Wednesday, December 2, 2009

News releases: Fix your broken approval process

The worst thing about news releases is the approval process. Too many cooks, as the saying goes, right? After too many iterations, what comes out in the end often looks like something that's been through a trash compactor.

Does it have to be so painful and unproductive? Can we fix the broken process?

The solution, my friends, is discipline. Or baseball, if you prefer. By that I mean each player needs to play his assigned position in accordance with his strengths -- and no one else's. You can't have the shortstop sprinting to first base or the pitcher standing in center field.

Here are some guidelines to help each approver play to his strengths:

(1) Choose one person to write. Everyone else should be hands-off. Hands-off people should comment and give direction but not write, re-write or edit.

(2) Set parameters for each approver's contribution. Here are the roles I suggest for marketing managers, product managers and lawyers.

Marketing managers should ask, "Does it support the brand and long-term business objectives?" They should comment on messaging and emphasis.

Common overstep by marketing managers: Reciting messaging verbatim in the headline, subhead, lead or quotes. Instead, consider messaging an indirect takeaway.

Some explicit recitation of messaging may be OK, but only if blended with vocabulary and scenarios that are familiar and compelling to the audience. Try to balance messaging with empathy and authenticity, as seen through the audience's eyes. Otherwise, you lose credibility and induce the MEGO effect (My Eyes Glaze Over).

Product managers should ask, "Is it accurate?" They should comment on the technology, features and benefits.

Common overstep by marketing managers: Deleting or moving down social context. Instead, let the top half of the press release answer "why" and the bottom half answer "how." In other words, first establish relevance in the lives of the audience, then explain how it works.

Lawyers should ask, "Could we be sued or penalized?" They should comment on potentially negative consequences related to the SEC and other regulators, intellectual property (trademarks, patents, copyrights) and whether the company can deliver on promises.

Common overstep by lawyers: Changing punctuation and capitalization to meet style standards for legal contracts, and deleting social context for the announcement. Instead, let internal experts use AP style, the industry standard for news media and PR. Look for compromises that prevent legal problems while allowing social context.

The best way to avoid problems is to pay more attention to the pre-writing process. There should be substantive input before creating a first rough draft.

Don't even bother to write a "shell." It's a futile time-waster that creates needless frustration for all.

Instead, ask the approvers to do these tasks in advance:

Marketing managers should:
-prioritize target audiences and messaging
-weigh in on correct emphasis
-explicitly state what long-term business objectives are being served

Product managers should:
-demo the technology for the writer
-provide detail on specs, features and benefits
-weigh in on correct emphasis

A VP- or higher-level PR person on the agency side should "frontload" the writer. By that I mean provide context for the assignment. This should take less than 10 minutes and cover:

-news release's role in overall strategy
-detailed description of intended audiences and problems the product or service solves
-intended effect on audience (including actions to be invoked)
-competitive differentiators and indirect takeaways about the industry or audience, not just the product/service or company
-desired emphasis

Who writes? Usually a mid-level PR person, often an AE or SAE, who understands the task is to balance competing interests while appealing to external audiences. This person is more of a relationship broker than a writer because he won't be using his own voice or acting on his own priorities. The writer is really a mediator.

The writer/mediator does the following:
-receives content and other inputs
-looks for holes and asks questions
-consults with PR team members for frontloading, to find out what's been done in the past and for a mid-point check-in on content and structure (but not wordsmithing)

Ideally, the writer/mediator has access to:
-the sales department’s internal PowerPoints on customers and competitors to better understand the overall business and how to dovetail with parallel campaigns
-internal company and agency research, including Search Engine Optimization, aka SEO, and key initial findings that informed the PR plan in the first place

In many cases, the writer/mediator must develop the context that hooks the immediate announcement into the ongoing conversations of key influencers (while remaining within the parameters of branding and business objectives). A good way to do this is an audience analysis technique I call PDAs (Problems, Decisions and Actions). More on that in a future post.

Why add context? That's what makes it a "news" release. News is info that surprises people or helps them make decisions.

News = announcement + context

If you want to write solely about your product, that's OK, too, but -- technically speaking -- that's more of a backgrounder or fact sheet. Journalists do appreciate those and the SEC may require them, so have at it. You don't have to include context if you are talking primarily to beat reporters who already know your company well.

Throw out 95%

Now the writer has a big pile of inputs and must select the most compelling and relevant 5%, looking for intersections between disparate topics and resources.

Notice I said 5%. Writing is really a matter of deciding what to leave out. The writer should plan on deleting 95% or more of his source material.

Sometimes people ask me if it isn't more efficient to just collect only what matters in the first place. The answer is no because your final product will be shallow if you do. It will lack resonance. It won't have a shelf-life. And it will falter in the approval process.

Good writing comes from good content. First get the best ideas, then simplify and package them for easy absorption by strangers.

OK, getting back to process ...

The writer's unique contribution (separate from that of the others who gave early input) includes appropriate vocabulary and scenarios that will be familiar to audiences.

This last part -- audience vocabulary and scenarios -- is extraneous to what the marketing and product team may have had in mind. It also might feel superfluous and imprecise to lawyers.

However, it's the link to the audience, so please let the PR person proceed with this small contribution. When approving these few phrases, keep in mind your position and expertise. If you're the first baseman, stick to playing first base. Comment and compromise, but don't delete and re-write.

Ideal situation: Get PR, marketing, product and legal to agree in advance on appropriate vocabulary and scenarios. Key point: Look for language your audience really uses and delve into problems they actually talk about among themselves.

This is the same logic behind search engine optimization. But it has always been true, even before there were search engines. Know your audience and speak their language. Be useful to them, from their perspective.

Does the writer have to work alone? No, preferably not. Others on the PR team can help by providing:

-a speedy midpoint check-in to approve content and structure (not wordsmithing, which can still be rough and wrong at this stage) Time: 5 minutes
-a hands-off look by someone who didn’t draft the release and can provide outside eyes as to whether the information is clear to outsiders and mechanically sound (grammar, etc.), and to say what indirect takeaways they picked up on
-a hands-on look by a senior person who can finesse the small stuff while keeping in mind the big stuff (but please read my other blog posts for advice on this)
-submission to the person who will oversee the approval process, perhaps with a note explaining reasons for certain decisions and listing possible alternatives

Questions the writer should ask:
1. What are my client’s hot buttons, preferred vocabulary and customs?
2. What approved language from previous releases should be included to provide continuity and help beat reporters and analysts distinguish new info from background?
3. Have I added context that connects the client to the outside world without becoming distracting or irrelevant (and while remaining within parameters of brand and business objectives)?
4. Is the “why” at the top and the “how” at the bottom of the release?
5. Will the first paragraph appeal to relevant outsiders and make them lean in to listen?
6. Have I blended messaging with news value?
7. Have I met both the client’s and audience’s needs?
8. Are customer types specifically named in the release and generally in the fronts rather than middles or backs of sentences? (not users; instead educators, physicians, Web designers, network architects, business professionals, families …)
9. If I delete the quote, will I have to rewrite the release to fill in the missing content? (If not, then rewrite the quote. The speaker should add substance or remain silent.)
10. Have I added white space through effective use of subheads, bullets and short paragraphs? (White space is inviting.)
11. Do my subheads have verbs in them? (If not, consider rewriting. Drill down deeper. Be more specific.)
12. What is my gut saying that I’m ignoring? (Don’t ignore it. Honor your instincts.)

Discipline and self-restraint are make-or-break factors in fixing your broken approval process. Everyone needs to know their position and respect their teammates.