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The Sick Press Release

Copyright 2006 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

A while ago I was reading a software industry trade journal interview of a marketing VP for a software company. The subject was the power (e.g. media mentions) of this company's public relations program. In the course of the interview the VP remarked that he had to rewrite most of his public relations agency's press releases.

That remark struck me as absurd - either the executive didn't hire the right agency, or he had too much time on his hands. Since I have seldom met an executive who had too much time on their hands, I have to conclude that he didn't use the correct criteria for screening the candidate agencies when he selected one.

Based on much of what passes for press releases (especially in markets for complex products such as technology), this would appear to be a somewhat common phenomena.

But hiring a public relations agency or consultant isn't rocket science. The tasks in public relations are pretty cut and dried, and an agency's work product will give you good idea of what to expect, if you know how to read a release for messaging content.

I've begun to realize that last proviso (knowing how to read press release for its value in messaging and not just the standard cliches, and its ability to support marketing and sales) is the problem. The executive mentioned in the vignette above probably didn't have the ability to read (interpret) the sample work product provided by the agency during their pitch - only when he saw own company depicted could he evaluate the messaging quality (or lack of it) in the releases. This indicates that an unstructured evaluation style is in use (in other words - ‘I know it when I see it').

An intuitive style of evaluating a work product has its limitations. The key shortcoming is the inability to read a release or document for content (messaging) and visualize the impact on the reader - until the evaluator sees themselves (their company) depicted.

That limitation in the vetting process will cause a lot of wasted time and effort in trial-and-error efforts once an agency is on board (which was apparently the case at this company.). A far more productive approach is to break any release down into its messaging components and determine if the person or agency generating those releases understands the fundamental of marketing messaging. If you don't see this trait in their work for others - then it isn't going to magically appear in yours. Here is a quick metric to use to evaluate press releases and any messaging document.

How to evaluate the messaging content and structure of a press release or marketing document

The opening - this is a quick description of what the company does, and for whom. No jargon, fluff or "leading vendor of..." It must get to the point quickly and succinctly. More importantly, it should allow the reader to self-select if they should continue reading - and give them a reason why. Most releases fail at this point.

The second paragraph or section should be a clear statement of the customer problem solved by the company's products or services. If that is not known - then the company should not be issuing press releases until they determine what problem the customer solves with their product - and why.

The third section should be validation statements by customers - what they can now do better, quicker, cheaper than before. No one can speak for you better than your customers. Take the anecdotal customer word of mouth and turn it into marketing material. If you don't have customer statements (actual results obtained - not just ‘happy talk') - go back and get some - the more specific, the better.

The last section should cover future developments or a call to action (what do you want the reader to do?) and share or hint at the product or service development roadmap. The latter aspect is important in that it shows the vendor is not a one-trick pony. Most important of all - a company contact. If the release has the desired effect (one of which is to generate sales leads) there needs to be clear information on how to contact the company. It amazes me the number of releases that lack a sales contact (with name). If only a media contact is provided, that ignores the sales potential of a press release (which, contrary to the title, are not only sent to the press.)

One additional caveat - don't send out the release-of-the week just for the sake of a release. If you don't have anything interesting to say - don't try to fluff it up. If what you have is mostly trivial - you will better serve your marketing and sales objectives with fewer, and better, materials.

As a postscript on the marketing VP mentioned at the beginning of this article - he attributed significant media placements (something like 24 a month) to his public relations program. That claim was way out of proportion for both the company and its media. I decided to audit those claims - both by what was posted on his web site and by searching the trade media of his industry for mentions of his company. Results? Not even close.

© 2006, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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