The Horror of Writing a Press Release


PRWeek has an excellent opinion piece this month called “How Twitter Saved Public Relations.” Author Greg Galant, CEO of Sawhorse Media, credits Twitter with helping companies get rid of the techno-babble and buzzwords that proliferate press releases like weeds. “I don’t know if it’s the fault of the PR people, the lawyers, or the management, but the voice of many corporations has lost its humanity,” Galant writes.

Nevermore: Even Poe would have struggled to write a collaborative press release.

Nevermore: Even Poe would have struggled to write a "collaborative" press release.

While I agree that social media is making companies reassess how they communicate – I’m not convinced they will be able to save the press release.  Press releases are fast becoming unreadable – and quickly heading to the trash barrel of communications history.  Ironically, because of the web, press releases are more widely read than ever before.

When a company puts a press release on one of the news wires it is automatically picked up – verbatim – by dozens of outlets.  This makes press releases SEO engines as they generally rank high on Google searches the day they are released.  Press releases could be powerful communications tools – a way to reach target audiences directly.

But they are ineffective because of poor writing.

Journalists hate them.  Most journalists scan the headlines and sub-heads to see if the news is relevant.  If it is they get on the phone to set up interviews with the principals so they can get the news first hand.  Has any journalist actually used one of the tortured, manufactured quotes often found in a press release?  Not likely.

In the age of social media, when being brief, clear and concise are crucial – it is amazing that press releases have become longer, denser and nearly impossible to understand.

Read this opening paragraph released from a major technology company this week (name changed to protect the guilty):

“Today, Company X. formally announced Services Here, a program that provides participating Company X Gold Certified Partners with access to pre-tested, repeatable offerings and best practices developed by Company X Services during early consulting engagements with Company X customers. Offerings include pre-sales tools and technical and operational guidance that will help partners accelerate time to market, increase operational efficiencies and improve the quality of their delivery to customers.”

Ugly, isn’t it?

So why are press releases written so poorly?  It’s the process.  Press releases are written by committees.  Generally here’s how it works:

  • PR guy writes the first draft
  • Press release goes to VP of Marketing for edits
  • PR guy incorporates changes
  • Press release heads to Sales for edits
  • PR guy incorporates changes
  • Press release heads to Product Development for edits
  • PR guy incorporates changes
  • Press release heads to CEO (or CMO)
  • PR guy incorporates changes
  • Press release heads to Legal (and if public company to Investor Relations)
  • PR guy incorporates changes

At every process – non-professional writers add jargon and buzzwords to the release.  The press release, which started at less than 500 words, returns at 1,500 words and looks like a Thanksgiving turkey overflowing with stuffing.  And if the press release involves a customer or partners – then it goes through the same process at the other company.  The horror!

Is it any wonder the writing is terrible?

Why can’t the PR people write the press releases and own the process?  Does any other department need approvals from every other department before moving forward?

I would love to hear your press release horror stories and ideas for fixing the problem.  Care to share?

4 Responses to “The Horror of Writing a Press Release”

  1. I’m a trained journalist (now a PR) so I write my press releases as a journalist would. That’s what the client is paying me for, so why MUST so many of them insist on poor quality changes?

    Leaving out of the intro the name of the client is one of the most common battles.

    I appreciate you can only advise so far.. some will simply not accept this advice.

    But, you’re your own boss when it comes to the telephone sell-in… 🙂

  2. Hi Helen:
    I agree – when PR people pitch they can be more creative. But I’ve even had clients in the past who wanted to edit email pitches to journalists.

  3. I used to work for Eric Yaverbaum. The guy who wrote PR For Dummies and he would literally describe the process you just wrote about in the first meeting. Basically he said he said how often PR was only “brilliant” in retrospect. And that representation would never be “brilliant” if the process you described happened.

    He did some cool stuff. Still does if what I read is to be believed.

    I was at his agency for five years and in my experience that actually worked half the time. And the other half we got fired!

    Electronic shout out to my mentor Eric!!!

    (Alas I left the business thanks to the 50% who never would listen)

  4. Thanks for a fun post. I’ve been writing releases for clients for many, many moons and you’ve captured the pain points well. It’s even more fun in the healthcare arena, when you add legal/regulatory to the mix. 🙂

    I often find that the most prudent approach (and one that will require fewer beta blockers) is to craft prose that anticipates the feedback/input you’re about to get as it moves up and down the food chain. It can be a gynmastic navigation process of balancing message, facts, egos and company culture to achieve a truly useful product, but it can also save you some pain later in the process. And, the process can actually make you a better writer and editor over time (at least that’s what I tell my shrink).

    As a counselor it can be a good opportunity — if you have the ear of the senior decision makers at the company — to point out where a company’s internal process affects the company’s external voice, perhaps not always for the better. Materials audit anyone?

    Best advice — lift with the legs and take frequent breaks. 🙂

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