I get a lot of press releases, both as the editor of Hypergrid Business, and even more so for my day job as a finance and technology journalist.
I can tell at a glance whether a press release is from a serious company because the press release looks… well, like a real press release.
Now, the way most companies accomplish this is by hiring a PR agency to write their press releases. So what do you do if your company is too small? Are you doomed to look like amateurs, with editors ignoring your releases and casual readers thinking to themselves, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but this company seems a little flaky”?
Fortunately, 90 percent of the problems in press releases are caused by just 10 mistakes — if you fix them, your press releases will be good enough to pass muster almost anywhere. It doesn’t mean that every newspaper and magazine will start running them, but it does mean that they won’t be dismissed out of hand.
One: Put news in your headline
A headline should, at the very least, follow the “Someone Does Something” format. “Price Change Announcement” is not a news headline. There’s no action in it. “Price Changes Announced” has some action — but there’s nobody doing the acting. You need to put someone’s name in the headline — ideally, your company’s name.
Then, you need to get as specific as possible — get to the actual core of the news.
“Acme Announces Price Changes” is better, but still not a news-worthy headline. “Acme Doubles Prices” or “Acme Cuts Prices in Half for Educators” — those are headlines with actual news in them.
Remember that a headline should give a harried editor all the information they need to decide whether they should run the release or not. And a reader should be able to quickly tell if the story is relevant to them.
Some more examples of improved headlines:
“Acme Hires Joe Schmoe” could be improved to: “Acme Hires Second Life Celebrity Joe Schmoe to Expand In-World Events.”
“Acme Announces Partnership” could be improved to: “Acme Partners with Emca to Improve Service, Lower Hosting Prices”
“Acme Launches Crowdfunding Project” could be improved to: “Acme Kickstarts New Vampire-Themed Grid”
“Physics Announcement on Acme Grid” could be improved to: “New Acme Physics Engine Improves Performance 30%”
Two: How will your customers benefit?
Typically, press releases are aimed at two potential audiences, customers and investors. If you’re running a small startup, you can probably see all your investors at the family barbecue, so the primary focus of your press release should be how your news will affect your customers.
On the plus side, future investors will appreciate a history of progress chronicled through well-written, professional press releases.
So what do you do if your announcement has no effect on customers at all? Say, you promoted your secretary to “executive assistant.” Or you redecorated your offices. Then don’t issue a press release. Please. Don’t. If you can’t think of any reason why anyone should care about your news, then, I, as an editor, probably won’t be able to, either.
Put the customer benefit right in the first paragraph, in condensed form. For example, for the vampire grid, the benefit is that role playing vampires will have a new place to go. If you’re a role playing vampire, or considering becoming one — or just interested in selling vampire accessories — then this news will directly affect you. You can also add that the grid will have low-cost land, if this is a top selling point, or you can save it for further down in the release.
So an example of a first paragraph might look like this:
LONDON — JUNE 10, 2012 — Acme Ltd. today announced the launch of a Kickstarter project to raise $5,000 for a vampire-themed OpenSim grid, the first such grid to focus specifically on the vampire role-playing community.
The location should be a real world location, not a website or grid name. After all, you’re asking your customers for real money. The least you can offer in return is tell them where their money is going to go. The date is the date of the announcement, and should be the day on which you send out the press release. The paragraph that follows is called “the lead” and should answer the key questions — who, when, what, where, how and why.
But try to keep it short.
Three: Cut the PR BS
One way to keep your lead brief is to keep it stripped clean of all the self-serving, promotional marketing fluff you were planning to put in. I would have to cut it all out, anyway. If you want an ad, buy one. Plus, a padded press release makes your company sound like liars.
Are you really the best at whatever you were going to say you’re the best at? Really? Or do you just wish you were? If a reader sees you describing yourself as the best, or the top, or the premier, or the most trusted, they’re going to assume you’re exaggerating, and will be less likely to trust anything else you have to say.
If, say, you actually were the best — Consumer Reports put out a ranking and you were number one — then definitely put this information into the story, but at the very bottom, in the “About” section of the release. Unless it’s the whole point of the release. In which case, the ranking, the award, the recognition, or whatever it is should be right up front and center.
You will still have to make it clear how your award will help make life better for your customers.
Four: Add some quotes
Get quotes from a senior executive at every company involved in the announcement. If it’s just your company involved, and you’re the CEO, then you should be the one providing the quotes.
The quotes can add more information for your readers — why your company decided to do the project, some more benefits for your customers, how this announcement fits in with your future plans. If the announcement is about a partnership, a quote can explain why your partner is a good fit.
Use the following format for your quotes:
“Vampire role play in popular in Second Life, but land prices are too high,” said Acme CEO Joe Schmoe. “For the same price, we can offer the community ten times the land, ten times the prims, and round-the-clock customer service.”
Note the use of the verb “said.” Don’t use anything else. Not “suggested.” Not “recommended.” Not “confirmed.” Just “said.” Seriously. This is the first thing they teach in journalism and public relations school. Every other verb carries some kind of emotional undertone. By sticking with “said” you’re avoiding that. Don’t worry about overusing it — readers expect it. Any other verb would be jarring and unusual.
A quote should be no more than three sentences long, and the sentences should be simple and straightforward. Try to have them sound the way people normally talk. Put the attribution — said Joe Schmoe — after the end of the first sentence. If the quote is just one long sentence, put the attribution after the first logical break, like this:
“Acme has a long history of serving vampires in Second Life,” said Schmoe, “with such services as land rentals, events, shopping malls, and gaming systems.”
If you quote the same person more than once in the same press release, you can just refer to them by their last name on second reference. If the second quote comes right after the first one, you can also say “he said” or “she said.”
Do not refer to people by just their first names, and skip honorifics such as Dr., Mr., and Prof. The only person impressed by your PhD is your mother. If an academic credential is actually relevant, include it in the release like this:
Schmoe is not only the CEO and founder of Acme, but is also a professor of vampire history at Yale University and holds advanced degrees in modern and classic vampire studies.
“Vampires are my life,” he said. “I am committed to this community. We’re not launching this grid just because it’s the latest fad. The grid will also allow me and my students to study the evolving vampire community and culture, and help preserve it for the future.”
Each quote should be its own paragraph. Don’t include anything else in that paragraph but the quote and its attribution. Make sure that every quote has an attribution — you don’t want to have a quote just floating out there with nobody saying it.
Don’t put two quotes one right after the other. Include a transition paragraph of some kind, such as some more factual information about the announcement, about the company, or about the person quoted. If you can’t think of anything else, take a part of a quote and rephrase it in plain words and take it out of quotation marks, like this:
“The Kickstarter money will go to pay for content development and server hardware,” Schmoe said.
Many companies rent servers, he said, but buying some core servers up front will reduce costs in the long term.
“That will allow us to offer high-performance land at lower prices than many other commercial grids,” he said.
Don’t worry about the paragraphs being too short. It makes them easier to read this way. In addition, when they’re printed in newspapers or magazines, the narrow columns will make any paragraph look really long.
Five: Use real names
This should go without saying, but if you’re quoting someone, quote them under their real name. Again, your customers are giving you real money. They should know who they’re giving the money to. You can also include the avatar name of the person, if you like, but take care that the avatar name doesn’t hurt the credibility of your press release.
Here’s how to do it:
“Our new virtual conference center will serve Fortune 500 clients,” said Acme CEO Joe Schmoe, who is also known as “Daffodil Petticoats” in-world. “Virtual conferences are greener and more cost effective than traditional conferences. In addition, virtual environments allow companies to create simulations or mock-ups that would be impossible or cost-prohibitive using traditional methods.”
Frankly, if I were Joe Schmoe, I’d leave off the “Daffodil Petticoats” in this context. It might make your Fortune 500 clients hesitate to part with their cash.
However, if Schmoe was a famous vampire leader in Second Life, mentioning the avatar name would benefit the vampire grid announcement, and attract both donors and customers for his new grid, and then I would definitely include it.
Six: Include an “About Us” section.
This should be a single paragraph describing your company, and end with a link to your website. Here’s the format:
ABOUT ACME LTD.
Acme Limited is a London-based provider of virtual world services, including design, hosting, and land rental. Acme operates the largest vampire-themed roleplay game in Second Life, as well as vampire enclaves on InWorldz, Avination, and OSGrid. It is also the maker of the Acme Vampire System, a scripted in-world role play toolset. Acme has six full-time employees and was founded in 2010. For more information, please see www.acme.com
If more than one company is featured in the release — say, if it’s about a merger or partnership announcement — then each company will get its own “About” section.
Seven: Include a media contact
At the very bottom of the press release, include a section listing the people journalists can contact if they want more information. At the very least, include each person’s name, title, company, and email address. A phone number is also very, very, very highly recommended. Not every journalist will immediately call the number, but knowing that it’s there adds an extra measure of comfort.
They may also save the information for future reference, in case they need an expert quote on a related story.
The media contact doesn’t have to be the CEO of the company. It can be the lowest-level flunky, or an outside PR representative. But it should be a real person who picks up their telephone and answers their email promptly. Make sure the media contact knows that the press release is going out, and to be ready to answer questions or set up media interviews if any journalists want them.
Eight: Check for the first person
Read over the press release carefully. Look for any usage of the worlds I, we, us, or ours. If they’re inside quotation marks, that’s fine. Keep them. If they’re not inside quotation marks, rewrite that sentence.
Here’s an example of what you can keep:
“We are pleased to be able to finally make this announcement,” said Schmoe. “It’s been in the works for several months now.”
Don’t keep this:
We know that our new vampire grid will make OpenSim vampires very happy, and more than 100 have already pre-registered for the grid.
More than 100 vampire roleplayers have already pre-registered for the new grid, a sign of unmet demand in this space.
Or just slap some quotes around it:
“We know that our new vampire grid will make OpenSim vampires very happy,” said Schmoe. “More than 100 have already pre-registered for the grid.”
Having to rewrite press releases written in the first person is the most annoying part of my job. If I leave them in the first person, it sounds like the “we” or “us” is Hypergrid Business itself — that we know that this new vampire grid will be a success. Well, we don’t know that. Your CEO might know that, and the press release writer might know that, but we at Hypergrid Business don’t know that, and we don’t want to run anything that puts those words in our mouths.
Nine: Format the press release
And by “format the press release,” I mean, get rid of all the formatting. You might have been tempted to add some boldface or italics, or indented paragraphs. Get rid of all of it. All it does is mess up the editorial style sheets of any publication that wants to publish it — if you don’t get rid of it, the editors have to go in manually and do it. It’s a pain.
Everything should be the default style — typically, Times New Roman, 12 point. Double space between paragraphs. While you’re cleaning stuff up, take a quick look and see if you’re using any abbreviations, acronyms, or parentheses. Get rid of them. Get rid of “etc.” and “HUD” and “VW” and “MMORPG.” They make the release hard to read, and they may confuse editors. Confused editors will often just decide not to run the release at all, rather than try to figure out what it’s about.
The only abbreviations you can use are IBM, U.S., U.K. and CEO. That’s it. I’m serious. If you’re writing about something that has a very long name, like the Vampire Studies and Virtual Immersive Reality Institute of Canada, and you refer to it multiple times in the story, refer to it as “the institute” on second reference, not as the VSVIRIC. I know that VSVIRIC just rolls off your tongue and you think everyone is familiar with the abbreviation. But that’s only because you work there, and everyone you know works there.
Normal people don’t know what VSVIRIC stands for, and don’t want to learn. There’s only so much information our brains can absorb at once, and I’m trying to keep some space reserved to remember my kids’ birthdays.
Also keep an eye out for excess capitalization. You may be tempted to capitalize every important word in your press release. “The new product will help customers Save Money and Lose Weight.” Stop it. Only capitalize things that must definitely, absolutely be capitalized — names, places, products and brands. As an editor, I even lower-case job titles. It’s not only standard style, but reads better. Putting things in capital letters when they don’t deserve it make it look like those words are putting on airs.
And never, ever, ever put words or phrases inside quotation marks. Put full quotes in quotation marks. An individual word inside quotation marks doesn’t emphasize the word — it only make it look like you’re kidding. It’s like putting air quotes around something when you talk — you do it ironically, to show you don’t really mean it. Never do it in a press release.
Ten: Include graphics
I typically like to see two kinds of graphics with my press releases. The first is headshots of everyone quoted in it, especially any senior company executives. These should be vertical, passport-style photographs. Professional portraits are better than casual snapshots.
The second type of graphic I want is a photograph or snapshot that is wider than it is tall. The Hypergrid Business layout format requires that we have a landscape-oriented image with each story, and if you don’t provide one, we have to hunt one down, or use a stock photo. Good examples of these kinds of graphics are charts and graphs, in-world snapshots, software screenshots, or photographs of people using your products.
If you’re sending the press release to print publications, remember that they will need high-resolution versions of the photographs — 300 dots per inch or above. For a headshot, this usually translates to a file size of at least 1,000 KB. If you’re going to err, err on the side of making them as big as possible.
The file names should be a description of the image itself. In the case of headshots, it should simply be the full name of the executive, correctly spelled. You might be surprised to learn this, but I’ve gotten press releases in which the executive’s name was spelled a couple of different ways in the release — and then spelled yet a third way in the photo caption. Arrgh.
For other images, try to make the file name as descriptive as possible, such as “Acme Vampire Grid – Welcome Area – Visitor Center.” Please do not just call it “image35669.” I will download it to my hard drive, then never be able to find it again.
You can either provide links to images stored on your own servers or a file-sharing site, or you can add them as attachments to the email.
For the release itself, I strongly recommend putting the entire press release in the body of the email, preceded by a short introductory note.
Include the journalist’s name, and a little intro paragraph, and links to the images, like this:
Your publication has been doing a great job with its coverage of our industry, and this press release might be of interest to you. It’s a major development, and is the first such project of its kind. Feel free to get back to me if you have any questions, or want to set up an interview.
You can also get headshots of our executives, and some screenshots of the product, at www.acme.com/media
In the subject line, put something like “Company announcement:” and then the title of your release.
Bonus: For a great press release, add customer and expert quotes
You may have heard that there are two sides to every story. For regular old news journalists, that may be true. But for business and technology reporters, there are actually three sides to every story — the side selling something, the side buying it, and the neutral experts.
If a business or technology journalist decides to do a real story based on your press release, they will first have to hunt down some expert who knows something about the topic, and ask them about the significance of your announcement. That takes time. Then they have to hunt down some of your customers, and find out what they think. And if you’re a small company, that can be very difficult.
You can make life a lot easier for journalists by including these sources right in the press release. As an added bonus, your release will read a lot more like a real news or feature story, and be much more credible and interesting. Customers tend to view vendor claims with suspicion, and are much more likely to believe what their fellow users have to say, or what independent experts have to say.
Here is an example of how to do it:
There is substantial demand for an OpenSim-based vampire grid.
“I estimate that there are over 20,000 role playing vampires in Second Life,” said Meg Doe, publisher of the Second Life Vampire Research Report. “But I predict a loss of 2,000 vampires this year, mostly due to high land prices. A well-policed, solidly managed grid with strong content protection measures could attract many of these vampires, and the merchants who serve them.”
One such merchant is Billy Bob Thorn, known as “Vlad Bloodsucker” in Second Life.
“Second Life vampires have already bought most of the stuff they need,” said Thorn. “Sure, I still sell some product updates. Plus, new players come in who need all the basics. But there isn’t enough business any more for me to cover tier, and I’m considering scaling back, or closing my store completely. On the new grid, not only will all the vampires need to be outfitted from scratch, but my land rates will be a tenth of what they are now. My new shop will have twice the area of my Second Life outlet, and I will be bringing over all my original content.”
Don’t make up quotes. If you can’t find a customer or expert willing to speak on the record, just skip this step — it’s much better than putting in a fake quote and getting caught.
And I know — I know really well! — that it can be hard to get people to speak on the record, especially virtual world residents who would have to divulge their real names. Experts are easier since they like seeing their names in print, and any mention is just free publicity for them. Customers may need some motivation. Technology vendors seeking referenceable customers will often offer discounts, priority support, early access to the product or other inducements in return for them agreeing to talk to the media and providing canned quotes.
Make sure that everyone quoted in the press release signs off on the full release, not just their own quotes but also on the context they’re used in. The last thing you want is to have a journalist call up your expert or customer, and learn that their quotes were taken out of context and they really believe the opposite.
More about press releases
Yahoo has a nice little Press Release Wizard you can use to create press releases. There are also millions of press releases up on PR Newswire, PRWeb, and BusinessWire, the three biggest press release distribution services. PRWeb in particular has some nice tutorials and how-tos.
If you’re a grid owner, here are 10 ideas for a press release.
For a niche audience, such as enterprise virtual worlds, the best way to distribute your press releases is to email them, individually, to the publications you know who cover the space, while at the same time posting your release on your own website, in a “media,” “news” or “press” section. If you post both press releases and articles written about your company on your website, make sure to distinguish them very clearly. And if a publication picks up your press release and runs it as is, don’t include it on your site as an example of an article written about your company, just have it on the press release page.
If you believe that your press release has a wider potential audience, you can pay for one of the big wire services to distribute it, or use a free press release distribution service like PRLog.
If you’re a small company creating your first press release for distribution to a few bloggers, and it’s something I can run in Hypergrid Business, I’ll happily review it for you for free, and will also edit if it needs editing.
If you’re looking to go after a bigger audience, I can recommend some low-cost freelance public relations writers. In addition, the major press release distribution services also offer editing services.
And one final note — an announcement posted on your company blog is not a press release. A blog post is usually informal, first-person, and not meant to be republished by other media. Blog posts also reach just your existing customers, not the general public.
If you do have a company blog, I recommend keeping an eye out for major announcements, and turning them into press releases that you can send out to the relevant media, and to post on your press release page.
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