The seven deadly sins of PR

1. Thinking PR is the same as free advertising

Probably the most common error small business owners fall into is thinking that their press release equals an opportunity for free advertising. It doesn't. Journalists are only interested in genuine stories.

If your press release is to have a hope of being published it must convince a journalist that it's either a news story or it would make a strong feature for their publication. Over-designed press releases featuring lots of images are likely to fail. Journalists will take one look and mistake it for an advert. Words are all you really need but include one low res image in the release. The picture should tell the story - reflecting the content of your release.

While we are on the subject of advertising, remember this: don't expect favours from journalists on a publication if you also happen to advertise with it. Real journalists in real editorial departments should not be influenced by advertisers. If a journalist tells you they will give you half a page of editorial if you buy an advert, I would argue, they are not a journalist at all. They are an advertising sales person.

Such coverage isn't really editorial but advertorial and, in my view, should be avoided. Far better to win genuine editorial coverage for your company - and that means you shouldn't have to pay for it.

2. Missing the point

The skill in press release writing is coming up with a strong, compelling story for the media, while at the same time conveying the key messages for your business.

There's little point in sending out a press release unless its publication would lead to genuine sales opportunities for your company or at the very least heighten brand awareness.

3. Being boring or trying to be funny

Boring press releases don't get read. You really have just the intro (first paragraph) of the press release to convince so get straight to the point. Don't, under any circumstances, be dull. Less than ten per cent of the press releases sent to the media are read all the way through. If the first paragraph doesn't grab then the release will be chucked straight into the bin.

But a mistake many fall into when trying to avoid being dull is to think they have to be funny instead. Always remember you are trying to convince a busy journalist to write or broadcast about your company and the only way to do that is to give them a genuine news story. One way to guarantee your release will be thrown into the waste paper basket is to open with a joke. Reality check: You are not Woody Allen. Why so many small business people think the way to free media coverage is through humour really is a mystery to me, but many do, as this woeful example (from a blog reader) shows. Names have been changed to protect the guilty…

ACCOUNTANT COMMITS THE PERFECT CRIME!

Last week, sitting in a compartment on a train was Jane Doe, the founder of Doe Accounts, the tooth fairy and an expensive accountant. On a table between them was a briefcase full of money. Suddenly the train entered a tunnel and everything went dark. When the train exited the tunnel and the light returned, the briefcase was gone. Who took the briefcase? Well, it's obvious really. It had to be the expensive accountant as there's no such thing as the tooth fairy or a cheap accountant!

Does that mean Jane can get away with committing the perfect crime? Well let's hope not.

"I am certainly not your typical accountant," says Jane Doe, the self-styled "Stelios of the accounting world."

Blah, blah, blah (this one goes on and on, but I very much doubt anyone read further than that groan-inducing opening paragraph).

4. Not knowing what news is

So what is news? Well, it's a cliché but the old rule of thumb that 'dog bites man' is not news but 'man bites dog' is news still works for me. In other words it has to be something unusual, something worth remarking on to your mate in the pub.

Give the media a genuine news story. One way of doing this is to ask yourself the question, "Does it pass the so what test?" Read out your intro and then have a friend ask you "So what?" if it feels like a reasonable question then it's probably best to have a rethink.

Variations of the man bites dog story still turn up from time to time in the news. Here's a story I spotted on the BBC news website a while back.

5. Writing too much or not enough

Let's assume you've put together a great press release with a killer intro which conveys all your key messages whilst at the same time satisfying the media's need for a great story.  How much should you write? The answer is somewhere between 400 and 600 words. And remember to include direct quotes and contact phone numbers / email addresses.

Leave as little as possible for a journalist to do.

6. Bad spelling and poor grammar

Once you've finished writing your release read it through for errors and use your spell checker. If your release is littered with poor spelling and grammatical errors it's likely to give any reading journalists an uneasy feeling. After all if you get the basics wrong how can they be sure the content of your release can be relied upon? Above all else make sure any names in your press release are spelt correctly.

7. Careless distributions

Once your press release is ready to go out into the world you need to ask yourself where is it going? Prepare a media list of potential targets - individual journalists working at media outlets where you'd like to be featured and who you think would be interested in your story. Approach each with a separate email in the first instance. Never use cc all or bcc all as your recipients are likely to spot this and thus see the release as something of a round robin. An individual approach takes more effort and time but the results are likely to be worth it. Send your email first thing in the morning. It's okay to follow up with a telephone call but have a little more to say than simply, "Did you get my press release?" And never hassle a journalist. They are busy people. If your story is strong they will come back to you.

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