It was the first day of a writing workshop for a group of agency consultants. We finally got around to the litmus-test — the news release. I handed out a page filled with excerpts from all the releases they had submitted earlier and asked for rewrites. But with news, not hype. There’s a big difference and any journalist can see it immediately.

The no-news release is full of long sentences overloaded with adjectives saying how wonderful and marvelous something is. It reeks of benefits about the product, company or service: ‘Auction Server is a unique real-time auction hosting software application that enables Web users to participate in live Internet auctions through continuous communication with other bidders and an auctioneer.’ Oh yes, it also uses words like ‘enables’ instead of ‘lets’ or ‘allows’. The one thing it lacks is news. Hard news. Breaking news. The one ingredient that actually makes it a news release.

Some time ago The New Yorker ran a cartoon called ‘PR Hell’ showing consultants entering a cave. Over their heads were the words ‘Abandon all hype ye who enter here’. We in the industry should post it over our desks as a reminder whenever our creative juices start heating up and common sense goes into retreat.

This is not to say a new release can’t be creative. Of course it can. But the creativity comes from attracting the interest of the reader and effectively ‘selling’ the story. What public relations consultants often forget when they’re writing copy is that same reader. The primary reader for a news release is not the prospect who might be itching to buy your client’s new product and it’s not the client. It’s a reporter, an editor on the news desk at a paper, or a news director at a radio or TV station. In other words, that primary reader is a journalist.

There is no telling how many releases come across news desks every day, but one thing is for sure — it’s a lot more than PR consultants realize. The 5’2″ editorial secretary for a daily newspaper once posed with a stack of news releases received by her news room over the course of a year. The stack, piled on the floor next to her, was exactly the same height.

Consultants must learn that their precious clients are competing for the attention of all those gatekeepers as we like to call them. The only way to attract that attention is by offering the goods and by talking the media’s language when doing so.

‘Interactive industrial control manufacturing programs developed by Edwards Real-Time Systems can be integrated with imaging dynamic access Just-In-Time delivery to produce software development integral ground plane cost differentials.’

This one breaks just about every rule in the book. It’s full of jargon. The sentence — just the one — is too long. There are far too many adjectives and too many confusing words bunched together. And unless you’re the production floor manager at Edwards Real-Time Systems chances are you don’t even know what it’s about. As for news, well what exactly is it?

Here’s another. ‘Yesterday the Caribbean Islands’ water-filled transit shelter was launched at the corner of 5th and 49th Streets, creating the magic of the Caribbean above and below the waves. The shelter, which has been designed to stimulate the underwater experience of the Caribbean, is a first. Surrounded by blue, bubbling water, the shelter’s walls also house a scuba diver and an array of multicolored fish, made life-like with the wonders of Digital Imaging Technology Corp.’

This also was from a writing workshop and the consultant was proud of her work. “I thought it wasn’t bad,” she said and it isn’t bad — for a piece of marketing or advertising copy maybe — but not a news release.

Most journalists, never mind deadline-hardened veterans who cut their eye teeth covering the courts or council, can readily distinguish a well prepared news release from a bit of bumpf. The trick is get back to the old inverted pyramid and think like a reporter!

One of my favorite handouts is an article by a PR practitioner who is a former journalist. It’s called ‘Doing media relations like a reporter’ and one of his bullets says this: ‘As a media relations person, you job is to publicize, not market. This is a common mistake that many PR people make, especially those with marketing backgrounds.’

So what to do? An attention-getting headline is a good way to start, but not such a good way if it sacrifices accuracy for the blast factor. ‘New web site geared to young investors’ or ‘Survey shows production employees unhappy’ might not win any awards for snappy writing, but they will be better received than ‘Kids make nutritious snacks’ or ‘Miners won’t work after death’.

The lead should be just that. A lead. ‘Work will start today on Micro Support Systems’ new research-and-technology center that is expected to change the industry’. The trick is to get the reader’s attention while providing a semblance of the story. If you’ve done a good job, the reader will want to continue. Also if you’ve done a good job, you will target the release to the right people which means you don’t send a high-tech story to the education reporter unless, of course, there is an angle that is of interest.

For what not to do in a news release, here’s a list of some common mistakes:

Too much hype and not enough news.
The release and its individual sentences are too long.
No spokesperson.
Too many spokespersons.
Not geared to the reader.