10 steps to get your press release published

Public relations companies spend a lot of time trying to find the right formula to get media mentions with varying degrees of success. At the news desk, I get hundreds of press releases in a week. About 80% of these go unread. The trouble is often not the content, but the fact that the PR firm fundamentally misunderstands the publication. This is especially true when a single release gets sent to journalists across different industries.

Finding the theme

Obviously publications differ greatly and if you’re sending the same press release to all publications, that’s probably your first mistake. This is very basic PR 101 stuff, and often not the case with more professional PR firms. “So, what’s the issue?” you ask. The answer is simple: You missed the themes.

Most publications have different themes. These themes are very easy to spot when you read the magazines, or watch the programmes. A title like Shape, for example, deals with fitness, nutrition and stress management. I got that from reading the magazine, which is why it’s so important to read (or watch) your target media. It’s also why you should be very focussed in your content strategy and limit the amount of titles you approach. It sounds counter-intuitive, but approaching three titles with useful, relevant content is much more effective than sending one release to 12 titles in the hope that one will bite.

Rethink your current strategy

If any of this rings true for you, it’s probably time for a strategy audit. I recommend drawing up a mind map of each client. Here’s what you do:

1. Write the name of your client in the middle of a page.
2. Make each of your client’s target markets a little item on your mind map.
3. Now think of secondary target markets – people or companies who might benefit from the services of your client in an indirect way. You’re not going to show this to anybody, so feel free to let your imagination run wild.
4. Next, think of at least two angles for stories you would like to tell each of these target markets. If you can think of more, even better.

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Finding the right publication

Once you’ve done that, you understand where your client can add value. The next step is to match what you’ve learned about your client with the right publications. Try this:

1. Get at least three issues of a title that might be a good fit.
2. Read through the titles carefully, front to back. (Yes, it’ll take time, but it will be worth it!)
3. Ignoring specific articles, write down the different sections of the title.
4. Next, keeping what you’ve read in mind, write down keywords that could be the underlying themes of the title. Start with a word association-type exercise and narrow it down from there.
5. Finally, match these themes with the angles you identified for your client.
6. Rinse. Repeat with the next title.

I know this sounds like a lot, but it will save you a lot of energy in future. It will also help you build a meaningful relationship with the title you’re targeting. When it comes down to it, both of us want to get information to the reader.

This article forms part of a PR writing programme presented at FleishmanHillard in Johannesburg. For more information, contact Kristia van Heerden.


Why your press release sucks

I missed out on a lot of publicity opportunities when I was in PR. Sending a press release to a journalist scared me to death. I felt like that overbearing person that nobody wants to be around. I’ve since realised that the relationship between journalists and PRs are mutually beneficial and offered a few tips here.

In this article I will address one of the issues I didn’t deal with in the previous article, namely compiling a good press release. While I perfected writing about my clients and their products, nobody ever taught me how to present this information to the press.

A press release contains information to help the publication understand what it is about. Typically a press release contains information like the date, where the company is based, when the information can be used, where the press release ends and where information about the company begins. There are a number of templates available online that will help your pressers look more professional.

I’m going to address some common mistakes PRs make in press releases by using a real life example. It’s not my intention to embarrass anyone, so I changed the presser here and there to protect the company.

Below I offer solutions to improve your chances of getting publicity.

The heading

“Tassel Mermaids Evolves Mobile Security Solutions, Elevating Capabilities for Combating Cyber Threats and Data Loss for Businesses, Consumers.”

Problem one: The heading was an afterthought.

Solution:  Journalists and PRs are often told to hook readers with the heading. To do that, you have to solve a problem for your reader. If you send a press release, the journalist is your reader. What problem can you solve for a journalist with your article? The answer to that question should be the starting point for your heading.

Problem two: The heading is too long. An eighteen word heading tells me you’re not sure what is important.

Solution: Try to get to the crux of the matter in as few words as possible while still making sense. This heading could have been: “Mobile security solution combats cyber threats.” That’s six words to your eighteen, and I know exactly why you’re writing the article.

Problem three: You capitalised every word in the heading, making  it difficult to read.

Solution: Capitalise names and the beginning of the sentence, nothing else. Seriously. Stop capitalising everything that seems important.

Problem four: You mention the name of the company in the heading.

Solution: The first issue is that you assume a journalist knows about your company. If you don’t know every single company in the country, odds are I don’t either.

Secondly, unless the article is about the company’s annual results, the company name isn’t relevant in the heading. What matters is what problem the company solved. I swear, if the company did something awesome, I will mention the company name in the article.

The first sentence

“Internet security company Tassel Mermaid Incorporated has revealed a set of solutions to combat the unprecedented array of cyber attacks that are continually victimising individuals and enterprises via mobile platforms.”

Problem one: The sentence is too long.

Solution: Write one thought per sentence. It makes it easier for me to follow what you’re saying.

Problem two: The problem isn’t evident.

Solution: It’s true you have to answer five questions in your opening paragraph (or in this case opening sentence). You might have heard the mantra: Who? What? Why? Where? When? How?

This opening paragraph answers three of those questions, which is pretty good. The problem is I still don’t know why it matters. This paragraph could have read:

“Mobile users continually fall victim to cyber attacks. Statistics show that one in three South Africans have been victims of cybercrime. In an attempt to create a safer mobile environment, Internet security company Tassel Mermaid devised a series of products to protect mobile data.”

This paragraph contextualises the problem for the reader. I might not cover cybercrime or know anything about it, but if you can convince me that cybercrime is a problem, I will look into it.

Only in the third paragraph does the writer answer how exactly this is done. That’s too late.

Shameless self-promotion

“Mobile threats continue to grow in intensity and sophistication, and Tassel Mermaid is committed to utilising our proven expertise to address these challenges,”  says CEO Burt Bacharach.

Problem one: You are not giving me information.

Solution: As a journalist I assume that you want publicity for your company, which is why you’re sending me a press release. I’m okay with that. That you’re committed to something is implied. I need to know how you’re going to do it.

Problem two: It’s not an advertorial.

Solution: If you would like a publication’s readers to hear from the horse’s mouth that you are committed to things, buy advertorial space. If not, assume that the journalist is going to remove quotes like this.

You’re a robot

“Trend Micro further identifies and blocks repackaged Android apps before they are sold on the BlackBerry® World™”

Problem: You think the journalist cares about registered trademarks.

Solution: Stop thinking the journalist cares about registered trademarks, and don’t include trademark signs. If you’re unsure, imagine you have to tell me face-to-face what you’re writing about in the presser. Will you say, “BlackBerry, registered trademark”? No. Don’t do it in your pressers.

 A colleague of mine is writing an article about networking. In his research he came across the concept of selling your business thirty seconds. I think this is also true for a press release. The heading and the first paragraph is your opportunity to grab my attention. Don’t squander it.


Seven ways to write better emails

As a writer I am very privileged to work with outliers – people who have a significant impact on the world around them. In my tenure at Finweek I’ve had the opportunity to pick the brains of incredible people, many of whom do staggering work as entrepreneurs, financial gurus, CEOs and thought leaders. When I can’t conduct face-to-face interviews due to time or geographical constraints, I rely on technology to gather information. Email interviews are a great way for me to include the opinions of outliers in my articles, but often they don’t do the person being interviewed any favours.

I believe every business should have a staff writer to respond to media and customer queries and overlook all communications, from employment contracts and social media to notices that remind people to flush the toilet. Professionalism goes a long way in the business world. If your written communication is terrible, your business suffers.

For my latest article I conducted mostly email interviews. Normally quite effective, I was surprised when this round of e-terviews all but blew up in my face. Luckily I also learned a few important lessons about corporate communications. Remember the below tips when responding to email queries in the future.

1. Spelling matters

Your written communication is often the only chance at a first impression you’ll get. Responding to an email query should be treated with the same reverence as a face-to-face interview. You won’t show up to a media interview with bad body odour and spinach in your teeth. Sending an email filled with spelling mistakes is the spinach in the teeth of your first impression. There’s no excuse for bad spelling. If you have a computer, you have a spell checker.

2. If you’re too busy to respond, say so

Free publicity gives your company exposure and is an opportunity for you to position yourself as an industry expert. Written customer queries are an opportunity to prove to your customers that you can go above and beyond. Social media platforms give you an opportunity to understand your customers better.

You don’t ever have to do any of these things. You can delegate this responsibility or, in the case of media queries, politely decline to respond. Not responding at all or responding when it’s no longer relevant does more harm than good.

3. Contempt breeds contempt

It’s easy to misunderstand the tone of written correspondence. Writers tend to hone this skill over the course of a lifetime and some eventually get it right. Very important and busy people aren’t always successful in bringing the right tone across. This week I got responses like, “We see straight through that!” or “Don’t tell us something. We already know that!”

In this context that doesn’t seem so bad, but an email response littered with phrases like that make you seem contemptuous. It’s not good, it’s probably not true and it will make someone think twice before approaching you again. A staff writer would have turned your words into a tone that is confident, but also forgiving.

4. Put some thought into it

The trouble with publicity is that people want it, even when they can’t afford to get it. People can tell when you put something together at the last minute. If a journalist contacted you minutes before going to print for quick comment, it’s acceptable to blast off an email. If, on the other hand, you agreed to write something a week before the deadline and then send slipshod work a few hours after the deadline, rest assured that the journalist will find someone else next time.

5. Show how you’re different

When responding to media or consumer queries, remember that the person on the other end wants to see you in the communication. If you’re the type of outlier I love to work with, I want to see that. The Internet is a wonderful, powerful instrument. Odds are I already did some research before approaching you. What I want from you is your take on the subject matter – good or bad. Tell me what you think. Don’t make spelling mistakes when you do it, and don’t talk down to me or my readers, but show me who you are.

6. Don’t share without asking

This week I had a particularly nasty experience when someone forwarded a private email conversation to fifteen other people, including former colleagues and current collaborators. To make matters worse, someone responded to our private communication in an extremely sexist and offensive way that everybody could see. I felt humiliated by the experience and immediately resolved not to use that person (or the sexist) in future articles.

7. Be careful

The lesson I took from having my email shared without my consent is that responding informally* to an informal correspondence can pose a real threat to your reputation. When responding to customers in a playful way, make sure you don’t come across as flippant. Journalists are normally quite open and love interacting with others. Once your business is concluded, an informal email will probably be appreciated. Even so, steer clear of being too personal.

Keep these tips in mind next time you respond to an email or a media query. If you don’t have the mental bandwidth to deal with all of this in addition to all your other responsibilities, employ a writer. You won’t be sorry.

*I said, “This made me giggle.” Apparently that needed to be shared.


Two sides: The importance of the argument

Being able to formulate a good argument is the foundation of good journalism and writing in general. Learning how to formulate a good argument, however, is tricky. A good argument should be substantiated by facts, but only considering and presenting facts that reinforce your argument is not formulating a good argument. Isn’t that odd?

Confirmation bias is a psychological tendency where people mould information to confirm an opinion. I am a vegetarian, so I interpret all information relating to eating meat or the meat industry in a pro-vegetarian light. When confronted with an argument about vegetarianism, it’s easy for me to manipulate all the information at hand to make my point. The trouble is, I disregard valuable information in the process.

If, for example, the topic is factory farming, I would argue that it’s cruel to animals and the meat is unhealthy because of hormones injected into factory animals. When I argue this point I disregard the fact that it’s often cheaper to run a factory farm, which means more people can get food at affordable prices.

In your individual capacity you are entitled to cling to an opinion just because you’ve always had it, but as a writer – especially a journalist – you owe it to your readers to be aware of and avoid confirmation bias. Human nature is complex and nothing is ever just black and white. Arguing a point without considering the complexities of the topic is breeding ground for ignorance.

The Boy Wonder (TBW) sent me this synopsis of the book Childlessness Transformed: Stories of Alternative Parenting (it seems interesting – get it here) and I was struck by how powerful it could be to just present opposing facts.

Author Jane English approaches the potentially contentious issue of childlessness by presenting different views of childlessness through the ages and across cultures. In the synopsis she is not trying to persuade the reader of the merits of child bearing or childlessness, she is simply presenting the facts. The reader has the freedom to consider the information the author collated and to draw his or her own conclusions.

A good argument is not only the responsibility of the writer.  As readers we have a responsibility to understand the intentions of the person writing the article and to question whether the writer is presenting a good argument. Are you always aware of both sides of the argument when you read? If we’re perfectly honest, more often than not the answer is probably no. You have to ask yourself why that is before accepting the information as fact. Why am I writing an article on good writing? Because I want you to believe that I’m a good and fair writer. If you ask why the article was written by the end of each article, you are forcing yourself to acknowledge the fact that you could have been presented with only one aspect of a complex issue.


The power of passion

When things get really insane, as they have this year, I tend to get a little too caught up in the madness and forget about the great things I get to do every day. I was reminded of that last week when I got to write two stories for two very different publications. Oddly, both stories were very strongly linked to leaves. The first was a story on cigars, the second on tea. While it was purely coincidental, you’d be surprised at the similarities.

For both stories (and many stories before that) I got to speak to people who are so unbelievably passionate about something that they went out of their way to bring it to our little gem at the tip of the darkest continent (which, as it happens, is also the most colourful continent). It made me think about people and stories that really inspire the world. When I think about the stories of my beautiful country – the many, many stories of hope, of freedom, of love – it’s easy to identify the thread that binds everyone from the Boers who trekked across the Drakensberg to Madiba’s long walk to freedom. Passion is what the human race responds to.

What I also realised from doing two stories on leaves is that passion doesn’t need a large canvas to be beautiful. Passionate people tend to get a platform and they tend to use it to inspire others. Think of the people who inspired you the most in life. I bet the majority of them were wildly passionate about something. The odd thing is, passion always finds followers, whether you’re Hitler or my homegirl, Mother T.

I recently did a story for Finweek on what to study to get rich. There were many answers, but the answers I found and wrote about weren’t the only answers. As you probably know, wealth is a complex construct that means different things to different people. What I’ve come to realise is that passion is wealth to me. If you find your passion, you’ll find your wealth. I managed to carve out a little Kristia-shaped space for myself in the world, and that space is where I get to be passionate.

Passion, of course, is not a cure-all. Passion isn’t happiness or contentedness or bliss. Passion is something that stays with you when everything else is in flux. Passion is the one thing that will always remind you that this is who you are and this is where you belong. Your passion can lead you to change the world or your passion can lead you to tea. Either way, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever own.

May you always have passion.


Five common PR mistakes

I started my career in the media, took a slight detour to public relations and corporate writing before settling on a sort of hybrid career combining traditional print media with digital and social media and the occasional corporate writing job. My somewhat schizophrenic career path gave me the opportunity to consider the same beast from various angles.

At Finweek, I am both the online and lifestyle editor, which requires a mammoth amount of content production and information filtering. At Eat Out, I had to stay on top of food trends and restaurant openings without ever getting to bounce ideas off other colleagues. For both jobs, I’ve come to rely on media releases and corporate communications.

Of course, some of the communications I receive are better than others, which is why I’ve compiled a short list of common mistakes I see in corporate communications.

1. You don’t know your client

When you make contact with a journalist in the hopes of getting publicity, the journalist and the publication they work for become your clients too. I can tell when you don’t know anything about the publication I work for or my role in the company.

It’s a mistake to send your pressers into the wide world in the hope that someone will pick it up. Understand which publications are best suited to your clients and then read them – often and thoroughly. Eventually you’ll be able to identify the journalists and contributors who write content relevant to your clients. These are the only journalists you should have on your database.

2. You’re afraid of the telephone

When you work in PR, your job is to communicate. You don’t have the luxury of hiding behind a computer screen. I get hundreds of press releases in a week. If I had to read through every one, I’d never write a thing. I’m lucky enough to work with a few exceptional PR agents who always phone me after sending a release. In a two-minute chat I can find out exactly what the story is about and whether it’s relevant to me or not.

The moral here is if you want coverage, you should pick up the phone or your communication will get lost in the noise.

3. You’re not building relationships

I know this one is true, because I was once guilty of not building relationships with journalists. I was too focussed on my clients and too afraid to come across as needy.

It’s only when I started working at Finweek that I realised there existed a symbiotic relationship between PRs and journos. We need corporate communications just as much as you need coverage. If you are unlucky enough to deal with a journalist who thinks he or she doesn’t need you, relax in the knowledge that their career is probably about to crash and burn. Seriously, I once saw it happen with my own eyes.

4. You think we work for freebies

A gift is not an incentive to write a story. A good story is an incentive to write a story. If you understand who my readers are and can provide content they would like to read, I will take it. I promise. You never, ever have to buy me a gift.

There’s a massive ethical pitfall here and the line is an easy one to cross. As a rule of thumb, remember if you give a journalist something, he or she is under no obligation to give you coverage in return. Most publications offer advertorial space, where you can pay for coverage. It’s a perfectly legal and ethical way to get coverage if you’re desperate.

5. You think relationships get you coverage

While it’s vital to build relationships with journalists, having a good rapport doesn’t mean the journalist will publish everything you send. Yes, a journalist will probably look at your presser before anyone else’s because you’ve given them good content in the past, but that’s no guarantee that your content will get published. Always, always be relevant.

I believe there’s a science to being a good PR. I hope these five steps will help you get there.


Finweek LIFE newsletter archive

Compiling the Finweek LIFE newsletter is one of the highlights of my week. With just under 1000 willing subscribers (not to be confused with avid readers), I feel like I have a little more freedom when writing this newsletter, so I tend to push boundaries and indulge my generally terrible sense of humour.

If you are absolutely desperate to receive this newsletter, feel free to subscribe here. If not, I don’t blame you.


Wonderboom joins social media

I recently posted the South African Musician’s Guide to Social Media. Here’s what local rockers Wonderboom had to say about social media.

Wonderboom takes the social scene

South African rockers Wonderboom have embraced inbound marketing for the promotion of their new album Automatic Shuffle.

“For many years we relied on the tried and tested marketing networks created by record companies. These networks depend on so many variables and reaching your audience is never simple,” said Cito, Wonderboom front man.

“For Automatic Shuffle we decided to take cognisance of the changes in the music industry and to take charge by promoting the album ourselves,” continued Cito.

The band approached Medios Marketing Communications to explain the basic principles of inbound marketing, with a strong focus on social media as a promotional tool. The band will manage all social media accounts.

The music industry is no stranger to social media platforms. Bands like Arctic Monkeys and OK Go went from relatively unknown bands to world-famous international acts through viral campaigns. Wonderboom’s approach differs from these campaigns because the band’s campaign has its foundation in new marketing theory. According to Jacques van den Bergh, managing director of Medios Marketing Communications, new marketing requires communication with the market rather than communicating at them.

“We are one of the last founding SA rock bands,” said Martin Schofield, the band’s lead guitarist. “Few people realise that we have been around for almost 15 years with a discography of eight albums,” Schofield continued.

The band understands it is not a mass-market band, yet there is a section of almost every demographic to which their style and attitudes will appeal. Wonderboom is banking on these niches across the board.

For Cito, the success in marketing the album lies with connecting not only with the band’s current fan base, but also with its emerging fans.

“Wonderboom isn’t the kind of band that adapts to the needs of a particular demographic. Instead we will put ourselves out there, interact with whoever we appeal to and take it from there.”

Wonderboom fans can find out more about Automatic Shuffle on www.wonderboom.co.za, interact with the band on Twitter or join the band’s Facebook page.


Feed your copywriter (information)

Copywriters are great! They translate difficult information into digestible chunks, they encourage consumers to buy two pairs of studded leggings instead of one, they amuse, they explain and sometimes they even inspire. Despite the sheer awesomeness of your average copywriter, they aren’t very good mind readers. Or maybe they are, but I’m not.
To write a good article, I need a good brief. What constitutes a good brief? I’m so glad you asked!

1. An interview

To understand what you need, I need to talk to you. I need your undivided attention for an hour to ask questions, to make sure that I understand what you need and to ensure that we agree on the angle of the article.

2. Detail

To understand your product or service, I need access to every single piece of information on the product and the industry. This includes technical information, an overview of recent developments in the industry, the key role players and industry gossip. If you think the information you have is irrelevant, you’re probably wrong.

3. Context

I need to understand what made you identify the need for the article. When I understand why I’m writing the article, I understand what the article has to achieve.

4. A source

Quoting a reliable industry source outside of your company gives the article credibility. An industry expert might also contribute valuable information that you are unaware of. I will need the name, contact number and email address of a person that is well known throughout your industry.

5. A deadline

Whether it’s a week, a month, or a day, I need to know how much time I have to read up on your product, gather additional information, set up interviews, produce a first draft, make the final changes and edit the article.

You should also do the following:


A musician’s guide to social media

Wonderboom band


To us normal folk, social media is the perfect way to see what the cool kids are up to, and we all know there’s nothing cooler than a Fender-wielding, bearded muso in skinny jeans. Later today South African rock veterans Wonderboom will stop by to talk about a social media strategy for the band. Here’s what we’ll tell them about social media:

1. Your blog is your HQ

Fans want to know everything about musicians, including what they eat and who their friends are. Take a moment to thank MTV for that. While most social media platforms allow you to share your entire life, your band’s blog should be your social media headquarters. Your blog should have:

  • Your band name as a URL, for example www.wonderboom.co.za
  • A link to each of your band’s social media accounts
  • A Twitter feed widget
  • A gallery with show and promotional images
  • A very visible gig guide
  • A media player with samples of your music
  • A link to an online store where fans can purchase your music
  • An RSS option

2. MySpace isn’t enough

For years MySpace has been a favourite among musos. While sharing music is fairly easy on MySpace, these days all blogging platforms allow you to share music and videos. Your band should be on MySpace, but your MySpace account should be secondary to your blog.

Blogs are fully customisable, whereas MySpace can only be altered superficially. MySpace pages tend to be cluttered and hard to navigate. Load your music to your MySpace page, and add a link to your blog.

Visit Wonderboom’s MySpace page here.

3. Twitter is your friend

While many South Africans seem reluctant to join Twitter, there’s no better platform to share gig information and last-minute changes to line-ups. Twitter is easily accessible from cellular phones and gives fans the chance to interact with the band directly.

Your band’s Twitter account should be active and interactive. The idea is to talk with your fans, not to them. Take a look at Ashtray Electric’s @rudi_cronje and Werner Olckers’ @wrestlerish to see how it should be done.

4. You should have a Facebook group

Facebook is the security blanky of social media. If your fans aren’t on Facebook, they won’t be on Twitter, they won’t read your blog and they’ll probably only come to your Barnyard shows.

Facebook groups allow you to send invitations to shows; share links to your blog entries; post photos and music and to interact with fans. What’s more, your Facebook updates can be duplicated on your Twitter account automatically.

View Wonderboom’s Facebook group here.

5. Foursquare is worth it

Because bands travel all the time, checking in on Foursquare will let fans know when you’re in their area. Your Foursquare updates can be linked to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, which means you can update all three accounts in one go. Do it! Do it now!


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