by Sheldon Baker
While attending Expo West in Anaheim in March, I wandered into the pressroom at the convention center to check out what the spin doctors were distributing in the ‘land of hype’ (and grab a few product samples).
Spread throughout the room were piles of innocuous looking folders and multi-colored promotional materials begging for attention, some conforming to standard press kit form, others cleverly disguised as such.
I was on a mission to collect exhibitor news releases announcing new company or product information. After sifting through mounds of promotional clutter, I encountered a lot of heavy lifting.
I filled my bag with an assortment of just 12 press kits ranging from supplements to food products. That’s because I don’t like carrying bags of stuff around the trade show floor for hours.
I never know what method I should use to review these company information vehicles. Do I take the Andy Rooney approach of stating the obvious situation or should I be skeptical of every new announcement like Dr. Dean Edell? In the end, I let my 25 years of public relations experience do the talking.
During those years in the industry, I have been blessed to work with talented (professional) people who could write clearly and succinctly and possessed years of journalistic experience. The common factor (denominator) for each one of them was a copy of the latest edition of The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual at their side.
The Associated Press (AP) is an international news distribution service. The AP Stylebook was conceived in 1975 to provide journalists (and publicists) with clear and simple writing rules.
According to Louis Boccardi, who used to be AP president and chief executive officer, the AP couldn't please everyone, as journalists (and publicists) approach style questions with varying degrees of passion. Some editors didn't think it was really important. Some agreed that there should be uniformity for reading ease if nothing else. Others, as Boccardi said, “were prepared to duel over a wayward lowercase.”
Through the years of combining AP style with input from journalists coast-to-coast, I’ve enjoyed the added luck of having great editors to review my writing. I learned in the early stages that one: a press release is not an advertisement and two: you must be objective. Two items I find lacking in a large percentage of natural products industry news releases today.
I’m not the only one. Several veteran industry editors agree. They’ve shared news releases that fail the litmus test.
After careful review of all the kits I had schlepped up the Interstate, I decided to be like President Abraham Lincoln and apply the old adage that honesty is the best policy. The product materials I selected for closer inspection included the following companies:
- Naked Food Juice
- Country Choice Naturals
- Amerfit Nutrition
- Central Soya Protein Group
- Five Roses Quality Tea
- Pharmachem Laboratories
- Tom’s of Maine
- Quality Assurance International
- The Aurora Group
- Nelson Bach USA Ltd.
- Cargill, Inc.
I’m just an avid news hound. My intention is not to critique other people's creativity. So after much thought, I decided to critique six elements of each news release using the AP Stylebook as my guide.
- Contact information
- Headline (subhead)
- Press release lead
- Writing style
The format of a news release is simple.
Starting at the top and working down, a news release should be printed on company letterhead rather than stationery of the public relations
firm. It may be a personal choice, but I feel the client or product should be the one receiving promotion, not the agency. Company or product letterhead is one more vehicle to help drive home and reinforce brand recognition.
At the top of the page under the logo in bold type, but larger than the body copy, write ‘News Release’ so editors know what type of document they're receiving. Under News Release to the left or right should be the contact information including the name and telephone number of a contact person.
Strange as it may seem, a large percentage of news releases never include the name of a company contact person and telephone number. This drives most editors crazy and also provides them with the excuse to simply dump your release.
All 12 news releases included complete contact information.
News releases should have a headline stating the essence of what the story is about. A summary line, or subhead is sometimes added on the line immediately following the headline and shouldn’t be more than one line in length.
Approximately half of the news releases followed this preferred format. A few others included only a headline, which is acceptable. The other news releases turned headlines and subheads into advertising-type copy. One news release, Central Soya Protein Group, had no headline.
News Release Lead
The lead paragraph or first sentence should tell the reader what the company does and should give the key information of the story.
For example, if the news release announces company earnings, the lead should give the increase or decline of profits, either in percentage or absolute terms, along with the reason. If you're announcing a new product, the first paragraph would include the product name, description, and function (what it does). The lead or opening paragraph should only be one sentence.
Call me old school, but today’s news release leads get bogged down with wordy, multiple sentence paragraphs. I often find negative copy points and poor punctuation. A large percentage of news releases also turn into mini-ads. Amerifit’s Nutrition Glucosamine news release reminded me of an ad disguised as news release.
Five Roses Quality Tea referred to Americans as being ‘hard pressed’ in its opening line (negative). The opening paragraph was four sentences (too long).
Naked Food-Juice had one of the better leads. It referred to the company, gave you the main news points and for the most part didn’t read like an ad.
It's important to include a short description of the company in the lead, especially with the increased media awareness of the natural products industry. Pressrooms, once only attended by trade press, now get attention
from many mass market consumer writers and editors.
Every news release should be double-spaced and include approximately one-inch margins on the left and right side. This format makes the news release easier and quicker for editors to read. News release copy should only be written on one side of the page and preferably be no longer than two pages.
Typos in a news release can be deadly. There is no reason why words in news releases should be misspelled (or left out). Use spell check on the computer and take the time to proof read your news release to make sure they are 100% correct. News releases should be given the same consideration and importance as any company document.
Most companies followed the basic format. All releases had copy only on the front side. Over half of the news releases used single spacing. Trying to save a tree? Many editors refuse to read single spaced news releases, providing yet another excuse to toss your information.
News releases often include an executive announcement or quote from the president or CEO. If a quote from a top executive must be included, those words should reflect information only a CEO could say, or you would expect to hear from a person in a senior management position.
I suggest eliminating a quote from most news release copy. If an editor wants to include a quote in an interesting story, they can do a telephone interview and select their own quote adding third party credibility to your information.
I’ve read some very entertaining product company quotes that could have comprised a Jerry Seinfeld episode. One of the better quotes came from the Pharmachem Laboratories news release because it was from a doctor commenting on a study and included scientific and marketing research information that should be attributed to a researcher.
Some quotes said absolutely nothing, but showed off the writer's vocabulary in grand style. When a quote reads, ‘we are extremely excited,’ or ‘this partnership is a result of a strong historical relationship,’ it’s usually made up by a publicist.
Business, economic or new product news often intimidates writers who are not familiar with the particular topic. Writing about your company in a news release can be likened to writing a letter to a customer. Tell the information in a clear and concise manner. Avoid jargon or slang, define technical terms and don't assume your reader already knows the meaning. Your news release must be understood by editors as well as the general public.
Keep your news release to no more than two pages. Country Choice Naturals created one three-page news release. My review found other releases where one or two words should have been used to say something that the writer said in five or six words.
I found very little consistency among news releases I reviewed.
In my opinion, the three best news releases were from EatSmart, Pharmachem Laboratories and Cargill. They came closest to achieving the highest grade with a single line headline and subhead, short leads, content, double-spaced copy, contact information and good overall layout.
Strive To Be The Best
Media people get inundated with news releases, so they use any and every reason to delete their mail. Take the time to create the best possible news release.
There is never any guarantee your news release will be published and a story can be killed because of space, other breaking news or numerous and other varied reasons. By simply following a few basic rules, your chances of “getting ink” rises dramatically.