By Tom Denham
As a PR professional, Tom has served as Press Secretary for the Florida Speaker of the House and Director of Communications for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. He was former New York Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner’s publicist for his Tampa-based charities and businesses for five years. He served as a partner and Director of Media Relations for one of the largest public relations firms in Central Florida for more than 10 years, generating television and radio interviews for a wide variety of clients. Tom has a solid foundation in journalism, having served as the former crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune and an editor of several community newspapers. This knowledge of both daily and community-based publications gives him a unique viewpoint for knowing what types of articles fit what types of publications. He has generated articles in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Times, and daily newspapers throughout the nation. He is a Vietnam-Era Navy veteran.
Journalists consider press releases a necessary evil. They go through them reluctantly every day because reporters are always looking for something to write. If they are having a good week, they don’t read press releases. They are working on stories they found themselves by covering their beats, talking to sources and beating the streets. If they are having a bad week and have exhausted every other avenue to find their next story, then they start looking at press releases. No journalist worth his press pass wants to go to a gruff city editor and tell him they have a great story they just found in a press release. Editors want them to find their own stories, but sometimes a press release lead is all they’ve got.
That press release has frequently had a long, difficult journey to get to that inbox. The writer has spent hours researching, editing, bouncing it off co-workers and then editing again before it goes to the client for approval. Then the client frequently sends it to several team members for their input. All these edits then get sent back to the original author, who has to make changes to his masterpiece from people he doesn’t even know. Finally it is sent to the journalist where it must clear several hurdles before anything makes it into print.
The First Hurdle: “Journalists Go Through Press Releases Like You Go Through Junk Mail”
Think about how you go through your junk mail. You give it a few seconds before you toss it. In a newsroom, the release gets the same treatment – it only has a few seconds to grab the attention of the journalist – otherwise it is quickly thrown away. During that critical few seconds before it is tossed, the reporter will scan the press release looking for answers to these questions:
Does it pertain to the reporter’s area of coverage? It can be the most interesting piece of prose to ever hit his desk, but if it is something he doesn’t cover, he doesn’t care. It goes in the trash.
Is it timely? Is it about something that is going to happen in the near future? Is it about something that has been in the news recently? Is it local? Is it something that pertains to his specific geographic area? Is it new, unusual or exciting?
Is there something new in the headline or the first paragraph or so that has piqued his interest? Many successful press releases fall into this category with new products, services or information about technologies or services that are not usually known by the general public.
The Second Hurdle: How much editing is required?
No matter how well the piece is written, large newspapers and magazines will typically use the piece as background for a reporter to write his own story. But for the purposes of this book, let’s assume the publication doesn’t have a huge staff and occasionally the editor uses these stories after he has edited them.
So let’s also assume the journalist is interested enough in the first pass that he doesn’t immediately toss it. Early in my career when I was an editor for small community publications, I usually tossed more than half of the press releases I received immediately without ever reading more than a paragraph. The releases that were left I would then divide into two stacks: one stack included releases that required extensive editing and one stack that required very little editing.
The stack that needs a lot of editing probably will not be used at all unless the editor is desperate. Usually these press releases and/or AP style articles will hang around the desk for a day or two and then be tossed when something that requires less editing, or is more interesting, shows up.
The Third Hurdle: How To Get In The Stack That Will Get Used
When an editor makes a decision on whether an AP style article needs a lot or a little editing, these are the red flags that push it into the less desirable stack that will probably be thrown in the trash:
Too much “fluff.” This is the most common error that public relations professionals who have never worked in a newsroom make. Putting in too many over-the-top comments about how wonderful the product or service is or that names the company or CEO six times in the first two paragraphs will doom it to the trash can.
Remember you are not spending all this time and effort on an article just so you can pat yourself on the back. The purpose of the entire exercise is to get it to a mass audience. Many clients believe their product or service is the best thing since sliced bread, but they should save their over-the-top self-congratulations for their advertising budgets.
A public relations professional who can’t stand up to the client and tell her that the press release or article needs to tone down the self-promotion will have an easy path to client approval of the release, but it will usually go nowhere in the newsroom.
Spelling or grammar errors: You would be surprised how many press releases and articles are sent out with spelling mistakes most fourth graders would not make.
Poorly organized: The wording is jumbled, with the wrong paragraphs or sentences in the wrong places. It doesn’t flow well from one thought to the next.
Too many technical terms: Save the technical jargon for in-house publications because employees know those terms; the general public does not. If the release is about a complicated topic, do your best to explain it in simple terms.
Too many large words, long sentences and big paragraphs: This is usually a big problem for book authors who tend to want to write on a more advanced level. Most target publications are writing to an audience at about the tenth-grade reading level. Paragraphs should be small, sentences should be short and complicated subjects should be simplified and presented in bite-sized pieces. Just because someone has written a book does not mean they know the best prose to influence a journalist. Most book authors should rely on competent PR counsel – and take their advice.
Too Many Associated Press Style Errors: The Bible in journalism is the Associated Press Stylebook. This is available for purchase anywhere that sells books. It is what editors turn to when they wonder if they can substitute FDA for the Food and Drug Administration, Realtor for real estate agent or if it is acceptable to use SUV instead of spelling out sport utility vehicle.
So What Do We Mean When We Say We Will Write Your Pitch in an “Associated Press Style” article?
It means we want it to be the type of copy that a newspaper reporter would write, not the type of copy that has been written to please the boss of the company or the author of the book. When our releases hit an editor’s desk, we want the copy to be as smooth as honey. We don’t want him to wade through tons of fluff and self-promotion to get to the meat of what would be important to his readers.
When it comes to approving AP style articles or press releases that a publicist has sent you, you should be flexible and remember what an old editor once told me: “No copy is carved in stone.”
The press releases that usually get the best coverage are the ones that are written the way most reputable print publications with large audiences write their own copy – succinct, to-the-point and without a lot of hyperbole. The editor makes a few minor changes and moves on. That’s our goal, and if you want the biggest audience for your release, it should be your goal as well.