Throw Your Press Release in the Trash

by Fred Showker
Over the past year a disturbing trend has taken over the world of press releases. They all seem to have turned into SPAM. (Not the Hormel brand Spam, but "UCE" or unsolicited email.) It's becoming more and more difficult to find the good stuff to publish.

Writing press releases has always been a professional activity, and there are rules. But today, the rules seem to have abandoned and turned over to the high-pitch hawkers of online ecommerce.

For years I've depended on press releases to identify new products and services for the readers of DT&G and the various content areas of the Design Center. Everyone likes to hear about and discover new products. Lately however good press releases are few and far between. I'm not saying there are less -- heavens no! There are 100-times as many as there was a year ago. But today there's 100-times as much garbage. That's part of the problem.

I will not attempt to tell you in this article exactly how to write your release. But I will tell you how to guarantee your release will get tossed in the trash can. I cannot speak for all editors, but I believe if you follow these simple tips you'll have a better chance in any publication; particularly mine. So if you want to reach the audience you're looking for, you'll keep reading.

1: Empty titles don't give a clue - we're outta here.

"Power On End of Millennium Spectacular Offer" is an example of an empty title. If you use the online news purveyors like I do you'll get several hundred of these a week. And all you'll get is the headline and the first line of the release in a list where you'll select the releases you want to receive in full. What exactly does that say? Unless you know that "Power On" is a software company, the release is meaningless. Besides, it reads like an ad... SWISH into file 13.

Write your title in 36 to 40 characters that embodies the essence of the BENEFIT. Can you say "benefit" ... I knew you could. Unless you're a household word, you don't need to put your company name there. Let your message speak for itself. The title is no place to attempt to educate the reader about who you are. This is the crucial line of text that entices us to even order the release. Read your title to another person and see if they say "tell me more," or can even guess what the release will be about. If they can't, then you're dead. Rewrite.

2: Say What?

The next problem is in the first 8 to 10 words in the release. Most releases these days either talk total nonsense, or again their full company name. Some will even put it in the title, then two or three times again in the opening of the release. Adobe is the worst for this. By the time we have some inkling of what the release is about, Adobe has already bored us with their name four or five times. It's not radio. We're not stupid.

The beginning of your press release is critical. If you lose the editor there, you're in the trash can. Nine out of ten press releases today have forgotten the inverted pyramid. They'll start out with 75 words that have no meaning to the editor what so ever. Like: "Acme company, the leader in applied technology has joined with the Bacme company to develop a totally new something-or-other that will revolutionize the...". I have no idea what they're talking about, so it must not be very important -- Wooosh! Deleted.

Tell the editor -- in no uncertain terms -- WHAT it is, WHY it is needed or what problem their new gizmo or service will fix, HOW it will help their readers and WHO makes it. In 75 words or less. It's not rocket science.

3: Bored beyond tears

I got one yesterday that was 4,500 words long. Give me a break. It seems the bigger the company is, the longer their press releases are. They must pay their publicists more, so therefore they feel compelled to sit and write for days -- on one press release.

Press agents read my lips: If you can't get it into 400 words or less, then don't send it. The news has to be tantamount to the second coming of Christ in order to justify more than 400 words. If you are compelled with a need to pad it beyond that, then provide a synopsis of 400 words or less -- then offer additional background in the second page. No publication, is going to publish 4,000 written by you -- that's like 3 pages! And, NO editor is going to spend an hour or so to edit your words. The third page is death. Actually the second page is death, but the third page is really death.

4: The facts. Give us the facts.

The lists and release service I've subscribed to are supposed to be sending me news about software and hardware, particularly those in the visual communications fields. In most press releases I have to dig and dig and dig just to find out what the new program does -- if, in fact it is a program. Many times they've cleverly eluded the press purveyor keywords and included a release that actually has nothing to do with the subject. Adobe is famous for this. Everyone knows that Adobe hasn't had anything new in maybe two years. But every week, here are fresh new press releases from Adobe. They've stopped making news so now they have resorted to inventing news about people who use their software. (Gosh, how much must they be paying those people to dream this stuff up???) Unfortunately I have to read them -- because of the remote chance that there really is something newsworthy in those releases.

Know your editor; know your reader -- most important, know your product: what it is and WHO the release is aimed at: who can use it; what is required; and what results can be expected. Is it for Windows or is it for Mac??? My publications are in the graphic arts fields... don't send me skin care and stock merger press releases.

5: Don't shoot us with bullets

Yes, bullet lists. Many of the software vendors have discovered the power of bullet points. Actually that's good. Nothing telegraphs concepts faster or easier than bullet lists. But please, writers, don't kill us. A recent release talking about an upgrade to a well known program killed me with over 100 bullets. This was just an upgrade folks. Schzoooop.... empty the trash.

Give the editor the STRONGEST four or five bullets. They should be strong enough to inspire us to read further. Don't think for a moment that you can make up for quality with quantity. We simply won't read it.

6: Brag your way to the trash can

Everyone seems to be the leader -- or at least they claim to be. Of 78 press releases I downloaded Sunday, there were 120 instances of the phrase "the leader." Several claimed to be the leader in the very same field. If you believe that garbage, then you'll think there are twenty leaders in the online commerce world. If you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

Folks, there can only be one leader. I know, that's shocking news, but if everyone claims to be "the leader" then no one is the leader. One company the other day tried to tell me they are the leader in image editing. Oh, please! Unless you're Adobe Photoshop, don't give me that hogwash. And if you are in fact Adobe Photoshop, you really don't need to tell me you're the leader, everyone in this industry KNOWS you're the leader.
* Don't insult our intelligence.
* Don't lie. We'll know better, and the delete button is an instant away.

SIDEBAR:Then there are those annoying "special" characters. You know the ones... they don't print correctly on the web, and most of them don't work in ascii text nor cross-platform. They're just annoying. The bigger companies are the worst offenders. Is there anyone on this planet who does not know that Adobe or Apple or Microsoft are trademarked company names? Then why are they compelled to include 117 little (TM) (tee-ems in parens) in their press release? Didn't anyone read them the Trademark Office code that states a TM symbol on the first instance of the word works, and makes all the other 116 unnecessary? Editors have to strip all that crap out. Thank goodness for search-&-replace. Sue me if I don't use it -- it's empty content.

7: Do NOT send DOT-DOC files

I'm going to delete your dot-doc file instantly. In fact I won't even download it if I can help it. I'll write an entire article on dot-doc files, and why they're the scourge of the online world -- later -- but for now, just understand that dot-doc files are a nuisance inflicted on the recipient. I've got proof: a recent 187 K dot-doc file had no reason to be a dot-doc file, and when saved out as a text file weighed in at 18 K. No editor needs all of the junk that goes along with dot-doc files just to read a little text. Until Microsoft learns how to save a file correctly, don't send dot-doc files. PDF files are starting to be almost as bad.

It's just too easy to hit the delete button.

8: NO Attachments

Sheesh. Nothing's worse than being held hostage by your email program while 15 megabytes of attachments download to your computer. One recent ecommerce web site sent me a release with 16 file attachments. This idiot sent all the graphics on their web page. The graphics had absolutely NOTHING to say, nor anything to do with the press release. Simply decoration. Another attached a 3-meg dot-exe file that couldn't even be opened on my system, even if I wasn't afraid it was loaded with virus and worms.

Don't waste my time -- rather inspire me to ask for more info. Say it through your deeds, and say it in the press release. Don't send me your web page or some huge document unless you want to be trashed instantly.

SIDEBAR: Graphics, logos, product shots shouldn't be attached either. There's a perfect way to get your pictures published -- but NOT by attaching them. It took me six emails recently to get this concept across to a press agent for one of the big camera manufacturers who should have known better in the first place. (The level of intelligence of some of these people is insulting.)

YES, PLEASE, we want pictures. But don't attach them. And don't aimlessly send us to the web site's front page. Duh. I went to the camera web site and it took 17 clicks (through agonizingly slow loading pages) to actually find the image I was looking for. Don't insult us, and don't expect us to spend twenty minutes or more in your web site hunting for an image.
Here's the trick: provide a live link to the exact image.
Wasn't that easy? Now the image comes right up in the browser. Provide a second link to a high resolution image in case the editor is working on a print publication. Guess what? You'll get a picture with the article instead of no picture! Presto, you're a success. You've got awesome image and info delivery technology at your fingertips that can make everyone's life easier. Use it.

9: NO HTML email

The only thing worse than html email is spam... in fact, they're pretty much the same. Give me a bunch of html code to strip out of the text, and you are history. One press item I received the other day had over 4,500 characters of code in order to deliver about 300 characters of info.

Understand that editors are preparing texts for their publications. That's our job. Okay, so you want us to see your nice pretty page, formatted to appease your own ego... right? ERROR! You'll never, I repeat never, get your formatting in our publications, so why try? Give up that AOL email account. If you send me html, then I know that you knew you really didn't have anything important to say. You were trying to make it look more important than it really is. Right? Impress me with the message. Not your decoration and formatting.

10: No one home? Don't bother

The most disturbing trend in the press industry these days is all the vendors now seem to be hiding behind the veil of the web. No one wants to be contacted. "Don't contact us, just go to our web page." This spells sudden death to the press release. In fact, if a contact name, phone and email address is NOT at the top of the page, I instantly hit the "end" key, and jump to the bottom of the release. If it's not there the SPAM alert goes off. "New 6,000 dpi color printer for $199 -- click here" is NOT a press release. It's spam.

The only people in the world who do not want to be contacted through their press release have good reason. Probably because you're selling advertising on your site, and the only purpose of this press release is to get us to go to your web site to run up your advertising revenue. It's spam -- raw, irritating, useless, bandwidth-sucking spam.

And, don't try to fool us either. We know that "" or "" in all likelihood means communicating with a robot. So, no matter what you promise in the release, if you don't want to be seen, then you must have something to hide. In the trash for sure.

In conclusion

Reading the releases I've downloaded over the past months leads me to believe that there is nothing new happening. No new products. No new services. Nothing to report other than ecommerce web sites, corporate venture mergers or other means to extort easy money out of readers. Is that the image you, as a press agent for your company, want to portray? If so, don't bother. Take me off your list.

If, on the other hand, your company does have a good product -- one that offers real value and benefit to the readers in the Design Center, then you'll read and heed the tips above. Nothing is better than good news. I love it, you love it, readers love it. So why not send it so we can actually use it? Okay?

Thanks for reading

Fred Showker

Don't forget ... we encourage you to share your discoveries about graphic design with other readers. Just comment below, or give me a tweet at Twitter/DTG_Magazine

27th Anniversary for DTG Magazine


On February 3rd, Keith DeLong said:

Great post Fred. It indeed needs continued publication in spite of its age. I arrived via the intriguing link in the February 2010 DTG Newsletter.

As a small software publisher, we want to communicate clearly and effectively with our software press releases. I felt good about our understanding and compliance with all 10 of your rules. It's embarrassing to admit that just a few years ago we were violating several of them. It took a few frustrated (yet helpful) editors to get us on track. Thanks for the reminders!

On February 13th, Anonymous said:

Well done and necessary!

On March 23rd, Ginger Marks said:

Finally! Clear instructions on what NOT to do. Even after all these years and knowing most of this information, I still learned a trick or two. Thanks for sharing, now all we have to hope is that 'they' will listen!


On April 9th, Noah Wieder said:

Thanks Fred, as someone who sends out PR from time to time it's great to read updated information about what you really don't want instead of the hype so many companies trying to feed their own "PR machine" spew.

Thanks again!

On April 11th, replicawatches said:

I thought they taught that in school -- specially if the student is specializing in journalism. But alas, people will do anything these days for a buck, and the internet makes it too easy to barrage editors with junk press releases.

There are so many now coming out of China, we have no idea if they're legit or if the links will have malware ... the DVD copying software is rampant with fake "press releases" that just want to sell software for pirating. They know a large number of internet users will want it for copying commercial DVDs. Yet, the software cleverly hides a "keylogger" into the program so the creator can track and send more junk emails.

I would throw those out too!

On April 25th, cpa affiliate network said:

The most disturbing trend in the press industry these days is all the vendors now seem to be hiding behind the veil of the web. No one wants to be contacted.

On May 22nd, GUO30Barbara said:

I agree 100% ... these lessons are essential for clear communications! More and more editors and PR people should read your columns.

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