Press ReleasesStop Writing Press Releases; Start Framing News Stories.

Recently we got a call from a company that wants to increase its visibility.  Seems they were looking for a firm to write a few press releases a month.  After explaining that press releases alone really weren’t going to get them where they wanted to go, the caller thanked me for my time and said they’d be in touch. No surprise that we didn’t hear from them again. And my guess is that if the news release is their sole strategy for gaining audience share, then no one will be hearing much from them.

If the press release isn’t dead, it’s definitely on life support.  In the world of public relations and media relations, news releases harken back to a time when we broadcast about ourselves to the world, in direct opposition to a contemporary communications landscape that demands narrowcasting to a specific audience. Even more important, we must converse and connect in a back-and-forth exchange with our customers, clients, partners, donors, employees, investors, and other key stakeholders.  I don’t mean to suggest that press releases don’t have their place, but what really matters is engaging people so they care about our enterprise. We must explore what they value (and how we might serve to answer that value). And we have to tell a story that resonates on all of those fronts. So how do you transform the mere act of writing news releases and start framing news stories? Here are a few tips:

Determine if your announcement really is news.

News affects the many.  News is about events and changes that shape our communities and the world.  And it’s groundbreaking.  News lives at the edges—man bites dog; woman discovers cancer cure.  News is a roll-out for a phone that lets you read books, make calls, read your email, and keep your calendar when all you used to be able to do on a phone was talk to people. Giving an employee an outstanding service award may be news within your organization, but not outside the office (unless the employee won the award for saving a baby from a burning building).

Tell a story; don’t just relay information.

As we’ve noted in this blog before, our brains are wired to hear stories.  Good stories have heroes and antagonists or causes.  They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  About that employee service award?  Don’t just tell who is winning it, tell us why.  Explain the obstacles or the effort above-and-beyond. And turn that list of adjectives (loyal, dedicated, exemplary…) into a narrative with specific examples that sell us on the recipient’s worthiness. Use a story about a specific incident to persuade us that this award is special. And don’t bother loading up on information about the when and where of the award ceremony. Unless, of course, the President of the United States will be there to give her the award.

Tell the story from the outside in.

When crafting a pitch to a reporter or creating content that you hope will go viral, think not so much about why your story is important to you, but why it matters to others. In other words, answer the question, “So what?”  If the auto dealers’ association gives an award to a dealer in South Dakota, unless you are from that dealer’s hometown, you probably couldn’t care less.  However, if the manager of that dealership rescued the baby from the burning building at great risk to herself, then this recognition might be more interesting to a larger audience.  It’s not about what you want to tell people, but how your news is relevant—and that usually involves the power to inspire or stir emotion.

Don’t bury your lead.

People are busy. That means they’re preoccupied with their own narrow universe. They’re also overloaded with information.  So you have to grab their attention right up front. Journalism School 101:  Don’t start your pitch, blog post or Facebook post with, “Jane Smith has received the Acme Auto Dealers’ Association Award, an award given annually to outstanding employees.”  (A yawner.)  Say instead, “Without Jane Smith, Baby Mary would have perished.  For her bravery and commitment to our community, Acme Auto Dealers Association has awarded Smith its highest honor.”

Turn the day’s news into your news.

Read a good news story where something sounds familiar?  Maybe it intersects with your work or touches on your field. Maybe it involves or influences your number one audience. There are multiple ways to inject your experts or your enterprise into a story that has already captivated a mass audience. Localize the story with the resources of your enterprise. Elaborate with your research, or volunteer your local experts to help local reporters write their stories. When you provide the analysis or explanation, you help engage the audience you most need to reach.

Test it out.

There’s a pretty good litmus test for whether to put out that press release in its current form. Ask the question, would anyone care if I happened to take a pressing phone call and neglected to hit “send?” If the only one who might care is within reach of your desk, take another look at your objectives. Maybe there’s a better way to hit the target.  And it might just lie in putting the “story” back into “news story.”