Thursday, March 31, 2011

"We are excited" to bring you this news release

Credit: Design Thinking Blog
PR pros write news releases respecting a number of conventions which make them easier for journalists to use.

  • We write them in Canadian Press style (American Press in the U.S.), so journalists can use our content without having to do too much copy-editing.
  • We give them straight-forward titles that explain the news - not expecting busy journalists to take the time to decipher cutesy headlines (chances are, they won't have time to).
  • We write them in an "inverted pyramid" format, with the most important information provided first, in the lead paragraph, and further information provided in order of decreasing importance - so no matter when a journalist stops reading, we know (s)he's gotten the most important details.
  • We finish with a "boilerplate" paragraph describing our organization.
  • We signal the end of the release with the notation " -30- " though no-one knows exactly why... but both PR folks and journalists know that means "the end."
Another tradition in news release writing is the inclusion of attributed quotations, which should provide perspective on the news from the issuer's point of view.

While the rest of the news release should be written in as objective a voice as possible (for maximum usability at the media end), the quote is an organization's opportunity to throw in its official opinion on the news. It's OK, because it's attributed to someone - just like opinions should be in journalism.

The wasted quote: a common rookie mistake

If I had a nickel for every news release I'd read with a quote that said simply "We are excited," "We are proud," or "We are delighted" to announce whatever the news is, I'd be rich. (I'd also likely have earned a couple of bucks thanks to some of my own early news releases.)

It's a comfortable place to begin, and it somehow seems personable to say the company is excited or proud or delighted about its own news. The problem is that no-one really cares how the company feels (or, alternately, would expect the company to feel that way about its own news, making the pronouncement irrelevant and decidedly not newsworthy).

Good news release writers understand that the quote is our shot at positioning the news in the light in which we want it to be considered. If the rest of the news release has to be "just the facts," the attributed quote is our opportunity to provide some context and colour, to help move our communication objectives forward, whatever they might be.

I took a quick scan of the newswire a couple of minutes ago, and found a couple of examples that make my point.

1) A news release announcing the agreement to renew AMC's Mad Men.

This is news many Mad Men fans like me have been waiting for; in fact, we are excited and delighted by the news. And while AMC does admit to being "thrilled," it's in the context of good news many in recent days had begun doubting would ever come -- and it's after AMC's key messaging.

"AMC's original programming began with a mission to create bold storytelling of the highest quality, and 'Mad Men' was the perfect expression of that commitment. We've been proud to support this show from the day we read Matt's ground-breaking pilot script and have loved building it with Matt and Lionsgate into the cultural phenomenon it has become," said Collier. "For everyone involved in the show and its passionate fans, we are thrilled to announce that the series will continue on AMC under the exceptional vision of Matt Weiner."

2) A release about a celebration of foreign-trained doctors being accepted into a residency program

The hook for this news release is actually that a celebration of this achievement took place tonight. Of course, everyone there is excited and delighted, and probably proud too. But the quote in the news release is wisely used to communicate key messaging aimed at persuading readers to agree with the decision.

"International medical graduates are extremely valuable members of our health-care system's team of care providers. These international medical graduates are working extremely hard to earn their certification in Ontario and I'm happy to join them as they celebrate this tremendous achievement," said Deb Matthews, Minister of Health and Long-Term Care.

Make every sentence matter

In today's by-the-minute media industry, we don't have the luxury of assuming journalists are reading every release from top to bottom, or having the time to figure out why our news will be important for our audiences.

It's our job in PR to connect the dots, and the attributed quote is the one place in the news release we can provide subjective opinions that help our audiences interpret the news the way we think they should.

So don't waste your quotes on niceities that are either irrelevant or assumed; take advantage of the opportunity to position the news the way you want audiences to see it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Internal communications case study at school

Over the last couple of weeks, first-year students in Red River College's Creative Communications program have been looking at internal communications: principles, tactics and tools.

As it happens, they also got an insider's look at a case study on internal communications in the age of social media, when they learned (via Twitter, for many) that beloved Journalism instructor Steve Vogelsang will be leaving the College at the end of this academic year to pursue new opportunities.

They responded immediately, and with hashtags.

While the departure of a teacher isn't the same as a major management change in a career, it can bring about some of the same feelings: losing an advocate and/or mentor, less certain footing for the future. It also illustrates a point about how people would rather hear about changes in their own "management" from the person making the change.

In Steve Vogelsang's case, he didn't stand a chance of beating Twitter. I'm not sure what his order of notifications was, but I do know that, when I read about his departure on Twitter and emailed to ask him whether it was true, he said that it was -- and he'd just shared the news 11 minutes earlier.

I saw a class shortly after the news had hit. Many students professed shock -- one asking me whether I had a "crisis communications plan" to address his departure -- and some were disappointed that they'd "had to hear about it on Twitter."

The fact is that, short of interrupting the school day and bringing all seven classes together for an assembly (an unprecedented action, to my knowledge), there isn't any way Steve could have simultaneously shared the news with everyone in person. I explained that at the time, and of course they understood: they were just sorry to hear he was leaving.

Think you're going to beat Twitter? Good luck!

The stakes are higher, of course, when a major change takes place on the job. Change can be nerve-wracking, and study after study shows that employees are better able to manage change when they hear about it directly from management before the news gets "out there."

This gives them the chance to let the news sink in before they have to discuss ramifications with anyone external, as well as an opportunity to ask questions about what the news will mean to their jobs. It also shows that the organization will give them as early notice as is possible under the circumstances.

My tenure in a corporate communications department preceded Twitter: in those days, our main adversary in the internal information race was the grapevine (potentially just as effective, locally, but not at lightning speed!). But even so, we created long and complicated notification timelines to ensure (as best we could, anyway) that every employee personally affected by a change would hear about it as quickly, personally, and from as appropriate a source as possible.

Nowadays, organizations have to recognize that the first wave of information may become instant public disclosure.

What does that mean for internal communicators? A couple of things.

1. They have to be vigilant about timelines, setting up rolling series of meetings to enable the rapid sharing of major change information to as many "affected" people as possible. When it's a question of helping employees deal with major change, and people's jobs are involved, you should hold that assembly. You interrupt the work day, because you want to show those employees that their well-being is more important than keeping to a normal schedule, even if only for 15 minutes.

2. In between announcements like these, they need to ensure the corporate culture is such that employees understand why information is shared in the format and order it is. This helps to avoid inadvertent insult, and to ensure employees understand the organization respects them and cares about their feelings... and will do everything it can to get the information they need to them as soon as it can be shared.

That means open, two-way lines of communication, in normal times and in times of change.

And as for our students?

While they're disappointed to be losing a favourite instructor, they're happy for him -- and even happier that he'll be sticking around until the school year's out.

And even after he's gone, you have to know they'll be following him on Twitter.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Exploiting Charlie

Over the last week or two, you'd have to have been living under a rock not to have witnessed at least part of the circus that is Charlie Sheen's public life.

If you're just crawling out now, here's a selection of his recent statements.

At first, Sheen's behaviour seemed to indicate a huge ego and, possibly, a huge quantity of drugs/alcohol. People followed along as he lashed out, entertained by his anger and unreasonableness and hubris, waiting anxiously for the next installment of his tirade - as well as his inevitable crash back to rehab.

But as this week progressed, public perception seemed to change a bit. We started to hear medical experts on the newsmagazine shows speculating about frontal lobe issues that could be driving Sheen's manic beviour, and the entire affair started to feel pretty uncomfortable for some.

Were we watching someone self-destruct before our eyes? Would Charlie Sheen be the next celebrity about whom we said "it was obvious, he was clearly sick, why didn't somebody do something to help him," the way we did about Michael Jackson?

For the networks, though, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

The mainstream media tripped over themselves to come up with the latest content to feed social media: it was the first time I was conscious of watching the mainstream media work consciously to create viral video.

It helped that Sheen was more than willing to help them all out: it seemed he was giving everyone an exclusive. The guy can't help himself - it's part of his illness/personality/addiction/whatever it is we're watching him suffer from right now.

I was discussing this my friend Sherri Vokey this week, and she said it best: "it's like we're watching an episode of Intervention, but no-one's intervening."

Personally, it all gives me a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I've never been able to watch shows like Intervention, Hoarders, name the watch-the-sick-person program -- I'm not entertained by other people's suffering.

But I understand the business.

The issues manager in me is starting to get nervous, though.

I get it that the networks have to be on top of this story - audiences don't seem to be able to get enough of it.

But the issues manager in me has to wonder what they'll be saying if, say, he ends up hurting others or himself in his delusion. They were pleased to report on the contribution Michael Jackson's entourage made to his death; if Charlie Sheen's public "meltdown" really is that, will they accept a share in the blame?

Will the rest of us?

On a related topic, I caught this tweet from the American Red Cross this week.

In PR classes we talk about creating newsworthiness/buzz by tying our messages to stories in the news - clearly, that's what the Red Cross is doing. And it caught my attention, so good for them!

Except I hope for their sake (as well as for his, of course) that Charlie Sheen recovers.

I wouldn't want to be the spokesperson for a humanitarian aid organization that had exploited the rantings of a person suffering from mental illness for publicity, if that illness caused him to hurt someone or himself (more than he already has, of course).