywhere. The quotes are the usual tired old guff that you would find in most conventional releases. So, no surprises there.

I'm still a bit mystified by the tag-intensive nature of Shift's approach. I guess that came about because Foremski spent a lot of time talking about tags in his original post. However, I don't think he meant tags like this, but the more formalised approach that you would use in an XML document. The idea, as I understood it, was that you would use those tags to pull out information relevant to your audience and let automated tools perform comparisons, between quarterly net income numbers, for example.

An intelligently tagged release might actually be helpful. But, as I have written before, I cannot see it ever happening. The work needed to come up with something useful that an entire industry would get behind is immense. And, by that time it happened, the primary target for the releases would be search engines, not journalists.

5 Comments

Great article. You know ....i don't hate it. I mean i am not in love with it either.

I am glad to see that Shift has taken that first plunge into the social media press release. I am sure they knew that they would be raked over the coals for it ....but they did it. Now others can look at this and say ....well this doesn’t make sense here ...or this should be like that....etc

The great thing is this is going to allow others to tailor the next way for press releases. Taking the good from the Shift release and leaving the lame.

Do you have a better suggestion ...i know i am tinkering with a version for my personal use right now ......cheers and thanks for a great eye opener.

cheers

Scott

Scott, thanks for the comment.

I’m not sure the press release needs such a radical overhaul. The release as it stands has not been that unsuccessful in breaking into new areas. The whole idea of the search-engine release came about entirely organically without anyone sprinkling any kind of new-media fairy dust on it. All they had to do was make it HTML friendly – the search engines did the rest.

For journalists, the primary issues are those of relevance and content. A new format does not make a lot of difference there. There is something to be said for having links to other collateral material, such as photos and audio recordings. But that’s just as possible with a regular release as with this new version. It only involves a hyperlink here or there.

Tagging may make sense not so much from a social media sense but simply to allow a feed-reading client sort releases into different subject areas or types. For example, all advisories go into one folder; quarterly results into another. But that involves PRs agreeing to a common set of tags rather than just making them up on the fly, and the journalists also getting their companies to build tools to make use of the extra metadata.

I know from experience that getting reliable metadata out of people is an uphill struggle, so I am reluctant to say: “This is what you need to do.” I believe that, by the time everybody agreed, search technology will have evolved to the point that tagging will be mostly unnecessary. The best tag, after all, is the natural language in the document itself. Furthermore, before that, the releases themselves will be going mainly to automated systems – journalists will be concentrating on material that comes from other places. Within a few years it will be that case that, if you’re waiting for a press release to come your way before you start a story, you’re already too late.

I don't know whether the media release needs an overhaul, either, Chris, but I am intrigued with the formatting of the SHIFT template far more than with its social interaction/multimedia content features.

We have a bit of a discussion of SHIFT's "radically different format" (their words) going in the IABC Media Relations Commons, which anyone -- not just IABC members -- can participate in.

Look for "The shape of press releases to come" and "Shape SHIFTers."

Thanks for making a nice contribution to that discussion.

Hi Chris (and Scott) -
Still digging thru the reactions to our template, but am finally finding the time to say "thank you" for weighing in.
Let me say, first: your comments are appreciated and I don't necessarily disagree.
But - 1) you checked out the del.icio.us page early on - check it out now and you'll see scores of links that relay the reaction to the template (good and bad). Now extrapolate that to a PR pitch someone sent you, which included a del.icio.us page full of research and annotations to help you figure out an angle on the story you might write. Cool?
2) Specific to Scott's point (and thanks for it) - our idea was to simply run it up the flagpole: it's a template, not the be-all, end-all. We can't wait to see it more XML-ized and optimized and otherwise "-ized." Frankly, the wire services just ain't prepared to handle the technology (if you insist on using the wire services, which most clients still do).
3) No newfangled format will replace the need for good writing. You're sure right about that. Our idea was to strip out as much of the "bad" writing as possible and give "just the facts" with as little spin as possible. And to add a few multi-media elements, in the same spot, for easy access by bloggers and journalists.
It will evolve, and I hope you'll continue watching. :)
Thanks again.

Sorry but the whole del.icio.us thing just leaves me cold. You have to consider the order in which things happen - the journalists will pick up on the release within hours, not days (unless they are simply using the material for background research). So, the del.icio.us page is going to be pretty empty during that most important period. That's the way news works - it's about surprise.

I’m going to check out the del.icio.us page early on – hours or days later I’m not going to care because, if the story was not important the first time I saw it, it’s probably less important to me later on. I might have made a mistake in selection but, by that time, other people will have worked on it and I then have to think of a good reason to start late on a well-trodden path.

OK, you can argue that I need to keep track of things as they proceed, maybe for an analysis. And that seems to be where you are going with the del.icio.us stuff. But, if that is the case, you don’t need a press release stuffed with tags to keep you updated. Journalists have the tools and techniques to deal with tracking a story – and del.icio.us is an incredibly inefficient, inaccurate way of determining how coverage is going because it demands intervention from every user of the material.

With del.icio.us, you also have the problem of tag pollution because so many of them cross over between subjects, unless you choose deliberately obfuscated tags, which are then difficult to remember.

Thanks for the comment and keep at it. However, bear in mind what I said in the post about journalists not necessarily being the most important target of press releases in the future. It all goes back to the first point in this comment – surprise is everything in news. That will encourage journalists to move away from the release unless they really have to deal with the material in them.

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Todd  Defren has posted a Web 2.0-based news release template on his blog.  Reaction seems to be generally positive, with some taking a “wait and see” attitude. The idea is to ensure all new media needs are met with one document. It’... Read More