How to write a press release

In the last blog entry, I discussed how many businesses incorrectly defined marketing as a sub-function of their sales department.   There is also a second incorrect definition, to think of marketing solely in terms of promotional activity.

Promotion is one element of the strategic marketing mix and the choice of promotional strategy is intertwined with your choice of target demographic and the other mix elements.

It is also a mistake to think of promotion in terms of a single channel.  I see this with many small firms who incorrectly view their promotional activity solely in terms of social media.  Digital marketing and social media marketing is not an easy or cheap option.  You may have to use more energy and resources to develop a digital marketing campaign than on more traditional promotional techniques.  Social media marketing often relies on the development of ‘viral’ content.  There are no guarantees that content will develop a viral status proportional to the resources applied to it.  Digital and social media marketing is not a cheap fix and marketing academics are still struggling to define appropriate success metrics for the digital channel.

I was out for a walk yesterday and passed a local carpet shop.  In the shop window was a large sign proudly displaying the shops Trustpilot rating.  But ask yourself, who buys carpets over the internet?  You need to see the carpets up close and you need to supply accurate room measurements.  To buy carpets you need to visit a shop or have a sales representative visit your home with samples. I would be interested to see what proportion of that shops sales are through digital channels.  I suspect not very many.

Of course there will be demographic groups where digital marketing takes a more prominent part in your promotional mix, e.g. selling fashion to teenagers. But in other markets, such as selling stair lifts to the elderly, traditional promotional channels are still required.

So you need to develop a promotional mix using a variety of digital and traditional tactics.  These can include print and television advertising, radio, product placement, digital and Public Relations.

Public relations often gets a bad rap.  It is associated with dubious individuals such as the sex offender Max Clifford, who made a career out of selling kiss and tell stories to the tabloid press.  However, public relations have an important part to play in marketing communications.

Public relations are properly defined as the management of communications and relationships to establish goodwill between an organisation and its publics.  PR is the management and maintenance of your corporate reputation through both intended and unintended messages.

PR messages have a wider focus than pure marketing messages. Whereas marketing communications are focused on consumers of your product, public relations messages are to a wider cohort of stakeholders such as media organisations, government and finance providers.

The objectives of public relations include:

  1.  Prestige and reputation management:  to sell products, attract good employees and to promote community and government relations.
  2. Promotion of products: Build consumer desire through the use of press articles and product placement
  3. Dealing with issues and opportunities: Using social and community issues to create mutual benefit for your organisation and other stakeholders
  4. Developing customer goodwill: Treating customer issues fairly accurately and speedily.
  5. Developing goodwill with employees: Ensuring that employees identify with your organisation and share its values.  Overcoming the misconceptions of staff which may do damage to the organisation.
  6. Developing goodwill with suppliers and distributor:  Being a good customer to your suppliers and a good supplier to your distributors.
  7. Developing goodwill with government:  Influencing the opinions of public officials and politicians.
  8. Dealing with unfavourable press coverage:  Reacting quickly, accurately and effectively to negative press coverage.

There are two basic models of public relations:

  1. One-way Public Information Model – through the use of press releases and press conferences.
  2. Two-way Communication Model –  Where a conversation develops between an organisation and its stakeholders.   This model operates in two modes; symmetric where the balance of power is equal and communication reciprocal and  asymmetric; where the power balance is not equal and where the organisation affects stakeholder behaviour through persuasion.

These two modes tend to co-exist.

Public relations includes activities such as corporate advertising, event sponsorship and lobbying but for SMEs, probably the most prominent PR activity is media relations.

Media relations is the use of news stories in both tradition and electronic media to promote an organisation and its products without paying for advertising space.  However, it must be remembered that there are costs to the development of media relations. It is not free marketing.

The most common form of media relations is the use of the press release.

I have prepared many press releases over the years and was taught to write them by an experienced journalist and editor.  I have also seen managers and business owners who are terrible at providing written information to the press.  Here are a few tips which will help you prepare press statements which will catch the eye of editors and journalists:

  1.  Your content must be newsworthy:  A press statement must have something to say.  it is not solely an attempt to get free advertising.  It must have some meet on its bones. The fact you are having a sale is not newsworthy.  The fact you are donating a percentage of your profits to a local charity most likely is.  Potentially newsworthy topics include the launch of new products, new business investments, business expansions, significant changes to the marketing mix e.g. product rebranding, Productivity records, promotions and employee recruitment, capital investments, financial statements, acquisitions, big export orders, training awards, achievements of staff, visits by famous people, conferences, significant anniversaries.
  2. You have to be media savvy.  News of a manager being promoted may be of interest to the trade press but it probably will be spiked by a national newspaper (unless it is the CEO of a major bank).  Also be savvy about the timing of your release.  Be aware of slow news days and times when news is scarce e.g. during the summer parliamentary recess.
  3. Your message has to be of high credibility:  Higher than advertising.  It will be written up by a professional journalist, an expert in investigating and questioning statements not your in-house copywriter.  You will lose control of publication. When you buy advertising you pay for a particular position in a paper or magazine.  But a newspaper editor will decide where to place a news story in the paper.  You could end up on page thirty ‘below the fold’.
  4. Writing News Releases:  You have to keep press releases short.  You are not writing the article you are providing information to a journalist who will do the writing.  Keep the press release to one page at most.  Even better, keep it to two or three paragraphs.  If there are statistics or there is complex information to impart, provide bullet pointed Notes for Editors alongside the press release.  I have seen press releases which are little more than management reports and which go on for page after page.  These generally will end up spiked.  Remember newspapers and magazines have style guides for layout and grammar.  Only provide an pre-written article if requested to do so and ask for advice on style.
  5. Content:  Your headline must be factual.  leave flowery writing and puns to professional subeditors.  Your headlines task is to provide a brief introduction to your story.  Your first paragraph should summarise the story and provide all the critical detail.  It provides  the essential message of your story and it must catch an editor’s attention.  Your copy should also be factual and be backed up with evidence such as statistical data.  Include a ‘sparkling quote or even better two as it helps personalise the story and give it gravitas
  6. Layout: Use double spacing and leave significant margins.  This allows editors to mark the story for publication, to add information and make proofing amendments.  If the press release goes over the page (it shouldn’t) put “(MORE) at the bottom of the page on the right margin and number the pages.
  7. Embargoes and contact details: If there is an embargo only after which a story can be published, make sure it is in bold below the headline to the article.  Always include contact details so that editors can get further information.

Editors may receive hundreds of press releases in a single day.  To get yours published it must be professional and stand out from the crowd.


Brand language and communications

Increasingly promotional activity and communicating brand messages is not a verbal medium; it is a visual medium.  The requirement to create visual messages; combined with the ever-shortening attention spans of viewers; makes promotional advertising and the communication of brand messages more difficult.  Consumers are bombarded with commercial messages.

This means that if you are to successfully communicate your brand message, you must carve out a distinct territory.  A unique and successful brand message does not appear out of thin air.

Creating brand territory is not as simple as just repeating the same phrases over and over again.  It is the development of a brand language which expresses your corporate ideology.  It is a favourite practice of politicians to come up with a single phrase which encapsulates their whole campaign; for example Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ or Tony Blair’s, ‘Education, Education, Education’.  Politicians are trying to create a shorthand which uses a single phase to draw the attention of the widest possible electorate.  However, for a commercial branding strategy, such shorthand leads to excessive repetition which can clog up the brand message.

Often there is such an urge to create an image of unity and common spirit in a brand message across different campaigns that brand messages become a code.  Code is artificial language.  it isn’t human or natural.  When creating a brand message you want to communicate personality, your culture and your brand values.  You want to announce products in a way which charms customers.  If you resort to a shorthand, impersonal code, these factors are missing.

Rather than creating a code, you need to build a glossary of terms which apply to your brand.  Such a glossary helps decentralise your message whilst keeping your chosen language within your identified brand prism.

The process is similar to the creation of the style guides used by newspapers and other publications.  The style guide for The Economist runs to over three hundred pages and the Yahoo style guide is even longer.  These documents specify the agreed spelling of certain words, page layout and appropriate punctuation.  They define how these publications look on the page.

A brand charter, or expression guide, the promotional equivalent of a journalistic style guide.  They will include agreed phrases and even where on a page the brand name and logo are located but they will also specify the dominant features of style such as colours used, text fonts and image requirements.  For internet and television promotions they will show agreed gestures and jingles.  Graphic layouts and narrative structure codes will be included.  Think of a Coca Cola television of cinema advert, they will nearly always show someone drinking from the traditional glass Coca-Cola bottle (the bottle shape is a registered trademark) even though the majority of Coca Cola sales are now either in metal cans or plastic bottles.

In mature markets advertising is a challenge. There are no guaranteed results and often defined goals are not easily measurable.  Such goals are not SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic or Time Bound).

As a result many brands are switching away from traditional advertising forms and mediums.  For example the wine brand Jacob’s Creek has stopped using traditional television advertising and instead has switched to the sponsorship of television programmes.  Jacob’s Creek was built on an award-winning product, in-store promotions, support to the retail and distribution trade and customer tasting sessions at the point of sale.  The switch from traditional television advertising to programme sponsorship is a better match top the brand image and ideology.  Another tactic being employed by Jacob’s Creek and other brands is the increased use of product placement in films.

For top of the range brands, a common branding tactic is an association with opinion leaders.  For example, eBay is arguably the most successful internet sales and auction site.  eBay’s position was not built on television advertising (although recently they have started to use that promotional channel).  EBay developed its brand position through the use of online referral and public relations.

There is an old maxim: “Half of my advertising budget is wasted but I don’t know which half”.  Statement is nonsense.  Wasted promotional activity is easy to identify.  It is advertising activity which:

  • Is not sufficiently creative and individual
  • Which misses its target audience
  • or which is shown where the promoted product is not on sale.

Of these three reasons, the first is the most important.

Often, the failure of promotional campaigns is blamed on the advertising agency.  However, the client employing the agency can be equally at fault.  often promotional campaigns fail because the specification provided to the agency is not clear in identifying the required brand message of the goals to be achieved.  Often the fault is the quality of the brief, not the quality of the agency.

Brand propositions must be incisive.  They cannot be bland.  it is unlikely that even the most creative advertising agencies can transform a bland brief. A promotional brief that is full of statistics and has a dearth of actionable ideas is likely to fail.

You must radicalise your advertising targets.  Your brief shouldn’t just describe your target customers, it should reflect them.  Your promotional messages should be given through radical characters not plain people.  For many years Cillit Bang was advertised using a fictional character ‘Barry Scott’.  Barry became as famous as the product.  Many thought him to be a real person and not an actor playing a part.  The Barry Scott character was carefully designed to reflect the ideal consumer of the brand and to exaggerate defined characteristics.

After using the character for many years, Barry was dropped from Cillit Bang’s advertising and there was a distinct fall in sales.  So much so, the character was brought back and once again fronts their advertising.

Creative and radicalised promotions are difficult for brands which consumers have known all their lives.  Oxo has recently reverted to having a OXO family, a promotional strategy it first used in the 1970s.  However some mature and established brands do manage to present radicalised messages.  One need only think of the Cadbury Dairy Milk promotion with the drumming gorilla.

If you are looking to promote a brand over the long-term or to reinvigorate a mature brand, it is important to present a radicalised message and the development of a comprehensive brand charter.

How the Tories forgot the rules of brand promotion

The consensus amongst political commentators is that the campaign delivered by the Conservatives; sorry, Theresa May’s team; at the 2017 general election was a complete disaster.  At the beginning of the election’s long campaign, the polls gave the Tories a massive lead over Labour.  Theresa May’s approval rating as Prime Minister soared above other part leaders.  The election looked like it would be a landslide win for the Conservatives; the parliamentary Labour Party would be decimated; and Mrs May would get her mandate to deliver a hard Brexit.

Now, following her cataclysmic campaign, Theresa May’s dreams are dust.  She has been transformed from a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher into a creature of ridicule.  She has lost all credibility.  She is a zombie prime minister awaiting the delivery of a blade to her political cerebral cortex.  It is only a question as to which of her backbenchers delivers the blow.

So how did May’s campaign disintegrate so spectacularly?  Many have pointed to her robotic and awkward delivery, her inability to think on her feet and her unwillingness to actually meet the electorate.  It is true that an attempt to run a campaign based on personality when your candidate doesn’t appear to have one is a major mistake.  Certainly a significant proportion of the UK population were confused by the campaign’s presidential style.  However, I believe a far greater flaw was that those running the campaign had clearly ignored the lessons in marketing strategy and brand management which Mrs May’s predecessors had successfully used to win elections.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, the presentation of political campaigns was staid and boring.  it was men in grey suits, sitting in sepia clad television studios, arguing about economic statistics.  All that changed in 1979 with the general election campaign of Margaret Thatcher.  The Iron Lady had employed Gordon Reece as her image consultant to ensure that she projected an appropriate personality to the electorate.  for the campaign itself she went outside her party machine and employed the advertising and marketing firm Saatchi and Saatchi to run the campaign.  The principles of commercial marketing and PR were applied to the campaign.  It was politics packaged like a tin of beans.

Many may think of Mrs Thatcher winning several successful landslide majorities

Mrs Thatcher’s successors took things further; Tony Blair in particular.  Blair clearly applied techniques used in Neuro-linguistic Programming such as the subtle use of repetitive phrases and mirroring body language of his inquisitors.  Blair used prominent slogans, such as ‘Education, Education, education’ but was also evident in his interviews and speeches were more subtle phrases and nuanced language designed to enter the subconscious of voters and make them act in a particular way.

I suspect Theresa May had been told of Blair’s neuro-linguistic tactics and tried to emulate them but her ability to execute them was sadly lacking.  Just repeating the same phrase over and over may get your message across but such overt declarations are will more likely bore your audience than affect their behaviour.

Perhaps the biggest fault in the Conservatives 2017 campaign was that it took an extremely old-fashioned view of promoting a brand.

The traditional view of a brand image is the creation of a solid identity.  To build this identity, it was felt that regular repetition of key attribute was required.  Sameness would build brand equity.  This was done to excess by Mrs May and it was the repetition of a single phrase ‘Strong and Stable’.  To Tory campaign managers ears this may have sounded perfect; the brand identity boiled down to three words.  The electorate however clearly read this message differently. To them it signalled not stability but a lack of adaptability, no fleetness of foot and a political ideology with its feet planted firmly in concrete boots.  The electorate clearly didn’t want a government determined to stick to its right-wing guns; it wanted a government with the ability to change in the face of a turbulent political climate.

The torpedo which sunk HMS Theresa May was her policy of using pensioners property equity to pay for their social care.  This policy directly attacked the Conservatives target audience, the over-50s.  Clearly, the unpopularity of the policy panicked Tory central office and the subsequent U-turn completely destroyed the single brand message of Strong and stable.  Such a U-turn wasn’t strong and stable, it was weak and wobbly.

A more modern view of developing a brand is to treat it as having two layers of attributes.  Kernel attributes at its core and peripheral attributes.  This view is to address a dichotomy in brand presentation.  Brands need a solid identity to provide capital but in modern markets, where consumers are impulsive and used to rapid change, a brand must have the ability to surprise and have diversity.

A brand which only has kernel attributes may have power but it will lack relevance in the minds of the intended audience.  A brand with only peripheral attributes may be relevant to the target audience but it will lack the necessary power.

The modern view of creating a brand with kernel attributes to provide solidity but also peripheral attributes which can be adapted to meet the variety expected by modern consumers.

This is where Theresa May’s campaign failed spectacularly.  It had a kernel attribute ‘Strong and stable’ but it had no peripheral attributes.  The campaign was based almost exclusively on Mrs May.  The rest of her party hardly got a look in.  So when that kernel attribute was blown out of the water by the social care U-turn, the campaign was left as a hollow shell.  If Mrs May had run a more diverse campaign, with more than a single attribute, she may have been able to ride out the social care fiasco and retain her majority.


Marketing disasters 4: When CEO’s go rogue

Today many marketing professionals have accepted the concept of an integrated marketing communications strategy.  This approach abandons the linear, step-by-step approach traditionally taken for marketing communications as expressed by the mnemonic AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) and replaces it with an ongoing relational dialogue.

Integrated marketing communication campaigns seek to rationalise communications by creating a coordinated strategy which delivers a consistent, credible and competitive message relating to an organisation.

Such a strategy takes marketing communications beyond the traditional elements of the marketing mix; such as advertising, public relations and direct marketing; and includes elements normally associated with other aspects of the marketing mix such as brand logos and customer relationship management.

The aim is to reduce costs, create synergies and to reinforce competitive advantages.

However, to make the most of an integrated marketing communications strategy the following is required:

  • Strong commitment from senior management
  • Closer integration and increased involvement with promotional agencies
  • A uniform approach by all actors in the process.

In some businesses, senior managers and owners may act as figureheads for the brand e.g. Richard Branson at Virgin group, Michael O’Leary at Ryanair or even Donald Trump.  These individuals are placed at the forefront of the organisations marketing activity.  What such individuals say and do is critical to the success of their organisation’s communications strategy and if the move away from the message at the centre of their integrated marketing plan, significant damage to their brand can occur.

There have been several prominent examples of where loose talk by a senior executive has caused reputation and financial damage to a corporation.  Here are a few examples:

  • Most people in the UK are aware of Gerald Ratner, the former CEO of Ratner’s Jewellers.  Ratner made an infamous after-dinner speech at a business conference. Unbeknown to Ratner, his ‘humorous’ speech was recorded on video and distributed to the media.  In it he said that, “We sell earrings which are cheaper than an M & S prawn sandwich but probably won’t last as long”.  He also referred to a decanter and glasses set as “absolute crap”.  The effect of his speech being publicised was £500 million being wiped off Ratner’s share value.  The jewellery firm he had spent 20 years building nearly collapsed overnight.
  • Then there was David Shepherd, the brand manager for Top Man, who described his target customer base as “hooligans or whatever” and said that they were only likely to wear a suit for their first job interview or for a court appearance.
  • Matt Barrett of Barclay’s told a committee of MPs that consumers should avoid Barclaycard as it was so expensive.  He also told the MPs that he’d advised his children not to borrow on credit cards.
  • Keith Cochrane of the transport company Stagecoach was reported in the press as describing bus passengers as “riff raff”.
  • Allen Ross, at the time the CEO of Glaxo Smith Cline was quoted as saying that 90% of drugs only worked on between 30% and 50% of the consumers taking them.
  • Ivan Seidenberg, the boss of Verizon, the US cell phone supplier once said, “consumers have unrealistic expectations about a wireless service working everywhere.  Why in the world would you expect your (cell) phone to work inside your house?”.

In each of these examples, misplaced comments, unguarded remarks or attempts at humour have mis-fired, causing significant damage to the corporations these men led.  It is crucially important that if you intend to follow an integrated approach to marketing communications or to place a senior manager in the role of a commercial figurehead that they are never off their guard and that their statements are in accordance with the agreed strategy.