During my recent appearance on FBI behavioural analyst Robin Dreeke's podcast, dazzling parallels were drawn between my work as a PR specialist and a documentary maker.
Thanks to Robin's insightful questions, many of which explored my childhood, we unearthed one character trait that enables me to secure high-profile media coverage for my clients with great ease. Now it's your turn to experiment with this trait.
So, what's the trait? It's EMPATHY — the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people.
We've already shown you how empathy can be used to cleverly deflect awkward interview questions, but truth is, if understanding the needs of others is hard for you, writing a compelling press release that attracts valuable media attention is an almost impossible undertaking. Why? Let's see.
Firstly, what is a Press Release?
An information-rich announcement, a press release is one of the most efficient, low-cost and accessible ways to communicate your brand's latest news with outside audiences. The most common outside audiences press releases target are influential newspapers, magazines, websites, podcasts, radio & TV.
Usually taking the form of an email, a press release's key objective is for its content to be further distributed via these outside audiences — in turn maximising its reach.
When Universal Music Group announces a new Lady Gaga tour, for example, additional to social media, email marketing and paid advertising, press releases will be sent to influential media publishers to achieve two things:
1: inform the masses
2: sell the tickets!
The role of empathy in press releases
In the average month, between ten and fifteen brands commission our press release audit service. Often, it's the first press release these brands have written, so a professional outside review ensures the release is structurally and grammatically robust with all the necessary narrative elements in perfect sequence.
Now, given these brands' keenness to share their exciting news with the outside world, it's understandable that their focus is often disproportionately skewed inwards, with little or no regard for one critical factor that makes or breaks all press releases — the outside audience's needs.
For the purposes of this article, let's assume the outside audience is a journalist or writer working for an influential news publisher. To satisfy their needs, you must do these 3 things:
The one question you must ask yourself when writing a press release is "Will anyone other than me/us care about this? Will it entertain, educate, amuse, titillate, inspire, surprise, shock or move people?' As a rule, you want to make sure it achieves at least one of these outcomes. Simply 'informing' a journalist is rarely enough, because frankly, 93% of the press releases they receive every day are informing them; so to engage their attention, try something else. Our Twitter friend, journalist Kelsey Ogletree, puts it nicely:
"With the volume of emails that many freelance writers get in a day, the pitches that deliver an actual story stand out much more than an informational, generalised pitch."
We recently showed you how to use storytelling to win business awards, so please stop underestimating the proven power of a solid brand story.
Note: your goal isn't just to appeal to the journalist, it's also to appeal to their audience. When a journalist receives your press release, the only question on their mind is 'Will my audience care about this? Is it relevant? Is it timely? Is it on-trend?'
When writing your press release, if you focus entirely inward, it's unlikely that you'll offer anything of value to the outside world. Why? Because seemingly, your priority is to satisfy your ego, and your ego is not at all interesting.
Of the 8 ways to appeal to journalists listed above, in my experience, the most underused and powerful is to educate. When PPE supplier BHI Supplies engaged us at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, education was our primary mode of engaging the media. Given their Director's deep market experience and understanding, we pitched him to journalists as an expert voice on how businesses can minimise the risks of buying fake PPE. Think about it, what journalist doesn't want to spare their audience the huge expense and embarrassment of buying fake PPE? By asking this question, we prioritised their need for useful content above our desire to elevate our client's brand visibility.
PR Week recently confirmed that: "There’s an increasing trend towards people wanting information that offers them advice on topics they’re interested in, such as careers, personal finance and how to navigate the pandemic and cost of living crisis. Ask your target audience what they want to know and what will help them improve their life in some way. People are more likely to read something they perceive will be useful to them."
QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF: What does this press release have to offer the world?
Moving forward, I want you to think of all journalists as overworked and short on time. Why? Because that's exactly what they are. If you ever see a journalist twiddling their thumbs with their feet up, I'll buy you dinner, for an entire week. With that in mind, do everything you can to minimise their stress and assist their day. Here are 5 classic press release stresses:
A slip in any of these areas is sacrilege to a journalist. You see, it's not that journalists are high-maintenance per se, it's simply that they're overworked. Make their lives easier, and they're more inclined to receive your press release favourably. As Kelsey affirms:
"... writers face enough decisions in a day as it is, so minimising the thinking they have to do about how to make a pitch work will set you apart."
QUESTION TO ASK YOURSELF: Will this press release help or hinder the journalist's day?
When crafting a press release, especially the headline and opening paragraph, don't use words willy-nilly, be deliberate in your choices. Trust me, not all words are created equally.
Here at ICONS & MACHINES, we have a term for a unique group of words that jolt people out of their daily routines and agitate their expectations — provocative words that compel readers to read-on. We call these words 'spiky words'.
When used in tandem with the open loop technique, spiky words are dynamite. Let me show you why using a press release we crafted for professional Yoga teacher Matt Appleby. Written to raise awareness for the launch of his new men-only Yoga class, the release not only secured a full front page newspaper feature, but attracted the BBC, too. Of course, thanks to this coverage, Matt's inaugural Yoga class was a sell out!
Here's are the opening paragraphs from the press release.
Can you spot our deliberate use of a spiky word?
Remember, a spiky word is a provocative word that jolts people out of their daily routines, expectations and complacencies — compelling them to read-on.
CLUE: The spiky word is in the first paragraph.
Okay, see below — I've circled the spiky word.
Why is 'remark' a spiky word?
Well, consider the tamer and more commonplace words I could have used in its place:
These words are comparatively bland, right? Unlike a 'comment', a 'remark' is usually somewhat naughty in nature. I intentionally deployed the word early in the press release to pique the journalist's curiosity and sustain their interest from the outset.
I can't stress enough, when writing a press release, your focus should always be outward-facing — with you constantly asking yourself 'How can I engage a journalist?'. The means by which you can engage a journalist are many-fold, but of all the subtle techniques available, spiky words are among my best performing.
BONUS POINT: In the above press release, you'll notice that I've underlined 'escalating mental health cases among men' for you. Why? Because as discussed in POINT 1 (APPEAL), your goal is to make sure your press release is relevant, timely and on-trend. Mental health has been a conversation staple across Britain for the last five years, and it shows no signs of fading. By aligning Matt's journey with a relevant cultural conversation his story becomes instantly more relatable, viable and sharable from a journalistic point of view.
To attract an outside audience, you must appeal to that audience. The more inward your focus, the less palatable your story.
The information you wish to circulate via a press release means a lot to you, of course it does, but always ask yourself 'How can I make it appeal to others, too?'. Remember, with press releases, 'others' refers not only to your potential customer, but more critically, it refers to journalists who, for all intents and purposes, are the gatekeepers to said customer. Make that journalist's life easy, because as one national journalist (not Kelsey) once confessed to me:
"Depending on my workload and deadlines, there are times when I'll publish a carefully-written 6/10 story over a sloppily-written 10/10 story. It's just the harsh reality of my average day."
Don't be sloppy. Be careful. But mostly, be empathetic.