Cair Lerion Blog #9: Is it time to call time on the press release?

Back in November 2019, I wrote a blog for Muck Rack that explained the art of writing a press release for trade publications from the perspective of an experienced trade press editor (11+ years under my belt). It was a fun piece to write – and allowed me to work through some of the grievances I had developed working on the receiving end of countless poorly written or simply irrelevant press releases.

Since beginning my own copywriting journey in July 2019, I’ve now also been asked to write a number of these peculiarly stylized bits of corporate communications. So it was challenging to see “the press release writer” included in Doug Kessler’s list of the fifteen B2B copywriters he doesn’t want to be.

Press releases aren’t writing. They’re typing.

Almost anyone can fill in the blanks of this highly constrained corporate template (“We’re thrilled to welcome Atilla to our growing Hun team.”) but no one will ever read a press release even though lots of places publish them.

So, writers, if you’re briefed to write a press release (or any other over-templatised format), ask about the goal of the exercise and recommend one of the dozen-or-so better ways to achieve it.

Doug Kessler, Creative Director, Velocity

What struck me about Kessler’s deliberately provocative comments was not that press releases are predictable and derivative. With only rare exceptions, that is true – although he admits later, in the comments that follow the article, that “it’s possible to write a fresh, original press release”.  

No, what struck me is the idea that no-one reads them.

And that he’s probably right about that.

Writing to be read

Ask yourself this: who is the press release’s target readership? Not your customers, either current or prospective. Rather, the aim is most likely to stir up some media coverage, perhaps in the news pages or (more likely today) on the website of the relevant trade media. And given how most trade press editors are in need of content (particularly those with websites to fill!) there’s perhaps a fair chance that any given press release is going to be published somewhere.

But again, who is the reader?

Is a press release printed verbatim – or perhaps slightly rephrased – in the printed or online trade media likely to be read by your customers? I’d suggest not. Because something that is dull and formulaic is dull and formulaic wherever it’s published.

And while it may please, even impress, those within a company – especially if they’re called out by name – that’s not the point of what is (at least ostensibly) an effort of external communication.

Is even that hypothetical beast, the fresh and original press release, worth the effort? Fresh and original content is always the goal but, to quote Kessler again, would you “want to call it a press release”?

On the surface, this latter comment says something about the rather poor reputation press releases have acquired. But I think there’s more to it than that. It’s also again a comment on readership (or lack thereof). To my mind, it would be better to focus what is fresh and original on your customer-directed content rather than sending it out, scattergun, hoping some harried trade press editor will take the time to read it and then publish it (or worse, not read it and then publish it).

If you do want to land some media attention, sending a trade press editor a personalised pitch explaining what fresh and original content you’re able to provide to them is going to be better received than an oh-no-not-another-one-where’s-the-delete-key press release – and will likely result in much better coverage.

Are we wasting our time?

If truth be told, many companies churn out press releases because they are easy. There is no thought to what the reader might find interesting. There is no thought to what the customer might want to know. There is, in fact, very little thought.

Which makes even the shortest time spent on them a waste.

There are today so many ways for a company to talk directly to its customers. With the ability to publish across multiple platforms in multiple formats, even the smallest business, manufacturing the most niche of products, can become their own media house. Buyers meanwhile are savvier: they want information and they want it… well, yesterday. This is both exciting and daunting – especially in the more traditional heavy industries in which I have spent most of my careers.

But daunting does not mean impossible. And the way it’s always been done is not the same as the way it should continue to be done. So the next time you’re asked to write a press release (or commission someone like to me to write it for you), follow Kessler’s advice and pause a moment to ask: can we do better?

I’d be surprised if the answer wasn’t, yes.


PS: Doug Kessler’s article, The 15 copywriters I don’t want to be is, is worth a read in full – as long as you don’t mind your writing sins being rudely exposed and judged.


Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 from Pexels