Wednesday, June 5, 2013

R.I.P. D.I.Y. P.R…Why Press Release Production is Harder Than You Think

I’ve been seeing a growing number of articles questioning whether companies, particularly startups, should be saving money by acting as their own PR firms. It’s interesting to note, too, that many of these articles have been written by PR consultants and small-business coaches-cum-authors. Just saying…

Dallas Mavericks owner, investment tycoon and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban got a rise out of the public relations industry in early 2012 when he was quoted as saying that startups shouldn’t hire PR firms to manage their messaging. And there is some logic behind that.

After all, the arguments against a startup or small company hiring a PR firm come down to the expense of a retainer fee and possible extra billings. With limited funds and irregular cash flow, this view is understandable. There’s also the nagging question of whether the communication services provided correlate into direct ROI.

Naturally, I don’t subscribe to this view. Of course, not every company needs PR assistance. But in an increasingly crowded startup and small business space – employing nearly half of the US private sector and responsible for 60% of all new jobs in the last two decades – getting noticed is a matter of corporate life and death.  

Sometimes professionals are what are needed to get the job done. Actually, it’s a lot like plumbing. Fixing a toilet with duct tape and paper clips will only get you so far. And press releases –central to what our industry produces – are liable to end up in the loo if they’re poorly written.

But love them or hate them, the press release, which appropriately starts with the same letters of our profession, is our calling card. And sadly, I’ve read thousands of press releases that fail to inspire. In fact, we have two former reporters on staff at ThinkInk who have attested to the daily barrage of bad press releases they were subjected to during their journalistic careers. One (who shall remain nameless) even admitted to turning them into paper airplanes and flying them around the newsroom.

Underscoring the point: about a week ago I received a press release – from a man I’ve never heard of at a company I’ve never heard of – announcing that his company won an award which I’ve also never heard of. Just out of PR curiosity, I checked the name of the company president, who is quoted in the release, against the name of the company’s media contact. It turns out it’s the same guy.

To be fair, it’s likely that the company president is so busy actually running the company to put much thought into how he’s telling its story. And that’s exactly the point. This is a communications job for communications professionals. Leave it to us.

After all, there is such a thing as a professional press release. And it starts with an effective headline and email subject line. Both should rely on the tenets of solid journalism: concise noun-verb sentences attracting eyeballs. The body of the release must be story driven; something that evokes a human emotional response. It doesn’t have to be profound. But something like a humdrum building expansion and lease renewal all of a sudden gains added relevance when that client-serving news is anchored to, say, an entire urban core’s renaissance. Placed in that context, a press release transforms from self-servicing copy into another form of narrative writing.

Can a small business hire a team to write these releases in-house?


But writing an effective press release is only part of the story. Knowing who to pitch it to makes all the difference. There’s also channel relevance to consider and social media. This mix of writing skills, tech-savvy know-how and networking acumen is critical to what we do, and frankly, why we get paid.

It’s true; public relations services can be costly. And there is often a slow ramp-up period for the selected agency to learn the client’s voice. Unlike newly repaired toilets, ROI benefits aren’t always immediate. But history is filled with examples of PR campaigns that helped turn obscure companies into household names or conversely, re-brand fallen stars.

PR isn’t an instant gratification business. But it is professional in how it operates. To the naysayers who counsel DIY small business and startup PR, I’d urge reconsideration. Your brand only gets one chance to make a first impression. And in the mobile and digital age sometimes your fate is sealed even before that public unveiling.

So if at all possible, leave the PR job to the experts. And if your loo backs up – call a plumber.    

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