Good headlines and intros are vital to a press release’s chances of making it into print. A good headline sums up what the story is about, enabling the editor to decide whether or not it’s worth reading on.
A good intro encapsulates the gist of the story in one paragraph. This saves the editor from having to read the whole thing to find out what the story is. It also means that if there’s space for only one or two pars, a time-pressed or lazy journalist doesn’t have to sub too heavily to express the key facts concisely.
Writers of press releases often forget – or ignore – these basic principles; they write irrelevant, punny headlines or put the gist of their story half-way down the release, where it can be overlooked.
Their aim seems to be to entice the reader with flowery language, to charm them with linguistic creativity. Wake up! This isn’t romantic fiction, to be lingered over and savoured in the bath – editors haven’t got time for that kind of thing. What they want is relevant, to-the-point information, and quickly.
Writing a press release isn’t a creative writing competition; it’s about conveying the most important and relevant facts as quickly and concisely as possible.
Editors make snap judgments on press releases. What is the story here? Is it relevant to my readership? Tell me NOW.
If the crux of the story isn’t clear from the headline, the email might not even be opened. Then, if the relevance isn’t immediately apparent from the intro, the release will get trashed. Or the editor will waste time ploughing through flowery prose to discover what the point of the story is, then have to rewrite it, and get so pissed off in the process they’ll be prejudiced against that particular company in future.
Here are some examples from the past week.
Consider this headline:
“Falling leaves announce the seasons [sic] of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.
What’s that about? Any guesses? This release is helpfully telling us it’s autumn. But we knew that, so why bother issuing a press release about it? It’s also telling us the writer knows Keats (though not well enough to quote him correctly). So what? Of what possible relevance is that to an editor?
The writer doesn’t get to the point until paragraphs 3 and 4, when he/she reluctantly reveals the information that increasing numbers of gardeners are using machines to clear fallen leaves, leading to record sales for a manufacturer of garden equipment. That should have been the intro; and there’s really no reason for quoting 19th century poets in a story whose most likely outlet is business or gardening publications.
That one isn’t the only company yearning to convey the astonishing news that autumn is coming. This is the opening para of another release: “Soon summer draws to a close, the temperature drops and we get the urge to create a warm atmosphere indoors.”
So bleeding what? Are you a PR or a weather forecaster? The story, that a well-known designer is launching some coffee cups and candle-holders, seeps out eventually but you get the feeling the writer would rather be doing Mills & Boon than this kind of thing.
The basic principles of writing press releases are similar to those of writing news, so many of the best PRs have come from a newspaper background. Others have not experienced the discipline instilled by journalistic training; they’re possibly the ones who try to attention-grab with a “creative” (long-winded and irrelevant) approach.
Sometimes, though, it’s the client’s fault. They love the idea of “getting into print” and they get all carried away and fancy themselves as JK Rowling, and the PR is too weak-willed or jaded to argue about it.
One can imagine the conversation:
Client: Not sure I like that headline – “Company XYZ invents cure for all known diseases and wins Nobel Prize for Medicine”.
PR: What don’t you like about it?
Client: Well, it’s not very imaginative, is it? It’s not going to win us the Nobel Prize for Literature, ha ha.
PR: Er, what would you suggest?
Client: Well, how about a few romantic allusions to falling leaves and damp weather; you know, let the reader know autumn’s coming?
PR (rocking, and moaning softly): Whatever.
Here’s another headline, from a telecoms company, that leaves us in the dark about what the story is:
The Smartphone fear factor
What does it mean? All this tells us is that someone, somewhere, is scared of telephones. Not so, as it turns out. The story is actually about mobile phone companies missing a trick by making their products too complicated for the needs of an increasingly important demographic, the over-65s. The old dears aren’t actually frightened of smartphones – they simply find them unnecessarily complicated and are quite happy with a simple, cheap, pay-as-you-go phone. The only fear factor operating in this scenario is the writer’s fear of of the effort involved in coming up with a meaningful headline.
Here’s another one that won’t get to the point:
Warning! Is Killer Water Hiding in Your Household?
I don’t know. I have no idea. What are you talking about?
Another daft question is used as the opening sentence. When is Water in Your Home at its Most Dangerous? For goodness’ sake! I don’t know! Why don’t you tell me? Go on, you’re obviously longing to!
The story here doesn’t start emerging until paragraph 4 and isn’t fully out of the closet until para 6. It’s that a London man has invented a device that prevents dangerous mould from growing in houses and infecting people with respiratory ailments. Could be interesting to business and technology journalists and local papers as well as health and science reporters – but would they bother reading the release having seen that headline?
Examples of good press release headlines and intros to come in another post!
Pic credit: Salvatore Vuono, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=659