Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Writing tips: How to shift from traditional press release to social media news release

Executive Summary:

PR teams are having to adjust the style and tone of social media press releases (also called Smart News Release or Rich Media Release). This article offers granular how-to advice.

Key Points:
  1. Think "info-snacking." Today's readers want visually appealing information broken into smaller bits, including visuals like photos, videos and infographics.
  2. Shorten words, sentences and paragraphs. Use more subheads with verbs in them. Picture sentences as pullout boxes floating in an inviting sea of white space.
Sound Bite:

"Plunk down the snacks as if you're arranging carrot sticks, dip and whatnot on a tray for guests. Journalists and bloggers can nibble as they like, clicking and lifting up whatever bits they think they can use in their online story."

Read the whole article:

Going from a traditional press release to a social media news release requires three big shifts:
  • Length
  • Visuals
  • SEO
I'd say there's a fourth category -- tone -- but the changes you make in length (and SEO) will give you the changes you need in tone. And since this post will focus on "how," I'd rather keep it simple, so you can be like Nike and just do it. No need to impress you with my erudition on the whole enchilada. ;-)

Having said that, though, let me address tone for just a quick minute. You'll see how it leads into length.
Imagine yourself writing website copy, which is a little closer to ad copy. But don't go so far as to write like it's a blog post, which usually includes idioms and strong opinions.

SMNR tone usually isn't as direct as ad copy, which uses second-person "you" instead of third-person "he/she/it/they." Nor is it like broadcast copy because you still have to write for the eye, not the ear, which means catching skimmers with a strong "first three words," not letting the punch fall at the end of the sentence.

But the words and sentences in an SMNR are shorter and plainer (
not boring, just simpler), as you usually see in all of the forms mentioned above (Web, ad, blog, broadcast). So if you've got sentences with introductory clauses ("Blah blah blah -- comma -- blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."), break them in half. Often you can delete the first part of the sentence altogether.

Likewise, streamline the vocabulary by using more Anglo-Saxon words than Latinate (
next, not adjacent; set, not establish; start, not initiate; build, not construct). And take verbs in noun's clothing, and turn them back into verbs (the deployment of, deploy; the provision of, provide; the implementation of, implement). In other words, shorten everything.
The vast majority of traditional press releases are done poorly, in my opinion. And if you are in PR, you know what I'm talking about. You're sort of forced into a bizarre straightjacket of formality and distance from the customer, which seems contrary to the goal of a press release, but who am I to question decades of entrenched custom?

My advice here is directed at what I know your reality is, not what I think a good press release of either kind (trad'l or social) should look like. So, back to that ...
You've shortened your sentences and words, which has also changed tone. You need to continue deleting or ignoring content that would normally appear in a traditional press release. Most of this will be intuitive. I think you'll choose well, once you know that 50 percent to 85 percent of the words will have to go away. Usually, people I have worked with do this easily, once given permission to cut-cut-cut. So I won't dwell on that here.
Now for visuals. Imagine that you are designing layout not writing copy. Pretend you work for a fashion magazine in New York or you're in the art department at Fortune magazine.

This is really the essence of an SMNR. It's a visual jumping-off point, much the way a resume is a visual jumping-off point in a job interview. People spend time making a resume look pretty at a glance, and it's meant to be glanced at, not really read. It's meant to give the gist, then trigger questions and conversation.

But in the case of an SMNR, it's not questions and oral conversation we're after; it's clicking. You want to give the essence of your announcement, and then let the rest be "snacks" for the new style of reading, which has been called "info-snacking."
Standard "snacks" in this new world are photos, videos, info-graphics and links.

More and more, I'm also seeing slide shows on the top-tier news sites, and I'm liking that trend, by the way. But that's a bigger time investment, and your client may not be able to deliver.

Usually, the PR person doesn't create this kind of content on the spot in response to being assigned a press release. So you need to negotiate for it. You need to ask your client early on for photos, demos and links. Increasingly, clients know they must produce this stuff, so that's no longer as hard as it used to be. But the switch for you is that you must add this conversation to your standard process, and add it early.

Nowadays, the quest for creating visual content should be ongoing, so it's not necessarily related to writing a press release of any kind. The press release is just one more vehicle for delivering what has been produced. This gets into the larger issue of "public engagement" versus one-way communication, but for the purpose of this post, I'm focusing on the needs of a PR person who has been asked for the first time to switch to SMNRs.
Usually, there's a template you can use. BusinessWire has one (called a Smart News Release), and others are also available elsewhere. Edelman calls it a Rich Media Release and uses Adobe software called Contribute (discosure: Adobe is a client).

Just plunk down the snacks as if you're arranging carrot sticks, dip and whatnot on a tray for guests. Journalists and bloggers can nibble as they like, clicking and lifting up whatever bits they think they can use in their online story.

So, going back to content for a moment, remember we talked about deleting a lot?
The words you kept will go into little boxes or box-like chunks floating in white space.

There might be a general intro, then another box for details (perhaps in
very short bullet points but no more than four -- three is ideal), then another box for a quote (or an entire section of quotes strung all together like beads on a string rather than interspersed throughout the text as in a news story), all of which should be shorter than what you're used to.

You might even have a box for customer quotes that link to case studies on a website, for example. Or you might link to a Facebook page.
The Karcher Group puts it this way. I'm quoting from its website here:

- Content separated into different sections, such as Key Information, Facts, Quotes, Links, etc.
- Use of popular social media tools, such as RSS feeds and tagging
- Ability to share content on social networking sites like, Facebook, Stumbleupon, LinkedIn, etc.
- Ability to view/download items such as logos, banners, audio promos
- Include links to blogs and other resources
- Embed multimedia elements like video, photos, and audio

Your links, video, info-graphics and photos will tell some of the story that your now-missing words would have told, only better.
More visuals: subheads and headlines. Just as a resume uses boldface to divide up and call out different kinds of content, your SMNR needs boldface subheads. And just as you did for the body of the text, you'll need to tighten the words and content in the headline.

Your SMNR should be an invitation to delve further by clicking on electronic story elements.

I call this "pogo-sticking." The reader isn't meant to glide smoothly from the first word to the last but to hop around, almost at random.

If you're good at helping your client understand what will have traction with the news media and bloggers, those very same storytelling elements are what should be in your SMNR. If you or your client instead prefer company-centric bragging, those will be your elements.
An SMNR is *not* likely to be any more successful than a traditional news release. Format isn't the point. If you have material that will surprise or delight a reader or help him make a decision about something coming up soon in his own life, you will get pickup. If you don't, you won't. You're either useful to readers or you're not. Format seldom improves relevance.
Which brings us to SEO. I have long advocated what the SEO people are now telling everyone these days: Write in the language of the audience. Please, please, please stop trying to coin new words or market categories, without at least also using the vocabulary already in use among prospective customers.

The SEO people will also tell you that this natural language needs to be in key places (headline, subheads, first paragraph, captions, video description). But I have been fighting that battle and losing it for nearly 10 years now, so good luck with that. I'm hoping that this new SEO/Google world we live in will shake clients up a bit and get them out of their self-absorbed marketing bubbles.

For more on that, check out this post by
Maddie Grant on SocialMediaToday. Her post also links to the now-famous diatribe by Tom Foremski ("Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!").

I recommend going to Business Wire for advice on all of the above. In my dealings, this company has been ahead of trends while well-grounded in ethics and principles that never go out of style.