Quick Tips to Improve Your PR and Marketing Writing

Learning to become a better writer, like any skill you want to master, takes practice and a desire to improve. Most professionals, myself included, want to become better writers. From my experience, it’s the practice part where things fall apart.

I still have a long way to go to become the writer I want to be. For starters, I use too many words. My sentences are too long and for certain formats – blogging for instance, my posts are too long. I’m working to improve at this. My writing would also improve greatly if I would write, re-write and revise more often. I think a lot of people fall into this trap, when publishing content for a blog is more about speed than quality.

As I’ve started to write more this year, I’ve been reminded of some of the tips that have helped me along the way. These tips apply to different types of writing, but they can be applied across many formats depending on your need.

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CAN-SPAM and PR Pitches

I’ve thought a lot about the topic of PR and spam in recent months. Coming from a PR and marketing background, I’ve managed PR and email marketing campaigns. I understand the rules of CAN-SPAM compliance as they apply to email marketing, but not so much when it comes to the unsolicited PR pitch.

On the surface, it’s easy to assume that if a journalist or blogger hasn’t opted-in to receive information from a PR firm, it must be a violation of CAN-SPAM. If you read the CAN-SPAM guidelines on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website, you could easily see how PR messages could be considered spam by some media professionals. For example:

  • You must include an opt-out – a lot of agencies provide – and PR database vendors – provide mechanisms to be removed from a distribution list. There are many that provide no opt-out, and those that do, may not have adequate systems in place to ensure others in the organization don’t send to the email on the next campaign.
  • You can’t use misleading information in the subject line – a simple reference to “the world’s first” or “the leading company” could be interpreted as misleading, along with any other tactic that attempts to convince the journalist to open your email. But that’s nit-picking, and not really what the law is designed for, right?
  • If a recipient opts-out, their request must be processed within 10 days, and the sender must have a system in place to manage opt-outs for at least 30 days. Technically, if a journalist says “take me off your list,” you can’t send them information again for at least 30 days, regardless of the subject matter.

Do PR agencies violate CAN-SPAM? The short answer is “not really.” Journalists and bloggers do not have to opt-in to receive information from PR, but they do have the right to opt-out. The real issue with the PR spam problem is that many journalists and bloggers do not opt-out, but rather work to solve the problem on their own, creating email filtering rules or their own homegrown list of PR spammers.

If they did formally opt-out, and the agency continued to send them information, it would technically be in violation. A journalist could file a complaint with the FTC, but there is no guarantee that this would be enforced, given the fact that most agencies are not serious offenders. And most of the journalists we’ve talked to said they simply don’t have the time or desire to take such drastic measures, even though they are frequently frustrated with the amount of “PR spam” they receive.

Regardless of whether a journalist opts-out, or takes things to the extreme and files a complaint, agencies are within their right to send unsolicited emails to journalists and bloggers. However, those who have not opted-in may be more inclined to report your agency’s email as spam, potentially affecting your ability to send email with a high deliverability rate.

If an ISP (Internet Service Provider) regularly receives complaints that your email is spam (when they click the “report spam” button in some email clients), you may be added to the ISPs blacklist, and all email you send to users of that ISP will be labeled as spam.

Read on for “Best Practices for Staying Off Spam Lists”. [Read more…]

How Many Press Releases Are Sent Out Each Day?

Any journalist or blogger I talk to says they receive a lot of press releases every day. I recently got a message from a reporter working at a small local paper who received 80 press releases in one day – of which only two were relevant to the information his paper covers. This didn’t surprise me, because I hear this story over and over again. It did get me thinking though, “I wonder how many press releases are distributed each day?”

I’ve tried to find this information before with no luck. I decided to give it another try, this time using Twitter to issue the question to popular news distribution services PR Newswire, BusinessWire, Marketwire and PRWeb. Within a few hours, PR Newswire and BusinessWire responded with almost identical answers: they both send out about 1,000 releases each day (2,000 total), though special features and busy news times can drive this number even hire. Holiday tie-in news releases for example.

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How Do Journalists and Bloggers Decide What to Write About?

How do journalists and bloggers decide what to write about?

If you guessed they get all their ideas from PR people, you’re dreaming. Though a surprising number do. While it may be common sense for some of you, some might not know how journalists and bloggers decide what to write about (or which stories to produce in the broadcast arena).

So how do journalists and bloggers decide what to write about? Here are a few of the most common responses we’ve heard from talking to dozens of them:

  • They get assigned a story from editors, along with the sources they should interview for the piece – often from an in-house database of go-to sources, built through long-term relationships with experts and PR professionals.
  • They write a story based on recent news events – in other words, they write about the news of the day. This is one of the biggest areas of opportunity for PR pros, since they can latch onto the hot stories to position their experts as spokespeople or suggest new and exciting angles to cover. Tie-ins to Twitter and the Octo-Mom coverage are two current examples.
  • They get an idea for a story based on their knowledge and experience covering a beat, and reach out to their trusted sources to flesh out the details.
  • They have original ideas for stories that aren’t out there. They come up with story ideas we’ve never thought of, do the research, and entertain us with their findings. PR can play a role here, if pros can point out a story-of-interest that hasn’t been told yet.
  • They expand upon coverage another journalist or blogger has written about, offering us fresh perspective or counter point, or telling the article as it relates to us locally.
  • They talk to people. They stay in close contact with their best sources or they attend industry events and conferences. The challenge for you is

This is only a sampling of ways journalists and bloggers decide what to write about. Understanding how story ideas originate can help you be a more effective media relations professional.

Keep reading for more information on Where Journalists Find Information About Your Company and Where Journalists Look to Find Expert Sources. [Read more…]

What’s the Best Story You’ve Ever Told?

I recently asked some of our Twitter followers the following question:

what's your favorite story?

Within a few minutes, I was flooded by some great examples from some hard-working journalists out there. A few dozen followers asked me to share some of the responses, which seemed like a great idea for a blog post. In no particular order, here are some I think you might enjoy:

@MikeBockoven: I saved someone’s life once. Without a story I wrote, a woman wouldn’t have found a kidney donor.

Saving a life is one cool result of a story. People overlook the value of the knowledge they attain from reading what reporters write. Congrats to @mikebockoven on this one.

@barbaraclements: That would be DC during 9-11, a look into falls in the construction industry and a foster mom who’d fostered dozens of kids.

Three great examples. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to report on 9-11.

@ioriwase: Break a story about a corrupt politician and then covering the aftermath where he was removed from office.

A mini-Watergate? I love it. We need more of this reporting out there.

@quipsandtips: So far, my best story is The Benefits of Breast Cancer” – upcoming in Health Magazine April 2009. Shocking!

I’ll have to read the article. The content promises to be as ‘shocking’ as the headline.

@cjessee2: Last week I got to break the news to Californians that delayed tax refunds were in the mail!

Who doesn’t like reading about “the check is in the mail”? Especially in this economy.

@atubanos: One of my faves was chatting to Marina Sirtis for YourGeekNews b/c we go another side of her than the usual scifi bit.

I am of the generation that knows Marina Sirtis played Deanna Troi on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” That must have been a fun interview.

@AntoniaZ: For me the best was, as media critic, covering how awful the US media was in the wake of 9/11 and in the run-up to Iraq.

I’m sure there was plenty of material to use for this one.

@kpoythress: One of the most well-received stories I ever reported was on a baby girl with Trisomy 18. Shouldn’t have lived to birth.

I had never heard of Trisomy 18, also known as Edwards syndrome, until this tweet. It sounds like this was a real-life miracle for the parents.

@stevenpotter: In my college years, I broke apart an indentured servitude racket through a weekly alternative paper.

I can’t believe this still goes on.

@akurys: I did a fantastic package on Oklahoma’s Centenarian’s on the 100th birthday of our statehood a few years ago!

I hope I live to be 100. I’m going to throw one heck of a party in 2074.

If somebody where to ask me right now, “What’s the best tweet you ever twittered?”, I’d have to say it was this one. Thanks to my Twitter participants for sharing their stories, I may have to recycle this tweet again in the future.

Are you a journalist with a story to add? Are you one of the sources I mentioned and want to add some more detail? Please share your comments.

Status Reports and the Value of PR Activity

I’ve worked on both the agency and client side in various PR functions. One thing I grew to hate was creating (or reviewing) status reports. For those of you not familiar with status reports and weekly updates that the majority of PR agencies create, they go something like this:

  • 3-5 bullet points (at most) of something that was actually achieved in the week (placements appeared, secured placements, interviews conducted, etc.)
  • 30-40 bullet points of ongoing work – a long list of attempted contact (called and left message, journalist wasn’t available, suggested we call back next year, etc.)

Now I realize some agencies do a better job at this than others, but really, where’s the value in all this “potential results” discussion? If you were to just focus on the actual results accomplished, the reports and calls would be much shorter.

Status reports and weekly updates are useful vehicles to communicate activity to clients. But often, they mask what’s actually going on – there is way more effort exerted than results generated. Of course, my point of view is from that of a small agency working with small clients. Typically tech startups that have a harder time generating publicity than a “sexy” client with a bigger budget. For example, I’m sure the status reports and weekly updates for an account like Facebook or Twitter are fascinating. But what about the companies you’ve never heard of? They’re thin with output, though their budgets may be in the $5K-$10K per month range.

Are 5-10 placements per month worth that investment? It depends on where those placements appear and what the goals and objectives of your campaign are. Of the 100 or so accounts I’ve been a part of, more often than not the ROI just doesn’t add up. [Read more…]

Are Journalists Outnumbered In The PR Game?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were roughly 243,000 public relations specialists employed in 2006. The BLS projects there will be more than 286,000 PR specialists by 2016, an increase of 43,000. In addition, there were roughly 50,000 public relations managers employed in 2006, estimated to increase to 58,000 by 2016 – an increase of 8,400. Overall, PR employment is expected to grow by 12 percent or more through 2016.

Contrast the growth of public relations employment with that in the media sector. The BLS estimates there were 67,000 News Analysts, Reporters and Correspondents employed in 2006, expected to increase to only 68,000 by 2016 – an increase of roughly 1,200 jobs or 2%. Of course, this data was published before the recent wave of media downsizing and layoffs. Over the course of the past couple of months, we’ve seen an alarming number of layoffs in the media. A recent post on StopBigMedia.com highlights some of the deepest cuts we’ve seen:

  • Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey, cut its staff by 40 percent
  • The Los Angeles Times laid off another 75 journalists – since 2001, the paper has cut its staff from 1,200 to 660
  • Gannett, a company that owns 85 daily newspapers, announced it would cut its staff by 10 percent – roughly 3,000 employees
  • Time Warner Inc., the world’s largest magazine publisher, plans to cut 600 or 6 percent of its magazine employees
  • Media News Group, one of the largest newspaper owners in the country, plans to consolidate copy-editing desks at 54 newspapers to one location
  • The Project for Excelence in Journalism estimates that newspapers have cut about 10 percent of newsroom jobs – 5,500 positions – in the past 10 years
  • UNITY: Journalists of Color reported recently that 2,415 newsroom jobs have been cut since September

The list of cuts goes on and on. An interactive map of newspaper layoffs has a running total of many of the recent cuts – estimated to be in excess of 3,300 jobs so far in 2009.

It’s safe to assume that employment for journalists is actually on the decline, data that will most likely be reflected in the next wave of research by the BLS.

It’s no wonder that journalists are overwhelmed in their jobs. Even if the BLS numbers hold true, there are almost 4 public relations specialists for every journalist working out there. Assuming that most PR specialists engage in some form of media outreach, that’s a lot of inbound information for any one group to handle. Add to this the range of products and services designed to make mass communication more efficient for PR specialists sending information to media outlets, and it’s very alarming. There are few products and services designed to help media professionals manage and process this inflow of information (there are none that we know of), so they will continue to be overloaded for the near future.

Add to this fact that journalists are being asked to do more work than ever – a combination of smaller teams and a rising demand for content across existing and emerging channels, and it can’t be a great time to be working in a newsroom environment.

What solutions are on the horizon that can help journalists tip the scales in their favor? Will journalists just continue to tune-out PR pros so they can focus on the tasks at hand? Or is the problem really not as bad as the data suggest? What do you think?

Will Journalists Flock to PR? We Can Only Hope.

More and more journalists are working on their resumes instead of articles these days. Just glance at the business section of the newspapers they used to work for and you’ll see headlines about more media downsizing and publications closing their doors. It’s a sad reality of the evolving media climate. While media organizations struggle with what business model will work best for the future, many journalists are finding themselves figuring out what’s next for them.

Personally, I’d like to see more journalists on the PR side of the equation. Some of the best PR people I’ve worked with have been reporters in their past lives. While many journalists might view making the transition to PR as crossing over to the darkside, I think it could be one of the best things for PR today. Here are a few reasons why journalists make better PR people:

  • Journalists know how to write well (and edit)
  • Journalists work well under pressure
  • Journalists love deadlines (and meet them)
  • Journalists don’t mind working long hours (or at off-peak times)
  • Journalists know how to find the story behind the story
  • Journalists know what journalists want
  • Journalists know how to not piss off other journalists
  • Journalists have existing relationships in the media

I could go on an on about this topic, but I’ve made my point. I can’t think of a client that wouldn’t want a journalist working on their account. A journalist brings far more credibility to the account team (and the agency) than many other PR professionals. The smart agencies (and corporations for that matter) should be monitoring media layoffs closely, they just might find their next best hire.

Are you a journalist contemplating a move to PR? Have you already made the switch? Let us know.

60+ Free Press Release Distribution Services…Really?

I recently stumbled upon a blog post about “60+ Free Press Release Distribution Sites” (from the PR In Your Pajamas blog). The headline took me by surprise – I had no idea there were that many different free press release distribution options out there. And in truth, it was a little disturbing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of about six of the 60+ services referenced in the post, and some of them could be useful for SEO purposes, but I doubt many of the services would help you generate much favorable media coverage. At least not in any credible media outlets. In conversation after conversation with journalists, I consistently hear about how bad the press release problem is: journalists and bloggers receive too many releases, and most of those releases are poorly written or off-topic (I’m being nice in my paraphrasing here).

If you’re just starting a new website, and you’re desperate to increase the number of inbound links you have (an important factor in determining the relevancy of your Web content – as far as search engines go), these services could give you a jumpstart. I would only consider them useful for this tactic alone. If you’re looking for a service to support your media relations efforts, I would lean towards a more modern, reputable and social media-friendly distribution service like PRWeb or PitchEngine. The latter offers a FREE option, as well as several very-affordable options for distributing your news across media and social media channels.

Now there may be some services on the 60+ list worth trying out, but in my experience trying several of the services (for SEO purposes), they are really just SEO spam tools – designed to mass-distribute your content across a bunch of different sites, many of which will do little to help you reach your target audiences or boost your search engine rankings.

Finally, if you’re serious about using a press release as a media relations tool, use a proven distribution channel to get the word out. If the press release doesn’t merit distribution on a mainstream service, consider not sending the release out at all. You’ll do more harm than good by sending out PR spam. That’s my two cents on the topic.

Now in defense of the PR in Your Pajamas blog, there is always good content there, geared towards the “Time-Strapped, Cash Crunched Mom Entrepreneur.” If you’re looking for great advice on PR for your small business, this is a good blog to follow.

Have you used any of the free press release services listed in the post and had a great experience? Are there other services you suggest for low-budget PR? Let us know.

Does Your Pitch Suck? Find Out at YourPitchSucks.com

your-pitch-sucksWhat do you call a new service that promises to help PR people develop better pitches? I’d struggle to come up with a more sensational, attention-grabbing name than Your Pitch Sucks. The founders of Your Pitch Sucks claim that 98% of press releases are tossed in the trash can after being given less than five seconds of review. They also estimate that companies waste more than $450M each year sending out press releases that end up in a “gigantic black hole.” While I couldn’t find the source for their claims, I have no doubt that the numbers are accurate (actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that companies spend a lot more than that on sending out poor-quality releases).

If you’re serious about putting together a solid pitch, the folks at Your Pitch Sucks want to help you out – for a small fee that is. For a small investment of $150 to $200 per pitch, an expert team of PR professionals will evaluate your pitch or press release, providing you with expert notes on how to make your pitch NOT suck. For the extra $50, you get a phone consultation with a PR expert. Heck, they’ll even put together a media list for you, targeting print, broadcast or other outlets for as little as $400. When you consider the price of alternative services, this can be a great deal – especially if you end up with a better pitch that gets noticed by more of those outlets.

Now I haven’t tried out the service, so I’m in no place to endorse or critique their quality one way or the other, but I’ll admit that the concept could be very helpful for those that don’t know how to put together a solid pitch (or those that have had lackluster success pitching the media in the past). The Your Pitch Sucks team claims to have successfully placed news stories in The New York Times, Time, BusinessWeek, and The Washington Post, as well as in major broadcast outlets such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and The Today Show. With that track record, it couldn’t hurt to give them a shot.

Have you tried the service out? Did it help you get more interest from journalists? Let us know.