Friday, September 19, 2008

Why there'll always be bad press releases and pitch letters

It's a big bad world of mediocrity, son. It's just the law of nature and there's nothing you can do about it.

I should know. Mediocrity starts at graduation. I've received hundreds and hundreds of cookie cutter cover letters from across the nation which all seemed to have been cribbed from the same career advice book: "I am a senior who will be receiving my bachelor of arts degree in communications this June from Buckwheat College..."

Mediocrity inspired a famous Hallmark store poster depicting the Tower of Pisa: "It takes a lot less time and most people won't notice the difference until it's too late."

I once had an employee who wrote a letter with numerous mistakes, didn't show it to anybody, and mailed it, so I made her go to the post office and retrieve it.

Technology has made things so easy to do, that for some people, spending more than a token effort writing a press release or pitch letter can seem daunting.

Most of the newspapers and business magazines which we had delivered for office reading daily went unopened by the staff, until I made it required reading. Every year, I taught a company workshop on writing better press releases and pitch letters, and utilized two publications which had the best leads: The Wall Street Journal and Advertising Age. In their first paragraphs, you always knew what the story was going to be about, even with a little clever perspective.

The funny thing is that it's no secret we're all crunched for time: journalists are more pressed than ever before. Bloggers can post in an instant and are competitive with their ink-on-paper counterparts. Publicists are getting their information in short pieces over RSS feeds, reading blogs and shorter and shorter news stories. Everybody is trying to get the most information in and out in a shorter and shorter window of time.

So why do publicists still write as if none of this is happening? Why do they write long-winded press releases and pitch letters that don't cut to the chase in the very first paragraph when they themselves often don't have the patience to read those very same stories? Who is managing these people and letting them get away with this?

Don't believe me? I'm dipping into PR Newswire and Business Wire right now today to see what's being cranked out there and being paid for by good money. Here are three sample press release first paragraphs with their respective links. I look at each one, and try and nudge myself awake. Who are the audiences for these releases and do they care? Will they care? See each of my comments below each lead.
NAPERVILLE, Ill., Sept. 19 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Financial companies have certainly been in the spotlight, and recent high-profile events have rattled the investment markets. From the collapse of Bear Stearns in March to more recent events such as the federal government's takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the government's $85 billion rescue plan for AIG, investors are understandably anxious about the nature of their investments.

"Yes, financial companies certainly have been in the spotlight. Tell me something new because you've lost me with your long-winded lead."
SILVER SPRING, Md., Sept. 19 /PRNewswire/ -- Captain Paul Watsonfounded his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 because he believed his new organization had to go even further to eradicate whaling, poaching, shark finning, habitat destruction and purported ocean law violations than the Greenpeace group he had co-founded. For several years, Watson's group of staff and volunteers have engaged in a campaign every winter to find and stop Japanese ships that hunt whales in the name of research, attempting to stop them by any non-violent means necessary. The eclectic group -- labeled activists, heroes and/or eco-pirates -- leave port in Melbourne, Australia for a two month campaign that is dangerous, controversial and has garnered international media attention. Sea Shepherd's dedicated, international crew have spent their holiday the last several years and risked their lives at the bottom of the earth to save whales.

"My eyes just glazed over. Did I mistakenly pick up my son's 7th grade history school book? I don't even know if I'll ever make it past the first 10 words of this. What's this got to do with the Discovery Channel?"

NATCHEZ, Miss.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Callon Petroleum Company (NYSE: CPE) reported today the effect of Hurricane Ike upon its principal production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

All of the companys deepwater offshore drilling and production activities were suspended prior to the arrival of Hurricane Ike, and all employees and contract personnel were safely evacuated prior to the storm.

"And...? And...? If you're reporting it today, then just come right out with it, for Pete's sake!"

I speculate there are a few reasons why we'll always be seeing bad writing escape into the public domain:

  1. Nobody is advising college students that you've got to give them the old "who, what, when, where, why" in the first paragraph. Perhaps every student should be required to take Journalism 101 to learn it.
  2. Employers are willing to overlook bad writing for other qualities when hiring. That's okay if you're committed to keeping them away from corresponding with anybody.
  3. Nobody wants to spend the time to teach publicists how to write better. They'd rather send them to a one-time PRSA writing workshop or just let it slide.
  4. Publicists dismiss these things as "little." But little things do matter. If I had a dollar for every employee who incorrectly used "its" and "it's," I could retire right now.

If the better a press release or pitch letter is written increases the odds of achieving a response, then it should behoove whoever is in charge to raise the bar of all written materials. The responsibility ultimately lies with them.

If you sit down with your staff and get them to unlearn their bad habits, show them examples of great releases and pitch letters that work, it will demonstrate that this means a lot to you, you value excellent writing skills, and you want them to be better at their craft. It will be worth more than any amount of money you can pay for an outside workshop.

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