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Depressing Releases

Want to talk to the media? Get your message out effectively with this how-to.

By Kevin Sheridan

First things first: what am I doing back here in the “Expert To Expert” section? Well, the very nature of what I do positions me to be an expert at receiving press releases from insurance and financial advisors. And you, as business people who directly benefit from increased exposure in the media are expert at sending me press releases. Lots and lots and lots of press releases.

You might expect all that practice would make perfect, but it is my sad and frustrated duty to inform you it does not. And this is why we should talk, you and I—one kind of expert to another. And while I can only comment on my direct experience with the releases you send me, please don’t mistake this for an op-ed piece. What I have to say is applicable elsewhere. It’s what other editors would like to tell you.

Why releases go wrong
Let’s talk about paradox: (1) Lurking at the heart of every successful advisor is a salesperson. (2) Successful advisors usually want to become more successful. (3) One effective way to grow a practice is to make potential clients aware of your existence via mentions in the media. (4) The solution would seem to be a clear-cut case of selling yourself to editors: you know how to sell and you profoundly know, well, you. (5) All this said, a full 90 percent of the press releases I receive from the insurance and financial services industry are awful, annoying and—for my purposes—useless. There. I’ve said it and I’m glad.

What happened? Why does a lifetime of sales savvy fly out the door when it’s time to buddy-up to an editor? My take on it is that it mainly boils down to two intertwined missteps: When it comes to approaching the press, most advisors fail to engage in fact-finding and forget to actively listen. If advisors approached clients in the same manner they try to sell themselves to editors, there wouldn’t be practices to promote in the first place. It’s as simple and scary as that.

Harsh words, I know. But admitting there’s a problem is the first step to solving it. What I’d like to do is to tell you what fact-finding in the editorial arena would have revealed: what it’s like to be on my side of the news desk.

In approaching editors as you would clients, understand that they operate in a stressful, deadline-driven world. There’s not a great deal of time available to consider an oblique, tangential or plain wrong-headed story—especially if there’s another idea more readily and easily available.

Know also that, optimally, your press release should land on an editor’s desk as a story idea, nota raw data feed or a private conversation with yourself. Of course you want to talk about yourself and your practice—but can you do so in terms of a durable story idea? Ask yourself this question: Why would others, beyond your immediate family and your mother, want to read about whatever it is you’re announcing? Obviously, you want to help yourself, but understand that editors get paid to help readers. Therefore, the trick is to manage to do both things simultaneously.

And finally, know that your release is not the only one an editor will receive that day. If I seem to be stringent in my demands of individuals and public relations agencies to get their ducks in a row upstream of me, it’s because the number of badly thought-out press releases I get in a typical day has an amplifying effect on my frustration level. I begin to restrict my searches for material to those who deliver the story ideas most easily. And I’m the first one to say this is too bad. I’m certain that many, many good ideas are trashed because they demand stopping what I’m doing for 10 minutes at a time to wrestle with what they’re trying to say. At that rate, every six badly written releases sit on an hour of my time. This is Not A Good Thing.

This brief sketch of my typical day and work environment is what you would have discovered had you first attempted to fact-find the editors you hoped to send press releases to. I’m certain nothing I’ve said is unique to me. What I’ve just conveyed is basically Editor-in-Chief 101.
Now hold that knowledge and let me describe what I’m currently seeing in most press releases. This is not a blanket damnation. Around 20 percent of the individuals and agencies who send me releases “get it.” The problem, of course, is that the other 80 percent don’t. And their sheer numbers can easily drown out the good releases. So, worst-case scenario, everybody could conceivably lose—advisors, editors and readers.

Rather than specifically pick on any worst offenders, let’s limit ourselves to the ways most press releases crash and burn.

How releases go wrong
Big audacious-but-true statement 1: Despite increasingly sophisticated segmentation and data-parsing techniques, the PR strategies used to approach my magazine have not significantly changed since the ’70s.

In this Information Age, why is it that most releases I receive are testament to the fact that the senders have no sense of who works at the magazine? We’re simply talking about staff names here. And, as you might expect, actually knowing the areas of coverage assigned to specific editors is nearly nonexistent.

There is also no idea of what the magazine covers. Instead there are rampant wrong assumptions about what our mission is. Too many times during the day I’m faced with a surprised Huh? when I ask PR people to tell me how what they just said is compelling to advisors. The fact that our readership consists of insurance and financial advisors is often Big News to them.

And finally, when there is an idea about our mission, there is no sense of what news is appropriate for an association magazine. Clearly, we will not be investigating the insurance industry any time in the future. Why does this not occur to them on their own?

Big audacious-but-true-statement 2: Just beneath the gleaming info-age surface of most press releases I receive is that old direct-mail stratagem, “Spray and Pray.” Which is the reduction of marketing to a simple-minded, highly inefficient numbers game. The reason for “Spray and Pray” is threefold. It’s partly attributable to the fact that it’s the time-tested easy way to do things: “When in doubt, mail to everybody.” It’s partly due to the aforementioned ossified nature of PR strategies. And it’s partly because email makes it seductively easy and cheap to “Spray and Pray.”

“Spray and Pray” results in metric tons of announcements from organizations like Heinz (yes, the ketchup folks) flowing across my desk on the way to the wastebasket. And as long as we’re on the topic, can someone please tell the Toll Brothers (builders of fine half-million dollar homes in Pennsylvania) to stop sending me their annual report?

Big audacious-but-true-statement 3: Most of those sending me press releases seem delusional in thinking that they are the only ones communicating with me. Obviously, their peers have also hit upon the idea of sending me email-predicated “Spray and Pray.” And this is where an already less-than-ideal situation gets annoying.

Counting email, snail mail and faxes, I get approximately 100 press releases a day. This works out to 500 individual press releases by the end of what we pretend is an “average” work week.
Imagine, then, my reaction when like clockwork, seven days and 600 releases later, a PR person calls me and perkily asks “Did you get my press release?”

I honestly answer that I have no idea. After a shocked moment of silence—I’m not sure if it’s the honesty or the realization that other people also send press releases—the PR person proceeds to attempt to give me the “audio-book” version of Unremembered Release Number 478.

Which I don’t let them do because of where this whole cycle obviously leads: As tickler systems get better—seemingly the only major technological advance in public relations—it’s entirely possible that I could be facing 600 follow-up phone calls. And so, these days I’m giving PR follow-up calls increasingly short shrift.

Big audacious-but-true statement 4: My email program allows me to write increasingly complex mail rules, and I’ve been using progressively unforgiving filters on press releases. As a result, a number of email messages sent to me goes directly into what geeks call a “kill folder.”
The ability to write complex email rules primarily exists to stop spam. I use it to stop PR releases because, for all intents and purposes, most releases have become spam. This “spamification” is driven by bad communication strategies and wrong-headed implementation. Let’s look at some of the worst ones.

Where releases go wrong

Don’t tell me your message first. In an information age, context is everything, and a press release has the same seven seconds to deliver as any other form of direct mail.

Therefore it’s a very bad idea to slavishly ape press releases from yesteryear by placing the description of your company or yourself-the most critical piece of information—at the bottom of the release. Put it at the top—above your headline, if possible. We’re not worrying about aesthetics here; it’s providing context for the release that’s the most important thing.

Anchoring personal and organizational information at the end of a release was never a good idea—even in the good old analog days—but today, more than ever, my decision whether to read your message is based almost solely on who you are and what you do. I should not be required to scroll through information out of context—nor should anyone else need to do so in this info-glutted age.

So forget the snappy lead. Without context, it doesn’t matter how well-crafted it is. First let me know who you are, what you do and why your message is germane to my publication. And then tell me what you have to tell me. How is any other strategy sane?

Don’t use HTML to format your press release. That bit of 24-point, bold, green and blinking type in the center of your release will in no way increase the pertinence of your message. With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, in this case, the medium is not the message. Editors need easy copy-and-paste ASCII.

When HTML-formatted press releases are opened, they take a couple of seconds to organize their special effects. And I’m lucky enough to work on a T-1 line. Given the sheer number of emailed press releases I receive, those two-second delays can significantly and needlessly add-up. Again—I’m looking for information, not brochureware.

Don’t let your message be you talking to yourself. Obviously, you think the message is important—after all, it’s about you. But why is the message important to me?

This is another way of saying, don’t give me even more data out of context. “Acme Financial Advisors has built $300 million of assets under management within two years” is news in the eyes of Acme Financial, but, as written, only a factoid to me.

How much better to tell me that only 10 percent of financial consultancies in the United States have ever attained $300 million of assets under management within two years, and other practices are beginning to emulate their strategies. Then let me know that Acme Financial Advisors is one of these new-breed firms.

For an editor, this second approach makes all the difference in the world. Couching your message as a part of a larger story of interest to the greatest number of my readers-especially if you’ve ensured my quick and easy accessibility to it-will go far in landing it on my “Consider” pile. Further, if I don’t buy into your story pitch per se, it may trigger another tangential approach that your message also fits into.

Has the bar been raised for the press releases that clear the hurdles and end up in my resource file at story conferences? Yes. But there is a similar correlation between higher degrees of salesmanship and the number of policies and financial products sold. Which takes us back to our point of departure: Fact-finding, sensitive listening to client needs and the ability to present recommendations as clear customer benefits are all essential components of being an insurance or financial advisor. You know how to do these things and do them well.

Successfully approaching editors with messages about yourself or your practice draws upon all of the aforementioned skills. But the current horrific state of press releases suggests that advisors don’t see the need for true salesmanship when it comes to promoting themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way. And for your benefit and mine, this situation shouldn’t remain unchanged.


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