Press releases are the selfies of the marketing world


The press release was a document born of necessity. Nascent public relations professionals realised the best way to get ahead of the story and speculation was to distribute a short statement of the facts. And it took off.

Over time, the format has become a hyper real pastiche. Many PRs don’t think you should even create them, while many startups and marketers believe they should be cranking them out because it shows what a real company they are.

In the mean time, the language of communication has changed and the means of publishing have spread. What was once the only way to market has become just one option. And it’s amplified by its contrast to the alternatives.

In the current communications mix, the press release has become a pouting, superficial self-portrayal — often largely unwelcomed, leaving the subject disparaged behind its back. Duck-faced brands smile on obliviously, instead of thinking about what would encourage someone else to hold the camera.

Let’s dig into this further.

Context as the subject

The issue with selfies is that, by definition, they more or less render context moot. You can be standing in front of the Great Wall of China but an arms-length framing is always going to make you an artificial focal point.

By contrast, if you turn the camera around, you’re presenting your viewer with your perspective on the world around you. Taking care to turn a quick snap into an artful composition shows them something about you without you having to tell them. And it respects their time and attention. It’s also harder to hide from the fact you’ve trotted out something pedestrian, derivative or uninteresting.

Similarly, most press releases ignore the bigger picture around them. Part of this is formal — they’re not really made for it. So why not just write an announcement post that puts your news in context? Why not write a series of them? Why not record a short video about why the news matters.

See if you can do it without using the words “excited to announce”. See how short you can keep it while making your point. See what other relevant articles you can quote and link to. Maybe interview someone involved and ask good questions. Think like a journalist.

Just the facts

But this can go too far.

There’s nothing worse than trying to write up a story from a document that buries and obfuscates its facts in reams of insignificant detail. Great photos don’t come with the details on ISO rate and shutter speed hidden “Where’s Wally” style somewhere on their canvas. These details are included like metadata through standards like EXIF — or key details are included on an accompanying note in the gallery.

Keep your facts clear. Try 3 credible, quantitative bullet points. Maybe you can use each as a heading for another sentence or two that provides more context but keep it short and link elsewhere if there’s more relevant detail.

Dividing facts and context means you can still reference the former in the latter but ensures they are at a reader’s fingertips when they need them. If the facts don’t show why your story is interesting, maybe it isn’t. This exposure of the truth alone may be worth the price of entry.

Confront it — and if there’s no way to express the story without achieving this, perhaps it’s time to consider another way to publish. A short interview might be a better way to express what makes this story point matter. Or maybe you should just release the data? Or perhaps it’s worth an email to a small subset of your customers/ audience?

There is no one size fits all. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder — but the facts should give you an apparatus to identify whose eyes to aim for next.

The holy grail

It’s likely the best photo of you is not a selfie. You probably aren’t looking straight at the camera. Maybe you didn’t even know they were taking a photo. You’re just doing your thing, perhaps in good company and in a place that makes you happy.

More than ever, we’re a society used to recording moments in each others’ lives. From the big days like weddings and babies, down to the mundane but shared ground of daily life, there’s something inherently social about these snaps.

The best marketing today is similar. Showing up on communities like Reddit or being submitted naturally to a site like Product Hunt shows something significant about you. Someone writing about you because you’re worth talking about is them capturing a natural moment in your company’s life.

You’re not always going to enjoy it. You have to accept that sometimes it’s going to be unflattering. But if your company can’t stand the scrutiny of your audience exposing you from every angle, or nobody is talking about you at all, it’s better that you know.

No amount of selfie sticks, ‘beauty’ filters or orbiting drones are going to hide the fact you are holded up, alone in your room taking these snaps. It’s time to ignore these distractions and turn the lens on the world around you. If you make it the subject, you’ll be surprised how quickly it may return the interest in you.

May 6th, 2015

Digital Wake: a new experiment

Having recently got heavily into podcasts, it seemed a good time to give it a crack with @DannyWhatmough. Thoughts and feedback always welcome.

November 28th, 2014

PR for PR

Have been meaning to write up similar thoughts about the Guardian’s “anon PR” feature. Was invited to write one and explained that I think anyone who would contribute is rather missing the point of our industry.

Found it interesting how often the comments on Wadd’s post included: “I’m in”. Maybe one thing that will make a big difference is more people and agencies saying “we’re in PR” instead of hiding from the phrase. And even better, companies confirming PR is a high and valuable priority provided by professional and essential partners.

For me, there are lots of disciplines hitting overlapping marketing+management areas at the moment — but what makes the difference is the background from which you’re entering that challenge. That’s where I thank God I got started in the PR world instead of the many others competing today.

We aren’t just trying to slam links out there like SEOs or fill expensive ad space. As far as I can see, the best PR was always about building growing, sustainable and valuable relationships with key people by providing something that helped them achieve their own goals.

Great ideas, strategically managed, delivered without just throwing money at the problem. Using journalistic instinct to scrutinise the company and help them tell a credible story that creates growing value. Providing a better editor for their work.

I’d love PR to reclaim its meaning as something more than “I’m going to pull strings with the newspaper editors I take for lunch.”

November 15th, 2014

The journo who replied to every PR email missed the most important point

I love the idea. Obviously. But I think there’s a missed opportunity in the execution.

Let me start at the beginning.

The problem

In a world where PRs outnumber journalists so hugely, the biggest obstacle to improving our industry today is the broken feedback loop.

If every journo could reply to every single PR email, good PRs would gradually refine what they send and who they send to, reducing volumes. Meanwhile, careless PRs would receive large quantities of replies and be unable to escape that there are real humans on the other end, whose time they are wasting.

If every journalist took a week out to do what’s described in this article, even just once, it could help close this loop. Spending a little time could reduce future unwanted email, help PRs understand interests and refine one of the most important but frustrating systems in a modern journalist’s life.

Sadly though, the execution in the article rather limits this potential, even from day 1:

It’s Saturday, so my inbox is mercifully quiet. I do receive an email titled “Lion who attacked teacher in Peru in care of animal organization helping to enforce circus ban”; attached is a press release that says about the same thing, but in more than 950 words. I reply “Hi, thanks for sending this, will look into Operation Spirit of Freedom rescue mission” and resume my weekend.

Instead of clarifying the kind of thing that might be of interest, Zach is providing positive feedback for topics outside his remit – especially in a world where they are used to deafening silence.

Two days later, more inaccurate positive feedback:

I do get a note about Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott throwing a “Lavish, Snackeez-Themed Birthday Party” for their son’s second birthday party, so I reply “Thanks! Sounds like a fun party,” which is a weird thing to write about a birthday party for a stranger’s 2-year-old, but whatever.

In fact, twice in the same day:

I listen to it in bed anyway and muster up a bland “Thanks—I’ll give it a listen” in reply and wonder what sort of toll the five days that lay ahead will take.

Monday hits and he issues another self-defeating barrage:

I respond to a release about a French company specializing in the production of mechanical components with a chirpy “I don’t know much about drilling and optronic assembly, but thank you for sharing!”

By Wednesday, he may have realised the damage he was doing — things turn around a bit:

My favorite ones are invites to events happening in other cities, like a brewery party in Chicago and an exhibit of photos of Chartres Cathedral in Paris sent to me by a publicist with an email address, because then I can respond by politely and usefully announcing that I live in New York

Useful feedback. A good PR will use this detail to save further irrelevant pitches in the future. After all, they don’t want to waste their own time either.

Then, an even better move:

Things slow by midafternoon, but there’s a weird surge in sports-related PR (a study on NFL coaches, a “Swing for Education Golf Classic”) so I take the opportunity to inform publicists of Newsweek’s sports guy (it’s not me!).

This is incredibly useful feedback. If it’s not relevant, making that clear is great — but if it’s a half decent story then pointing toward your colleagues will, again, help in future.

This turn around reveals something I think is interesting — journalists inherently know that there’s a possibility to save themselves future aggro. But the fact is, most journalists have stopped trying.

The aftermath – what can journalists do?

From Zach’s followup:

 Now I’m the most revered journalist in PR agencies nationwide, an earthly god among flacks.

I was forced to a startling conclusion: My week-long immersion in the gaping uselessness of PR emails had produced something…sort of…useful to PR people? Essential, even?

Nearly. So nearly. And so nearly to journalists too — but I think it just fell short of being actually quite revolutionary.

With that in mind, I thought I’d supply some options to help journalists manage the incoming PR flow, based on my perspective halfway between the two worlds.

1. Tell us what interests you and how to pitch you

Every writer is different. Zach mentioned in his follow up how to catch his eye: “Consider me the last writer on Earth who still loves receiving physical media in the mail.” But for a million other journalists, they can’t stand the idea.

Yes, PRs should read your writing and ideally tweets before making unsolicited contact. But if you can supplement that with a short note about how best to contact you, what your current agenda, commissions or core interests are, you’re only going to help them do it better.

2. Use auto-responses

Plenty of tools will allow you to either juggle multiple items on a clipboard, expand text from little shortcuts or even just keep multiple responses that you use often. Write some up — perhaps a simple “I don’t cover this patch, I write about XYZ, see my statement here” or “I will never write about this, please take me off your list”.

How about including links to your colleagues on various topics in the response too? If you’re worried it’ll increase emails you receive, include a clear statement: “no need to respond to this message”.

3. Use email properly

Know your weapon. Email isn’t going anywhere. You’re not about to be pitched any less. Developing rules as the first line of processing makes sense but try to focus on highlighting the unmissable messages instead of filtering out all the noise.

Take it seriously. Read Getting Things Done. Consider how you might link Mailbox into the workflow so you can get through it quicker. This isn’t just true of journalists, it’s true of everyone in an email-heavy environment.

September 22nd, 2014

How do journalists get ‘out of’ PR spam

Nearly four years ago, I wrote this:

What if you could tag PR spam right from your inbox with the system sending automatic responses to each incorrect query?  Perhaps it  could even bounce them a full bio of what you *do* cover for future reference.

The Big Why

  • It’s the minimum disruption to journalists’ time. Right Click + Tag takes no longer than Right Click + Delete.
  • It sends a clear, unavoidable message to bad PRs each time it happens.  If they spam 200 addresses and get 180 bouncebacks each time, they might adjust their behaviour.
  • It doesn’t penalise the good PRs- it even improves their understanding of the publication for the future.

And even though I had some interesting chats about the subject with Charles Arthur and Adam Parker, among others, life got in the way and I never got round to putting a theoretical tool like this together.

Then today, in the midst of the discussion on Twitter, a simpler way of achieving it struck me.

Every journalist should turn on their Out of Office feature.

Okay, bear with me here — it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

The Good

The biggest challenge facing PR today is lack of feedback. Good PRs try to send news to journalists they think will be interested. We read their writing, stalk them on Twitter — we *listen* to them as best we can. And we still make mistakes because ultimately you’re also often taking a gamble when topics are on the ‘edge zone’ of what they may or may not want to cover. Part of our job is often to help good writers discover what’s at these edges and what’s happening next.

However, because the ratios of PRs to journalists are out of kilter, we can’t always get feedback. So names stay on lists that technically shouldn’t be there. Nobody wants them there, on either side, but logistically it’s impossible for the journalists to provide the feedback that would save them.

The Bad and the ugly

Meanwhile, bad PRs are smashing out their announcements left, right and centre because they either don’t understand or don’t really care. For better or worse, we do have these people out there who maybe are just doing their first job and don’t really care about sticking around for a career or anything.

This is a whole other topic — BUT, the important thing is, there’s little in the way of immediate cost for them to go broader rather than more targeted. Maybe their account manager will just smooth over the lack of coverage with the client, or maybe they’ll follow up with phone calls and get lucky in one of the 200 leads.

We need something that:

  • Scales for journalists – the closer to zero effort the better,
  • Rewards good PRs and helps them refine lists,
  • Punishes bad PRs in proportion to the volume of irrelevant spam they are sending
    • (or alternatively gives them less and less excuse for sending to the wrong people)

So – we need something that provides feedback for each and every email. This is where the automated Out of Office comes in.

The Idea

Every time a PR emails, they’ll receive a simple, personal update that clearly states what that journalist covers and how they like to be contacted. Whether they ask for it or not.

Most systems will only send this once per conversation thread, so it shouldn’t be entirely suffocating, plus it will give you a signal as to whether your email was properly received or ended up in spam (I think.) 

  • Bad PRs end up with an equal amount of responses in their inbox — but each one offering the potential for them to learn and refine their lists, causing them less return spam in future.
  • Good PRs get to know their leads even better — especially if journalists update this stock message every month or so to keep it current. Maybe they even highlight good and bad examples, there’s a lot of potential here.
  • Journalists hopefully end up with a relevant, low maintenance and direct opportunity to educate the people who email them, without things getting too personal.

The catch? Out of office goes to everyone. That I haven’t nailed yet.

But I think this might be one of the easiest, most low maintenance ways to really make progress in this area. Education isn’t enough — change will only happen if we take action.

Got a better idea or a way to improve this? Chip in.



September 24th, 2013

Nostalgic reflections of an aging PR Account Exec

I’ve just been clearing out my RSS reader — one that I’d bolstered in 2009 with a collaborative list of marketing blogs suggested in the first useful Google Doc I think I ever saw (bravo Mat Morrison.)

Scything through the dead feeds, with posts as far back as 2006(!), it struck me just how different the world feels today. Perhaps it was something in the clumsy blogspot and typepad themes but there’s a sense of non-threatening innocence and honesty to many of them that feels at stark contrast with today’s HTML5-powered wonderblogs.

People leave comments — sometimes loads of them. Sometimes sad notes asking for one last post from that anonymous source. Of course, most of this discussion has shifted away to Twitter and beyond. But even there, I feel less and less community than when I started just a few short years ago.

Perhaps it’s because nobody told these people to blog or tweet. Back before every graduate was informed that spreading their opinions online would help them get hired, there was something in the thrill of experimenting and trying to break things.

In fact, the only reason I ever managed to squeeze any value out of Twitter was when I got bored of watching endless tweets from Stephen Fry and followed 2000 people to in a fit of rebellion to dilute him. Turns out that (after deleting a fair few of those people) there was a lot of value hidden in that haystack.

Everything today is relatively so polished and professional. You always had gimps trying to use “exciting” free ebooks to get you to fill forms with contact data — but the openness and generosity of the local community had an attractive clarity to it when I was just getting started.

Of course nothing’s really as pure as it appears in retrospect. But nearly five years on, I look for those precocious interlocutors who were just messing around to see what they could do and perhaps they’ve drowned into the noise.

Or maybe I’m just getting sentimental in my old age.

August 19th, 2013

The troll rules have changed. Or have they?

There’s a lot of talk about trolling at the moment but just because someone shouts about wanting to kill you, it doesn’t mean their actual goal is a murder. It’s attention — and trying to quiet everyone in the world who’s after attention is going to take more than a new button in a social media tool.

From my article about this on Medium:

The global mainstream community is now being confronted with something more like the old dynamic of trolling. Even though most of it won’t be familiar with the old ways of dealing with these things, I think it’ll inevitably have to return to the time-honoured solution to disruptive human influence.

July 31st, 2013

Google Zero: the answer to the backlash

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about how Google is no longer the company it used to be – for example this ridiculous article by Danny Sullivan on paid inclusion last month.*

From its search page design to the nature of Google+ to what it’s ‘Don’t be evil’ slogan means today, it’s coming under the kind of flack that massive brands eventually always do.

But at the same time, I think it’s a company that has navigated a lot of these challenges with impressive grace. Quite apart from burying (or everything but?) it’s head in the sand like Apple, it seems to confront these threats with a powerful cultural tool: transparency.


June 17th, 2012

Power Struggles of the Advocate Age – The Social MBA

I really never thought I’d say this after only three years in PR but, come January, I’m going to be a published author. And I think that’s both quite humbling and seriously cool.

A little while ago, I was kindly invited by Christer Holloman to contribute a chapter to what became The Social Media MBA – a guide for marketers of all levels to emerging trends, supported by tips to help them execute advanced strategies.

I know right, you can’t wait to read it? Well, you have to. But I can tell you a little about my chapter – the rest is a closely guarded secret.


November 25th, 2011