Five Things To Stop Putting In Your Press Releases

Press releases are one of those not-dead-yet tools that lazy PR professionals still insist on sending out to hundreds and thousands of journalists and bloggers. I still get press releases for movie releases taking place in L.A., inviting me to attend the red carpet rollout of some indie movie. Clearly they’re not culling their lists.

When I did crisis communication, we got a real sense of pride if one of our releases was published verbatim, or nearly so, by our state newspapers. That’s how we knew the real journalists were taking us seriously. That, and our success rate (it was an outstanding day if you could bat .500 on story placement). To do it, we needed solid, tight news stories, not a marketing puff piece.

Many releases I see are just abysmal. I don’t know if the agencies are teaching young flaks the wrong way, or if they’re teaching it in college, but there are some serious errors that are keeping your stories from getting published at all. Here are five things you need to stop putting in your press releases.

1. Marketing copy, especially in the opening paragraph

“ABC Coffee Stirrers, the leader in the coffee stirring industry since 1978 and the developer of the Turbo-Whoosh titanium stirrer, is pleased to announce the acquisition of Global Stirrings, a Canadian coffee stirrer manufacturer.”

Do you see all that dreck? All that extra crap about ABC’s history? That’s amateur hour. That stuff goes at the end of the press release in the <H2>About ABC Coffee Stirrers</H2> section. You know, the part nobody reads. It’s going to get cut out anyway, because journalists like real openings, not a copy-and-paste of your About Us page. When you write that, you sound like a flak, not a journalist, and the editor may pitch the release out of spite and loathing.

2. Adverbs, adjectives, and competitive language

“ABC Coffee Stirrers have proved to be 33% more effective at mixing a coffee drinker’s cream and sugar into their beloved morning java. And customers have eagerly demonstrated their strong preference for the Turbo-Whoosh by increasing sales by a staggering 12% every year for the last five years!”

Newspapers and TV stations are supposed to present the news in an unbiased, objective manner. That means they don’t get to express their opinion. They don’t get to say whether something is good or bad. They typically don’t talk about products, unless those products killed someone.

That means they’re not going to talk about how much better your product is than anyone else’s. They’re not going to publish the “news” written by your product manager. And they’re not going to talk about increased sales, customer preference, or improved performance.

You may get that kind of coverage in trade and industry journals, but you still need to avoid the adverbs and adjectives. If your press release sounds like a freshman English Comp essay, pitch it and start over.

3. Copyright and Trademark symbols

The company lawyer may have told you to put them in the release, but the ®, ©, and ™ symbols don’t belong in press releases for two simple reasons:

  1. They could interfere with SEO. While we can’t be sure how Google treats these, why risk it? Maybe they ignore those symbols, but maybe they treat it like a regular word. No one is going to search for ABC™ Coffee Stirrers®, so don’t make that a search term.
  2. Those don’t appear in news stories. The editors are going to delete them anyway, so don’t make extra work for them or you.

Unless the company lawyer also has a background as a journalist, ignore anything they tell you about writing press releases.

3. “We’re very excited” quotes

“We’re very excited about the merger between our companies.”

“We’re very excited about our laptop upgrades.

You can’t be equally excited about both things. Saying “we’re very excited” about every damn thing that happens is either lazy writing, or your CEO is off her meds. Find another way to express interest or enthusiasm. Better yet, don’t even bring it up at all. We all know you didn’t interview the CEO for this, and if you did, she probably didn’t say this at all.

Talk about the benefits of the news item. Is the merger going to add jobs? That’s your lead quote. Is it going to improve profitability by $10 million? Then that is. No one cares who’s excited; that’s not news. The jobs and profitability are exciting. Only include things that drive the story.

4. Business jargon quotes

“This new relationship will help us streamline mission-critical functionalities as a way to regenerate impactful niches.”

No one talks that way in real life. If they do, make sure they aren’t having a stroke.

But even if they do, preserve their reputation and avoid marketing words altogether. Make them sound like a real human being since, not a marketing textbook.

(Note: It’s easy to confuse marketers with real human beings, but do your best. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and translate their marketing gobbledygook into real words.)

If you don’t have good quotes, the journalist will either email you or call you for a follow-up quote that uses real words. Save them the time and give them a quote that sounds realistic and not one made up by the Dack.com Bullshit Generator (which is what I used to write that sentence above).

A press release is supposed to sound like a real news story written by a real journalist. Most PR flaks don’t know what that looks like, so they keep putting out the same garbage week after week. Then they complain that their stories aren’t being published and that their clients aren’t getting any traction. Start writing real journalistic stories and send out only newsworthy items. You’ll see your success rate — and self-respect — increase.

Image is Everything, Twitter is Forever

It was a disappointing night in Indianapolis tonight (I’m writing this at 12:00 on a Sunday night/Monday morning). Our beloved Indianapolis Colts lost the Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints, 31 – 17.

I followed the game with many of my Twitter friends, and we had a good time chatting with each other, and some of our Twitter buddies down in New Orleans. When the game was over, we congratulated the Saints fans, and wished them well. Everyone but one person. They tweeted what was one of the most egregious tweets I had seen in, maybe, ever.

Fine New Orleans. Go back to your stupid flooded shit hole of a city with the trophy.

Our collective jaws dropped. People were offended, and the whole thing created quite a firestorm here in Indianapolis among several PR and social media pros. It even got some serious attention in New Orleans.

This hateful tweet was made by a supposed PR professional — we’ll call them X — who didn’t seem to understand that when you’re in PR, you’re on all the time. If you make public statements, you and your organization will be judged by those statements. And when you make a joke about a city that lost over 1800 people to the country’s most devastating hurricane in a century, that reflects poorly on you, on your company, and even on your city.

We’re sorry, New Orleans

First of all, let me apologize on behalf of the entire city. This one person does not speak for the rest of us. For the most part, we were gracious in our loss, and I saw a lot of tweets congratulating the city of New Orleans for an awesome win. You fans have shown real class and pride over the years. You love your team as much as we love ours. And this was a great game. I’m very sorry one person said something that awful. We don’t think like that, act like that, or talk like that in Indiana. This person’s tweet is not indicative of the entire state’s way of thinking.

A Quick Aside

I have since learned, after I wrote the first draft, that X received death threats for their offending tweet. Totally uncool, people. While what this person did was hateful, death threats will land you in all kinds of trouble with the law. Do not make death threats, or violent threats of any kind. Be better than X, rise above it. Let’s keep our heads.

Back to the Story

So someone publicly tweeted X’s boss “Hey, congratulations on the AWESOME hire.” A follow-up tweet called on X’s boss to fire them. X deleted their tweet, and protected their account (because of the death threats), but the damage had been done. Screen shots were already circulating, and many people were discussing it online.

While I’m not calling for anyone’s resignation, I do think the entire incident was handled poorly this evening. As a PR practitioner, I would hope X would recognize that:

  1. there is no compartmentalizing of personal life and private life when you’re on Twitter and social media.
  2. Google lasts forever. Just because you delete something doesn’t mean it’s gone. The screen shots are out there forever.
  3. Anyone with even a basic understanding of crisis communication should understand that you need to react to the situation with remorse and speed, not hiding evidence or closing down. One would hope that a PR professional would understand this.

This is the kind of PR that no public figure — corporate, government, or otherwise — would ever want. And yet, it’s the kind that someone, who truly should have known better, got.

Think beyond the present moment

Whenever I give social media talks, especially to college students, I always say the same thing: If you don’t want skeletons in your closet, don’t stick bodies in there in the first place.

If you don’t want potential employers to find stupid photos of you on Facebook, 1) don’t do stupid stuff, 2) don’t take photographic evidence of your stupidity and 3) don’t associate with people who post photos of your stupidity on Facebook.

The same is true with Twitter. Don’t tweet things that are hurtful, painful, and just plain wrong. Don’t wave it off as sarcasm. And always, always apologize when you screw up. Don’t hide, don’t cower, don’t turn on your protective force field. Admit your mistake like an adult, and then quit acting like a child in the first place.

(X did apologize for their tweet in their blog post.)

This incident is just one more reason why businesses are loathe to let their people get on social media on behalf of the company. They don’t want someone tweeting, Facebooking, or generally communicating with the world when they shouldn’t be.

Actions like this hurt the social media community as a whole, and they makes our job harder when we try to convince C-level executives to trust their employees to do the right thing. If the people who should know better can’t do the right thing, why would the average employee?

Finally, I hope the person in question will apologize to the people of New Orleans, and follow it up with a donation to their rebuilding efforts. I also hope X’s employer will use this as an educational moment. Use it to learn and grow from.

And quit using Twitter after 5:00 if you can’t be trusted.

Why Lawyers Shouldn’t Do Crisis Communications

It irritates me to no end when the lawyers and MBAs feel the need to get involved in PR and marketing decisions. You can tell when they’ve had their fingers on a press release or written statement, because they come up with such gems as “We feel terrible for our customer. We are grateful that the customer is now recovering.”

This little beauty came from the owner of a KFC in Canada, after 15-year-old Kendell Lakin — heretofore referred to as “The Customer” — burned herself on a serving of hot poutine, after suffering an epileptic seizure and falling into the dish.

(Poutine is a dish of French fries covered with gravy. Not to be confused with “putain,” which is the French equivalent of the F-word. I’m sure French-Canadians have great poutine-putain jokes.)

The new social media society is all about people and relationships. We don’t refer to 15-year-old girls who burn their faces as “The Customer.” They have names, personalities, and pissed-off fathers. Calling them “The Customer” will piss them off more.

If you want to avoid looking like cold-hearted corporate monsters, stop depersonalizing people and reducing them to a genderless wallet.

(Note: I completely understand the need for attorneys. They keep us communicators out of trouble when we’re about to do or say something stupid. But while they do important work, they shouldn’t be in charge of the actual wordsmithing.)

Crisis communication folks need to seize the messaging away from the Legal Department. CEOs need to remember that hiding behind the stacks of legal books will only anger the public, not placate them. The madder they get, the deeper they’ll cut.

People who remember Chi-Chi’s restaurants will also remember what happened to it. After 4 people died and 650 people fell ill from a hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania, the corporate staff avoided all contact with the news media.

In an article on Levick Strategic Communication’s website, they pointed out where Chi-Chi’s made a huge mistake that ultimately led to their bankruptcy and closure.

Right from the start, Chi-Chi’s made a critical communications mistake common among big corporations facing product liability lawsuits. In an effort to minimize risk, Chi-Chi’s top executives avoided direct contact with the news media. All communications with reporters came through antiseptic one-page statements that had a crisp “just-the-facts, ma’am” feel.

When Chi-Chi’s Chief Operating Officer Bill Zavertnik did finally arrive in Monaca more than two weeks after the outbreak was confirmed last November 3, he read a brief statement to reporters, took no questions, and then returned to corporate headquarters.

From that point forward, communications from Chi-Chi’s and its parent company, Prandium, in Irvine, Calif., came chiefly in the form of news releases and prepared statements written in language designed almost solely to avoid exacerbating the class-action lawsuits against the restaurant chain.

To make a long story short, people got madder and madder, and the class-action lawsuits are what killed the restaurant.

In other words, avoid saying stupid things like “We feel terrible for our customer. We are grateful that the customer is now recovering.”

You’re not going to avoid making people mad. But giving your apologies in some sanitized, half-hearted written statement that sound like they were hatched by some corporate lawyer will only make things worse.

In a lot of instances of corporate crisis communication, you’re going to need the lawyers to keep you out of trouble. But keep the pen out of their hands. They can edit, but they shouldn’t be creating. They need to leave it to the pros.

How Health Departments and First Response Agencies Can Use Twitter to Monitor Emergencies, Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about how local health departments (LHDs) can use Twitter to communicate about and monitor public health emergencies. I also talked about how to set up your own Twitter account. For nearly a year-and-a-half, I was the Risk Communication Director for the Indiana State Department of Health. I dealt with the media during public health emergencies, and took part in several incidents and training exercises.

A tool like Twitter would have been invaluable, and saved a lot of time and energy in getting valuable information to other first responders, the Incident Command structure, and even the media and public.

Be sure to visit yesterday’s post to see how to set up a Twitter account and what applications will make this extremely useful.

Today, I want to show what a Twitter exchange would look like.

A few more issues to take care of first:

1. GroupTweet.com. GroupTweet is a web-based service that lets you send messages to an entire group, rather than sending something to all of your followers, or typing in their names one at a time. If you need to speak to, say, an entire POD or the entire EOC, set up a group in advance, and assign all the members of that group. Then, when you need to send a message to only those people, follow GroupTweet’s instructions.

2. For training exercises and real emergencies, it’s helpful to set up accounts for the different NIMS roles (e.g. ISDH_INCMD is the Incident Commander for the Indiana State Department of Health). As the shifts change, make sure the new people have the username and password to the Twitter account.

3. If you are using a special term or keyword during the incident, like “ISDH” or “anthrax,” you can use a program like Tweetfeed to monitor Twitter traffic. This will pick up all traffic with that keyword, so you may be inundated with more traffic than just your group.

4. Set up a laptop running TweetDeck or Twhirl (or both), with an LCD projector to show the message windows on the wall. Make sure everyone can see it, but try to squeeze as many tweets on the wall as you can. (Use the display settings in the Control Panel.) Everyone working in the EOC is using the EOC software, as well as their own Twitter account, but they will be able to see the Twitter stream on the wall. They will also be able to respond to the messages from their own station.

5. Have the PIO could have a separate, public Twitter account that he or she can use to contact the media and public directly, rather than waiting for the TV news and newspapers. Updates are immediate and can be made as needed. Information given to a TV station could be obsolete 15 minutes after the news van has left.

Also, use the # hashtag if you’re talking about a more common term AND your timeline is public. This will let other people, like the media and concerned citizens, also monitor what you’re doing. Anyone who is using the #hashtag will show up in the general Twitter timeline through Twitter’s search function at search.Twitter.com or TweetFeed (they show the same feed. There are not separate feeds for each program). This is an important way for the PIO to monitor Twitter traffic on the incident.

Here’s how Twitter can work during an emergency.

Scenario: During a POD deployment in Clark County, you’ve got too many volunteers in one POD, you’re running out of medication at another, and a TV news crew is on site, but the Clark County PIO is not available.

Normally to handle this, the Operations Officer from Pod#1 would have to call the EOC to find out if they need to redeploy the volunteers. Someone else would call to get more medicine. A third person would frantically be trying to track down the PIO, and running around to find her. I’ve been in the scenarios where all these things are playing out simultaneously, and it’s often hard to get an answer because everyone is searching for their own answer, or working on their own part of the incident, and can’t be found.

While Twitter won’t eliminate this problem, it can help alleviate some of this chaos by making information more readily available. Here’s how:

The volunteer supervisor sends a Tweet, followed by a response from the EOC Incident Commander

Clark_VOLSUP: Clark County POD #1 has 12 too many volunteers? Send home or send elsewhere?

ISDH_INCMD: POD #3, First Haven Church, needs new volunteers. Send 8 there. Rest can go home.

Clark_VOLSUP: They’re on their way.

POD#1_OPS:We’re running low on doxycyclin. Will be out in 2 hours. Does anyone have more?

POD#3_OPS:We have plenty. Will send volunteer with 5 cases.

POD#2_OPS:Sorry, we’ve got just enough. Might run short near end of day.

POD#1_OPS:Channel 4 from Louisville is on site. Can’t find @Clark_PIO. Does anyone know where she is?

ISDH_PIO:@Clark_PIO is caught in traffic. I’m on site, and can handle.

POD#1_OPS:We’ve just sent processed our 10,000th person. How’s everyone else doing?

POD#2_OPS:We’ve had 8,000.

POD#3_OPS:We’ve had 12,000.

ISDH_PIO:Can I share this with the media? Any talking points I should give?

EOC_OPS:@ISDH_INCMD says Yes. 30,000 people through PODs, everything running smooth, enough meds for all. All PODs should finish by 10 pm today.

ISDH_PIO:Understood. Will contact @ISDH_INCMD when interview is done.

This short exchange has accomplished a number of things:

  1. They saved a bunch of phone calls, and chasing down different people to get an answer.
  2. It allowed for flexibility of someone else answering for the Incident Commander. The IC could have been standing nearby, unable to type out an answer, so someone else was able to do it for them. By using the @ reply feature, the IC can also see that someone has done this. It’s not lost in the shuffle.
  3. Using the @ symbol also delivered messages to the intended people, but publicly, so others can answer. The person who received a reply answer (@IDSH_PIO) was able to get the information they needed, but so did everyone else. Now, if someone needs to know where the PIO is, they have that information, instead of racing around again, trying to find out.
  4. It creates a record of what happened, which will help write the After Action Report (AAR), plus it gives a written transcript of the conversation, if needed. Just copy and paste all the Tweets into an index as part of the AAR.
  5. Each POD Ops director was able to share the number of people processed through POD with everyone. Best of all, they did it without sending an email. The information was immediately accessible, visible, and available to everyone. Emails tend to get buried and forgotten.
  6. The ISDH PIO was able to pick up some useful information – the number of people through each POD – just by following the general timeline. He would not have found this out otherwise, because the Operations.
  7. The Incident Commander was able to give the most important talking points to the PIO in a matter of seconds, not minutes on the phone. Or worse, the PIO never being able to reach the Incident Commander on the phone.

There are many more ways health departments and first responders can use Twitter. In fact, there are several social media technologies that health departments can use:

  • Ning social network engine to create a closed social network for all local health departments;
  • create a blog to give the public quick news updates, post press releases, address any rumors, and serve as a news source to the media. (Blogging can also help you keep the public updated without waiting for news channels;
  • and, using a a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki_software”>wikito create and share information (password-protected, of course) among health departments concerning large scale events, such as pan flu.

I’ll write about these technologies in future posts. In the meantime, if you have any comments, questions, or stories about how you’ve used these technologies, leave a comment.

How Social Media Can Help the Public Avoid the Swine Flu

Originally published on the DeckersMarketing.com blog.

I used to be the Risk Communication Director at the Indiana State Department of Health and one of the things we prepared for over and over was “pan flu.” At the time, we thought it was going to be the H5N1 bird flu, and we prepared by practicing drills, simulating events, writing tons of press releases, and creating processes to get information out to the media and public. Quickly.

The problem is the old model of sending out press releases via email was fast enough three years ago, but since the explosion of Twitter and social networking, and the decline of the traditional newspaper, people just aren’t getting their news through traditional methods anymore.

With social media, the public is getting their information as it happens, rather than waiting for a newspaper to publish day-old news, watching network news at certain times of the day, or cable news that only has time for a national focus, but nothing deeply local.

I’ve been using Twitter to get national news from sites like CNN, the BBC, and USA Today.

I’ve been watching the Google Maps case markers, the CDC’s swine flu investigation, and even listened to a couple of the CDC swine flu podcasts.

There are a few ways public health and first responders could use social media to educate the public, and get ahead of the rumor mongering and bad information that many people seem to perpetuate, whether accidentally or otherwise.

Create a Twitter account.

Someone posted a tweet today that the Twittersphere was talking about swine flu the most, so this is the place to start. Use Twitter to quickly answer questions, debunk rumors, and give out good information and news links.
1) Use the name of your agency AND the emergency (for example, IN_SwineFlu.)
2) Download TweetDeck from TweetDeck.com.
3) Set up a search column for “#swineflu and swine flu.”
4) Use Twitter’s Find People function to find media outlets and journalists in your area, and follow them. They’ll follow you back.
5) Use NearbyTweets.com to find other people around your area. Search for the city AND keywords like “#swineflu” and “swine flu” to find local people talking about those topics. Follow them, and they’ll follow you back.

Set up a blog

Don’t screw around with the rigamarole of getting your IT department to set up a blog on your agency’s server. They’ll have to ratify it in their bi-weekly committee meeting, and want to create a mission statement and all that crap. Use blogs to publish press releases, send out quick updates and stats, give information that can’t wait (i.e. locations of hospitals and medication).
1) Go to Blogger.com, and set up a blog for your agency (i.e. http://youragency.blogspot.com. You COULD screw around with WordPress, which is actually better, but we’re going for speed here. Plus you can’t do this. . .
2) Set it up so you can send emails and texts to your blog. If you’re one of the lucky people who has a Blackberry, you can send blog updates that way. Ditto with photos.
3) Go to TwitterFeed.com and have your blog automatically update your Twitter account.

Monitor your traffic

It’s important to monitor your traffic so you can know what messages are getting the most attention, what ones are being repeated, and where your biggest traffic sources are from.You need to know how many people are coming to your blog, reading your tweets, and paying attention to what you’re saying to know which areas you need to improve on.
1) Set up your TweetDeck URL shortener to use bit.ly, not Tiny.url or any of the others.
2) Go to www.Twitalyzer.com, and enter your Twitter ID. Scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on Return on Influence. You’ll be able to measure how many people have read your Tweets.
3) Install StatCounter into your blog. I usually like Google Analytics, but they only update around 3 am EST. StatCounter updates minute to minute.

Those are the basics of using social media to communicate with the public. If you have any questions or suggestions for best practices, post them here in the comments. I’ll put up new blog posts to answer big questions

In the meantime, please take a few minutes and watch this video to learn how to avoid spreading colds and flu, not just swine flu.