In these unprecedented, strange, uncertain times… let’s stop writing cliched, lazy press releases

With email inboxes overflowing as much as the number of COVID-19 advertising cliches, Pure Public Relations founder Phoebe Netto argues it's time to sharpen up the story pitches.

Newsrooms have always been frantic, but in 2020, they’ve gone into overdrive. An intense hunger for fresh news and more frequent updates coupled with continued job cuts mean journalists have less time, less patience, and less time ‘for a quick chat’.

Despite all this, my journalist contacts tell me that they’re still facing a daily barrage of unhelpful, fluffy, cliched press releases littering their inbox. They’re still being pitched the wrong story, at the wrong time of day, to the wrong person, at the wrong publication. Phrases like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘in times like these’ rule supreme.

Bad press releases have gone from background irritation to a serious problem for journalists who are reporting on life and death events day in, day out. The PR industry has been guilty of these crimes for decades, but as with many things this year, I have no choice but to ask: “Really? In 2020?!”

Same story, different angle

Journalists need PR professionals who aren’t going to waste their time. As soon as an email lands in their inbox, they need to be certain that they’ll have everything they need to write a relevant, interesting story.

In order for a story to be relevant, it must link to the broader picture in some way, shape, or form. There is now intense pressure from editors to relate almost everything to the big, headline-grabbing topics of the pandemic, the US election, state premiers, a recession, mental health, and the ongoing fight for racial equality, and preferably a combination of these. Press releases and pitches should relate to – or at least, make some reference to – these issues.

Check it out for yourself: take a scroll through your favourite news outlet and count the stories that don’t have at least some relation to these big topics. If your press release doesn’t make any reference to the big issues of the day, then journalists will struggle to know where to place it in the overall news agenda. Unless your story can fit in with these overarching narratives, then you might as well scrap it and start again.

Longer is always better

There’s a popular belief that good press releases should be ‘short and snappy’. But for time-stretched journalists, the complete opposite is actually true. Packing a release with lots of information means far less work for the journalist. There’s no such thing as too many quotes.

Leaving parts of your release on the cutting room floor is far easier than chasing you for more information. It’s much quicker for a journalist to pull out the quotes they like than chase you for an interview which they then have to transcribe and edit themselves.

By writing a longer release, you’ll also be making yourself more informed on the topic. This means that if the journalist does require more information, you’ll be able to respond quickly and efficiently. There’s nothing worse than a PR who doesn’t know their own story.

Unprecedented, strange, and uncertain times

The words that we choose must create the intended result that we want. Terms like ‘unprecedented’, ‘uncertain times’, ‘now more than ever’, ‘in times like these’, and ‘we’re here for you’ are now used so often, that they’ve started to lose their meaning. The advertising industry is guilty of this trap too, as this hilarious supercut of COVID-19 ads shows.

When you say ‘unprecedented times’, you’re putting yourself in the same category of everyone else who uses that phrase. But do you really belong in that category? Are you really the same as everyone else, or do you and your story stand out from the crowd?

I’m not saying that I’m perfect: I’ve been guilty of using the word ‘unprecedented’ here and there. Words like these can often creep into our vocabulary without even noticing, and it’s our job to pay attention and write wisely. Otherwise, before you know it, your releases will be filled with an unprecedented number of ‘unprecendented’s (yes, I am aware this is not a word) – and journalists will be rolling their eyes.

A great way to pull yourself out of the trap of lazy language is simply to ingest some great writing. Reading and listening to the greats – anyone from Aaron Sorkin to Dickens – will help flex your own writing muscle and produce more interesting, colourful, unique press releases and marketing. Language is an incredibly powerful way to stand out from your competitors, and by avoiding cliches, you’ll already be putting yourself ahead of the pack.

I want to have pride in being a PR person. I don’t want to spend my time constantly busting myths about our abilities and the realities of what we can achieve. So let’s stop with the lazy cliches and hackneyed press releases and start producing work we’re actually proud of – stories that help journalists navigate the wild world of 2020 and beyond.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations.


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