With one typographical error, Liz Miller became a legend in the public relations world. As communications manager for Jan Marini Skin Research, a skin care company based in San Jose, Calif., Miller writes about 40 press releases a year, e-mailing them mostly to trade publications read by dermatologists and spa owners. One item, which appeared in a trade publication last March, touted special deals on Jan Marini's glycolic-acid products and encouraged readers to call a 1-800 number for more information.
But when readers dialed the number, they got much more information than they expected. Miller, it turned out, had typed in a single incorrect digit and provided the number for a phone sex line. Not surprisingly, she was soon flooded with calls from editors, angry customers, and laughing colleagues. "I told my boss and our CEO that I understood if they had to fire me," Miller recalls. Fortunately, her superiors took pity on her.
To be sure, Miller is not the first -- nor will she be the last -- person to blow a press release. Writing and sending an effective press release is more challenging than it seems. And the stakes are particularly high for smaller companies that are trying to build solid reputations on shoestring budgets. Unlike large corporations with massive marketing budgets, smaller companies rely heavily on press releases as a cheap, timely way to spread the word about everything from new partnerships to products. But poorly crafted press releases can do more harm than good.
While a typo proved to be Miller's undoing, crafting a perfect news pitch requires much more than proofreading. The key to success is an interesting news hook, says Lou Colasuonno, a former editor of the New York Post and Daily News who is now a partner at Westhill Partners, a New York City public relations firm. Colasuonno advises companies to consider how their news might interest their target audience, not just why it seems important to them. (A press release sent to Inc. magazine, for example, will be more likely to get attention if, rather than simply touting a company's success story, the release explains how it might offer lessons to other businesses.) Other tips from Colasuonno: If using e-mail, summarize your news hook in a subject line of 10 words or less. Tailor your content to each recipient -- a fashion magazine isn't likely to be interested in new accounting software -- and try to personalize each release by contacting specific reporters or editors. And be aware of deadlines. Magazines may need as much as three months' lead time for a time-sensitive story.
Think spreading news is easy? Before hitting Send, think again
Once you have the general idea, the devil is in the details. Avoid industry jargon, which is a surefire turn-off. In addition, when sending a press release by e-mail, beware of red-flag words like "mortgage rates" or "sexy" that most spam filters are programmed to block. And, above all, keep it short. You should be able to summarize your news, briefly describe your company, and provide the pertinent contact information in less than 400 words.
Keep in mind that, even if you follow all the rules, you won't always get a reaction. In fact, only about 10% of the people who receive press releases are likely to respond, says Carson Stanwood, CEO of an eponymous public relations firm in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Resist the temptation to resend the same message or phone after every release, warns Stanwood. Instead, follow up after every second or third attempt. Don't lose hope. It may take a year to capture someone's attention; in the meantime, at the very least, press releases will help build brand awareness. Of course, if you do receive an inquiry, be sure to respond on the same day and be prepared to offer additional information.
As Miller learned, you can survive a press release mistake. So don't panic. Sure, Miller endured months of voice mails from colleagues mocking the phone sex fiasco, but she rebounded quickly by responding to complaints, apologizing for the snafu, and continuing to send announcements. Since the debacle, Jan Marini's skin products have been featured in magazines such as Lucky and InStyle; they have even been placed in celebrity gift baskets at the Billboard Awards and the Screen Actor's Guild Awards. Miller, for one, is relieved. But, she admits, she hasn't recovered completely. "I still hyperventilate every time I go to the newsstand to check our latest coverage," she says.