Public Relations is a clear, precise, methodical communication function that innumerable people mistakenly equate with promotion. When they do, their “releases” are doomed for the circular file. No editor will consider anything as a valid press release if it contains hyperbole or promotional language. And attracting the attention of editors is the ultimate objective of any true press release – in print, broadcast and online media.
If that’s not your objective – if you’re actually simply trying to put out some sort of announcement – you might want to rethink your communication piece, and you will definitely not want to call it a “press release.” Because that means very specific things to very specific people.
Just the facts, ma’am.
The secret to good P.R. is relatively simple: a true press release is always written in third-person, journalistic style and is wholly objective. Its first paragraph always contains the “who, what, where, when, why and how.” Promotional copy is the exact opposite – it’s entirely subjective, full of adjectives and frequent use of such phrases as “we’re thrilled” or “we’re very excited.” Those are the kiss of death.
While the formula is simple, it can be challenging to execute unless you’ve been taught how.
How, then, do all those articles from your competitors end up in all those editorial pages? Why do the publications seem to feature story after story about some company that’s not so different from yours? The answer – as you surely suspect – is that they have knowledgeable, experienced public relations pros working for them.
What the pros know.
P.R. pros not only know how to write a release that will get an editor’s attention, they also know that relationships with those editors are key to getting both good coverage and … interviews. Yes, the holy grail of every sales effort – the interview. (Kind of like free advertising and an endorsement all in one, isn’t it?)
P.R. pros have lots of media experience and know how to select the pubs that best match their clients’ category; how to sell a story to those pubs, who to promote it to and how to work editorial calendars to your advantage.
Those P.R. pros also know how to successfully set up media interviews and tours, and how to help make trade shows successful.
Good P.R. is more than P.R.
Good P.R. means creating the right editorial climate for clients’ businesses, products and services by influencing the target audience through appropriate media. That can mean a great many more things than just the releases. Things such as:
Background materials/press kits
… and News releases
Truly, the biggest problem with press releases is that so few people understand what they are, or what they’re supposed to be. I’ve frequently been provided “press releases” as input for writing projects and have just as frequently been horrified to see entirely promotional copy vs. true releases. Along with a dearth of facts (who, what, where, when, why and how). Too many people just don’t know. But editors do.
What P.R. is not.
Press releases are not ads, they’re not fliers, they’re not trade show hand-outs, and they’re most definitely not akin to wedding announcements. If you actually want something to be a press release, then it’s got to be in classical, third-person, objective reporting style. Period.
Why? So that an editor might drop it in to a publication, as is (the real secret), or use the first paragraph, as is. (The who, what, where, when, why and how of the story.) Send editors promotional garbage and it will go where other garbage goes.
P.R. has far less to do with what corporations want to achieve or say than what news outlets will accept. That’s why a true, classical press release is indistinguishable from an AP or New York Times news story. No hyperbole, no exaggeration. Ever.
Naturally, companies are welcome to put out whatever they want, even dinner napkins. But if they plan to drop something “on the wires” or send it directly to editors, it has to be in the lingua franca of the business. Anything that isn’t is a waste of both your time and your resources.
With a nod to Truman Capote’s summation of Jack Kerouac, typing is not necessarily writing. Writing is ultimately the practice of a craft.
Anyone who crafts words into sentences, and sentences into the grammatically correct perfection of a thought, a story, a piece of marketing, journalism, technical documentation, etc., is someone who understands what it means to be a writer.
Ironically, while one may have to show credentials or a college degree to be hired as a writer, one can’t really go to school to learn how to write. One simply has to write, lots and lots. Schools can only teach techniques, tricks, methods of practice and examples of good writing. But, just like pottery, it’s ultimately up to the practitioner. And writing requires a very similar kind of centering to reach the inner voice that then can be transmitted.
This thing called the World Wide Web has created the impression that writers are everywhere. They are not. They are outnumbered by typists. The Web has also been steadily lowering the bar for quality of writing. And that is sad. Writing, in so many ways and in so many places, seems to have been reduced to “content.”
It also saddens me that while the world is continually being increased in population, that growing population is less and less familiar with the truly magical power that words on the page have held since the original Egyptians elevated what we do to “scribe,” and Guttenberg first set paper on a press. It was why some of us longed to be writers, and why we struggled to learn the craft.
Before there can be a movie, there has to be a story. And so it goes for every form of communication: the genesis is always writing.
The power of communication.
The author and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu wrote: “The real technology – behind all our other technologies – is language. It actually creates the world our consciousness lives in.”
This is an astounding summation of the power of communication. From the moment we learn language, most of us begin taking it for granted. It seems that it’s a precious few, like Codrescu, who remain in awe of the ability to communicate our thoughts, feelings, needs and wants.
This awesome power is at the heart of what we writers do for a living. People throw the word “branding” about as if it’s magic dust. Just say it and you’re suddenly creating a higher level of communication. Not so. The real magic is in the language. If the language is not effective, relevant, compelling and consistent, there is no branding. If the message does not hit home in the eyes and ears and emotions of the target audience, there is no branding.
Language is the ultimate tool.
Everything about marketing is communication, whether it’s words, images or sounds. And what is communication if not language? Even when we see a commercial without words, we’re working out in our thoughts what it means and whether it’s relevant to us And those thoughts are the language of our consciousness.
I almost hate to admit it but brands make up a large portion of our consciousness in the western world, “the world our consciousness lives in.” It was distracting at first to watch the film Minority Report and see all of the brands flash by that were part of that particular time and consciousness. Then I figured out what was bothering me – the sub-text was, “we are what we want.” Minority Report was, of course, written by Philip K. Dick, the brilliant, visionary sci-fi writer who also wrote Blade Runner. There were nearly identical brand images in that film as well, even though the word “branding” barely existed, if at all, in 1984.
So is it our job to make people and companies want things? I prefer to think of what we do as creating awareness of choices. That’s what capitalism is ultimately all about – the freedom for anyone to create a competitive offering, and the freedom for each of us to choose which competitive offering is right for us.
It is, of course, remarkable, that we can go from using language for reasoning to using language for offerings. But both prove our humanity. Because, in the end, nothing sets us apart from the animal kingdom more than language. Without the ability to communicate effectively, we are hardly human. And that is why language really is the ultimate tool.
In recent years a confusing, disturbing trend has evolved: marketing is being confused with sales, or being treated as if it is sales. True, pure marketing has always been about communication. It has encompassed P.R., advertising, promotions, direct mail, trade shows, etc. It’s about the message, not about closing the deal.
Marketing titles have further blurred the lines between marketing and sales. And it’s a very important line to keep perfectly clear. But in order to give sales people exalted titles, such as “Marketing Director” (and to avoid the word “sales”) both the roles and the functions have become confused. In particular, it’s brought us back to one of the oldest questions in business: who’s in charge, sales or marketing?
What Fast Company says:
“Marketing’s primary function should be to develop the market, to create demand for the product or services which results in High Probability Prospects. The primary function of sales-people should be to find and do business with the High Probability Prospects, as they develop.” [Jacques Werth, co-author "High Probability Selling"]
In other words, marketing’s job is to create awareness; sales’ job is to make the sale.
With the blurring of the line between sales and marketing functions, you’ll often find that a “director of marketing” is really a sales person in marketer’s clothing. If one of those hybrids becomes your client, it can make it very hard to create effective communications.
True marketing people understand both the process and the reasonable expectations from marketing efforts. Sales people only expect results. Immediately. That’s not how marketing works. Coke became Coke through more than a century of branding. You don’t get there overnight.
The point is, when sales is in charge of marketing, the true purpose of each is lost.
Often, companies get the mistaken idea that sales can do just fine on their own. (“Who needs marketing?”) They get the idea that sales is all they need if they see dollars marching in every time sales people come back. But how often are those sales people doing it all on their own? If they don’t have good marketing materials and support, are prospects really as receptive?
My simile is that sales people are the ground troops and marketing is the navy, pounding the shoreline to make it possible for sales to land on the beach. The troops need that covering fire to make it, but because they’re down on the ground, it tends to look like they did it all on their own. Ultimately, neither one can win the war alone. (O.k., that simile is done.) The simple point is that prospects are far more receptive after they’ve been softened up by really good marketing materials.
And don’t forget that a single piece of marketing can be seen by tens of thousands of people at a time, while a salesperson can only talk to one prospect at a time.
Marketing is strategy.
Marketing has always been about communication. For communication to work, it must be on strategy. That strategy must be arrived at before materials are created, and it must be communicated through compelling messaging. To be compelling, the marketing communication must be relevant to the true target audience.
(By the way, figuring out exactly who your target audience is must come first. You need to be able to answer, “For whom does your product or service exist? Why will they want it? Who else does what you do? What makes your offering different? What will it take to win?”)
Sales is execution.
Sales has typically been based on making promises. Things go wrong when those promises are at odds with the marketing strategy. That’s bad, very bad. One of the basic tenets of branding is that the very same message is communicated by everyone, in all departments, across the board. If outbound sales is saying whatever comes into their heads to make a sale, you’ve got to rein them in and make sure, absolutely sure, that they’re only communicating the agreed-upon strategy.
Sales and marketing are inextricably, symbiotically connected. The ultimate job of marketing is to support sales. And the ultimate job of sales is to execute on the promise of marketing. Marketing is about driving awareness and interest. Sales is about closing the deal. They’re connected, but distinct. They need each other, but cannot do each other’s jobs.
The most successful sales people I’ve ever known say, “I’ve never made a promise I couldn’t keep.” The most successful marketing corollary is “Never over-promise.” By sticking to truly relevant, entirely believable messaging, everyone will succeed.
Example: if you’re doing an ad for a coffee maker and write, “How to make the best coffee in the world,” it stretches believability and accessibility. It’s over-promise. But if instead you write, “How to make a better cup of coffee,” you’ve now set a believable, attainable goal (with thanks to Leo Fassler).
Keep them separate, but together.
What’s communicated by everyone in an organization is vitally important – to the company image, and to the brand. If you want a consistent message going out to all your current and potential customers, you have to make sure that your internal folks understand exactly what to say to your external audience.
Sales cannot make up its own version of the marketing message. Marketing cannot remain aloof and separate from sales. You have to talk to each other to communicate and agree on the messaging that works best for everyone.
Marketing strategy is defining the target customer – understanding their needs, knowing the competition, setting appropriate pricing, developing effective promotional materials – and then communicating all of that to the sales team so that they can apply their sales techniques most effectively.
You need each other. Really.
Marketing is at the core of branding – you’re creating critical awareness about a product or service within a targeted audience, and about your specific potential for fulfilling the need for that product or service. Marketing is also about defining the benefits of the product or service and how to communicate those benefits effectively – all of which is given to the sales force to execute on.
Sales is the other end of the stick, using inbound or outbound people to zero in on specific targeted prospects as a result of warm leads from responses to marketing materials.
Marketing creates tools that support sales. If the tools are not working, sales has to let marketing know and, together, you have to redesign those tools to end up with communication that does work.
If either marketing or sales gets the idea that they’re running the show, someone in charge needs to sit them down, straighten them out and then turn them loose to try it again.