Any fool can write a good press release that hits its target audience and creates an impact.

Writing one that fails means work. There are people who have mastered the art.

As an editor I’ve seen some great efforts over the years. I’d like to share them with you.

Here are my top ten tips for making sure press releases get minimum attention:

1. Cripple its chances of reaching editors and journalists

Everyone can read plain text messages in the body of an email. The message will almost certainly get through to any kind of desktop email clients, all flavours of web mail, as well as Blackberries, iPhones and Palm Pilots.

To reach less than 100 percent of your potential audience, try putting some of these clever barriers in the way.

Attachments are an effective way of cutting down the reach of your press release. People reading email on mobile devices have trouble reading them. Spam filters treat them with suspicion and if you’re lucky the recipient may use Lotus Notes as a client and have difficulty decoding the attachment.

Another advantage of attachments is that you can trim your audience further by using difficult-to-open file formats: such as the new .docx file format used by Word 2007 – many journalists will struggle to read them.

Attachments are great for bulking up the size of your release so it won’t squeeze through email gateways. If you’re clever you can put high-resolution logos in, say, your Word attachments. These add  nothing to the press release but can swiftly push the file size over the email gateway threshold.

A further reason for sending a press release as an attachment is its invisibility to email search. So, when a journalist decides to look for your press release among the hundreds and thousands in their email in-box, it will be difficult to find.

2. Minimise relevance

One of the best ways to make sure your press release fails is to make sure it has no relevance to any sane audience. For example, if you are a technology company and you buy a new fleet of cars you can squander your PR budget and make sure any future release goes directly to an editor’s recycle bin by sending the story to the technology press.

3. Send it out whenever

Timeliness is everything. So send releases out when you feel like it to boost your chances of failure. Better still, for print publications try waiting until five minutes after the final deadline. For online publications wait until the story has already broken elsewhere. Editors love that.

4. Organise schedules so contacts are unavailable for interview

Good journalists are annoying creatures. Rather than printing your press release verbatim and passing the contact details over to their advertising departments, they may want to speak to the people mentioned in your releases.

A tried and tested technique for avoiding these complications is to send the people overseas shortly after dispatching the release. International communications are good these days, so just packing them off to a partner conference in Atlanta isn’t good enough, you need to make sure they are on an 18 hour trans-pacific flight or, better still, holidaying on a remote island.

5. Use poor writing skills

Obvious when you think about it. If your writing is poor and confused so that editors and journalists can’t understand your message you’ll kill two birds with one stone.

First, you’ll make sure the first message gets spiked in the too hard basket.

Second, as a bonus, you can establish your reputation as an illiterate idiot that isn’t worth bothering with under any circumstances. That way, your future releases will go straight to the junk pile without even being read.

6. Try bullying

Sadly this powerful technique is underused. By threatening to talk to a journalist’s editor, or an editor’s boss about their poor response to your press release you can permanently undermine your relationship with scores of people (remember journalists talk to each other so this is an efficient way of burning lots of bridges).

Another approach is to tell the journalist the company in question is advertising thus triggering their professional editorial independence.

7. Don’t bother with photographs

Journalists and editors like photographs. They love good photographs. By making sure they are no photographs of any description you’ll increase the chances that your press release is regarded as useless.

If you think that’s taking things too far, try sending out crappy, unusable photos. Photos with dozens of un-named people work well in this respect. Getting people to hold champagne glasses, stand in front of company logos, gather around an unreadable normal-size bank cheque or impersonate public enemy number one mug shots are all effective techniques for creating instantly ignorable press release photographs.

8. Send it to everyone regardless

This is a great way to upset journalists and degrade both your personal and company reputation. At the same time if you work for a PR agency you can bill the client heaps for having a, er, comprehensive, mailing list and then bill them for time as you and your staff spend all day on the phone dealing with angry editors.

9. Keep things as dull as possible

Journalists prefer interesting stories. Public relations professionals recognise this and use clever tricks like passive sentences, boring ideas, irrelevant background facts, tired clichéd adjectives and implausible anodyne quotes to turn them off and help speed their press releases on their way to the great recycle bin in the sky.

In-house and government public relations people are usually better at delivering boring releases than agency staff – if you’re worried your writing sparkles too much, they have much to teach you.

10. Make sure the subject line obscures the message

Even experienced public relations operatives can slip up by giving an email release an interesting subject line. The danger is that after putting in all the hard work required to guarantee nobody takes the slightest notice of their press release they use active language to put a relevant, timely subject line message that tempts editors and journalists to open the document and read more.

The good news is there are fail-safe subject lines that are certain to turn off editors and journalists so they can just skip past your release. A classic subject line like press release will probably work, if that’s too simple try important press release or important press release from Company Name.

A neat by-product of badly written subject lines is they can fool spam detection engines into rejecting a message altogether; phrases like important announcement from Company Name or message for Clark Kent can come in handy here.

9 thoughts on “Ten tips to make sure your press release fails

  1. This is brilliant! I’m going to send all my media relations students to this link.

  2. Another great tactic to ensure failure is getting the timing wrong.
    Here’s how.
    Step 1 – Invite media to an event
    Step 2 – Issue a press release at 3:00 AM on the day of the event divulging its content
    Step 3 – Watch as media who said they would attend your event fail to arrive AND ignore the story because newsrooms with larger staff get the story out online at 6:00AM, making the event and the release an utter waste of time.

  3. I’m with you in spades on .docx; one company is a frequent offender, in spite of being told more than once that I cannot upgrade my Word version because of company security requirements; I’m not (strictly speaking) allowed to transfer the document to my netbook via USB key and must email it to myself anf trek out to the lobby so I can get a wireless signal to pick it up and read it on my own system.

    Best unispiring/misleading heading began “Marketing bullish on…” You can guess how I misread that at first glance. On second reading, I decided I’d been right.

  4. Timeliness is a big one: good agencies send releases mid-morning, so you can read it after doing all your morning rituals. I still don’t understand what use a release sent a 6pm is, but I still get them every day.

    A pet peeve of mine is sending out a release while an event is in progress, so the journos who didn’t go can break the story and all those who actually went look like followers.

    • Even sending out a release just after an event will do the same – it takes me a minimum of 30 minutes to get home, so I sometimes file from a cafe.

    • My guess is the 6pm press release is because:

      a) the release HAS to go out that day
      and
      b) the poor front-line PR critters spent all afternoon waiting around for some lazy manager to get back from a three Martini in order to sign off on the release.

  5. Great list! But you forgot rule #11 – make sure your press release is written by a committee, so that any hint of spark and personality is safely drained out of it.

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