The Simple Recipe For Making PR Work

by Charlie Cook

Here’s a sampling of headlines from PRWeb, one of the most popular sites for press release distribution.

“Dr. Martin Taylor MBE to Launch Online Jazz Guitar Academy”

“ArrowChat, New Chat Software for Web Sites”

“Slam Industries Launches “WOUBIE” – The Revolutionary Organizational Software”

“Sector Logics Data Recovery Now Offers Secure Data Deletion Services”

“Leeza Gibbons and ZERONA Equals a Winning Combination”

“Blinds Chalet Announces Motorized Lift on Woven Wood Roller Shades”

Wow! Are you excited yet?

Do any of those make you want to read the rest of the press release? Didn’t think so.

Every business needs good PR to grow, and the press release is still a basic PR tool. But the vast majority of press releases make about as much noise as one hand clapping. They aren’t read and they don’t get the attention of the media, bloggers or your target market.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The secret to writing effective, attention-getting press releases is simple; tell a story that people want to share.

How do you do this?


Start Off On The Right Foot

The headline of your press release sets the tone, gives the story an angle, and grabs the interest of your target market. Or not?!

Take a look at these Amazon.com post-Christmas press release headlines sent out on December 26th from 2002 to 2006.

“Amazon.com today announced it has finished its busiest holiday season ever…”

“Amazon.com’s Tenth Holiday Season is Best Ever…”

“Amazon.com, Inc. today announced that the 2005 holiday season finished as its best ever…”

“Amazon.com’s 12th Holiday Season is Best Ever” – 12/26/2006

“Amazon.com Wraps Up Its Ninth Holiday With Busiest Season Ever.”

Ho, hum. These are boring, too. (And questionable. Can every year actually be Amazon’s best?) They don’t spark curiosity, capture the imagination, or make us want to read further.

The alternative to these bland announcements is to speak to your target market’s interests. Put your story in the context of a larger issue that concerns them. Describe the problem your product or service solves. Use imagination, humor or irony, as in this example by copywriter Marcia Yudkin:

“Kill Those Pop-up Screens Before Customers Kill You, Advises Web Usability Psychologist Susan Weinschenk As Unrequested Browser Screens Proliferate Like Cockroaches”

Press releases don’t have to be mind-numbing, and they should never be misleading. They can grab attention and give you tremendous exposure if done correctly.

Make Your News Go Viral

Savvy PR professionals have been trying to create buzz for their clients for decades, long before the Internet existed. When they were successful, it was because they turned business news — read press releases — into stories of interest that others wanted to share. It’s still true. The simple secret to getting millions of dollars of free exposure is to create stories for the media, both traditional and social, that get shared and go viral.

I’m not talking about spreading viruses, making people or their computers sick. Just the reverse. Going viral means you set a story loose and it’s passed from one person to another and another (typically by email, text message or tweet) until there’s a real buzz around your news. You start the process and it takes on a life of its own, like old fashioned word-of-mouth in electronic hyperdrive.

Thanks to computers and smart phones, the potential exists for your news to be shared with tens of thousands, if not millions, of people very quickly. Going viral means you’ve reached marketing nirvana.

How can you make your press release go viral?

Write something your target market will want to read.

Sounds obvious, right? Then why don’t more people do it? Tell a story that people in your target market will want to share. Talk about what’s on their minds or tell them about solutions to their problems. Trigger their curiosity. Tug at their emotions, tickle their funny bones, and your business story will be passed on.

Hot Topics

In 1999 the emerging Internet was a hot topic. Everyone wanted to understand it and understand how to use it. I leveraged that interest to get interviews and mentions of me and my business in everything from NPR to Success Magazine to USA today and the Wall Street Journal.

At the time, people couldn’t find their way around the Internet and search engines where hatching like rabbits. Most of them functioned poorly, if at all, so finding information online was like searching for a needle in a haystack. I sent out press releases to the online press with short reviews of the latest search engines and pointed people to my search engine review site.

My timing was spot on and my site provided a solution to a common problem — finding the best way to navigate the net. Thanks to the free PR my site got through the media attention, traffic to my site jumped from a small handful to over 300,000 visits per month.

Right now social media marketing, health care, and the economy are topics on every American’s mind. Can you relate any of these to a story about your business?

Compelling Stories

People love to read, watch and share stories. Telling a compelling, funny, touching or relevant story is a simple way to make your press release go viral. That’s what Paul Hartunian did when he announced he was selling the Brooklyn Bridge. Here’s Paul’s story in his own words.

“It’s true. In 1983 I became the first person in history to sell the world-famous historical landmark, the Brooklyn Bridge, piece by piece. That was also the beginning of a very exciting new life for me. And I have media publicity to thank for it all.

I started “playing around” with publicity at the age of 15. I followed what the books were telling me to do. I wrote the press release just the way they told me. I addressed the envelopes just the way they told me. I mailed the releases just the way they told me.

I bombed. I got no press coverage at all. So, I got another book. I read every word. I followed the plan. Bombed again…and again…and again.

So, I started to experiment with the releases I was writing. I had no idea what I was doing. I would just try something. If it worked, I kept it in. If it didn’t work, I tossed it.

Slowly but surely, I started getting publicity. Pretty soon, I was getting lots of publicity, but I wanted the “big kill”. I wanted a story that would drive the national media absolutely nuts! I wanted news reporters knocking down my door to get my story. I wanted my phone to be ringing non-stop — each one a call from a reporter, hot to get an interview with me.

Finally, it hit me like a brick!  I knew what the missing piece was!!!

I went wild. I knew I had found it. I had the solution to writing a killer press release. The kind that would get me media coverage around the world.

But I didn’t have a story I could use my new formula on.

A few weeks later I was watching the morning news on television. I saw a man being interviewed about the renovations being done on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Now everyone’s heard about the Brooklyn Bridge. Even if it’s just the old line about “Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge?”

It seems that the guy being interviewed was the foreman of the construction crew doing work on the Bridge. He said that the wooden pedestrian walkway was being removed because it was old and rotting. (Up to then I didn’t know any part of the Brooklyn Bridge was made of wood… and I live just 30 minutes away!)

Anyway, the wood that was being removed was the original wood that was used when the Bridge was first built. Standing behind this guy was a huge pile of this old, rotting wood.

This was it!!! There was no doubt in my mind

The first thing I did was call the guy who was interviewed on the TV. How did I get his number? It was right on the side of his truck, which was as clear as day during the interview.

I asked him what he was going to do with all that old, rotting wood.

“I’m going to toss it out. It’s junk.”

I asked him if he’d be interested in selling it and delivering it for $500. I told him I was just 30 minutes away.

With a “my mother raised no fools” tone in his voice, he said “Sure I’ll sell it for $500.”

We made the deal and I gave him the directions.

Next, I made another phone call and made arrangements to have the wood cut up into 1” square pieces, each about 1/8” thick.

Then, I jumped out of my chair and headed for my typewriter (didn’t have a computer in those days). I wrote the press release for my idea. Step by step I followed the formula I had just come up with. This was the test.

It took me about 15 minutes to finish the release. The headline read:

New Jersey Man Sells Brooklyn Bridge…for $14.95!

Are you catching on yet?

After I finished the release, I did a rough layout for a 5 1/2 x 8 1/2” certificate. On this certificate, I wrote a little history of the Brooklyn Bridge and some current information about the Bridge.

Then I wrote, “Attached to this certificate is a genuine piece of the original wooden pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge.” At the top of the certificate I drew a small box where the piece of wood was going to be attached.

I was done. I took the press release and the rough sketch of the certificate to a friend of mine who was a printer.

“Can you make me copies of this press release and typeset this certificate so it looks professional and have it for me this afternoon?”

He said “Sure!”

As soon as I got home, I started addressing envelopes to key media people. I don’t remember how many I sent out, but it was probably no more than a couple of hundred.

The whole mailing didn’t even cost $100!!!

I took the press releases home, stuffed them in the envelopes and raced to the mailbox before the 5 PM pick up. (Why didn’t I fax them? This was before there were cheap home fax machines.)

Then I waited.

Nothing happened the next day. It takes the mail a while to get to where it’s going.

But… the day after, everything went absolutely wild!!! My dream came true. The phone started ringing like crazy; reporters were coming to my door. I was doing interviews for newspapers, magazines, radio shows, television shows. Every time an interview would run, more reporters wanted to do a story on the guy who was really selling the Brooklyn Bridge.

Reporters from around the country were calling, coming to my door, coming to the place where I worked. It was a blast!!!

CNN even sent one of those big trucks with the antennas on top right to my front door. They wanted to broadcast the story all around the nation. They ran cables up the stairs; had reporters with microphones setting up; lights; cameras. The works!

They shot the interview… and then… if you know CNN… they ran that interview every 30 minutes for the next 3 days!!!

The publicity went on and on for over 6 months!!! That’s not 6 days or 6 weeks. I said 6 months. And it was a ball. Just about every major newspaper sent a reporter. Radio stations from around the country called. Magazines from every corner of the nation ran the story.

I was in the newspapers, on radio & TV shows, in magazines. Everywhere I looked I saw the story of the guy who was selling the Brooklyn Bridge. I was having the time of my life!

After 6 months, things started to cool down. I figured the publicity wave was over. I had accomplished my goal. I hit an enormous jackpot.

And then…

The Johnny Carson Show called!!!

They read the Brooklyn Bridge story in a small mid-western newspaper. They asked if I’d send a sample.

I did. I didn’t hear anything for probably 2 or 3 months. Then I got a phone call.

Johnny was going to do a “little bit” about the Brooklyn Bridge on the Tonight Show. It would be aired in the next few days.

Well, Carson’s “little bit” turned out to be about 10 minutes worth of airtime for me. Carson even did one of his comedy knock-off routines based on the Bridge certificate.

It started all over again. A whole new round of media people saw that Carson show. They hadn’t done a story on the Bridge, but they wanted to do one now. The phone started ringing again and I was on my way to weeks of additional free publicity.

From that day on, my life has never been the same. I know how to use the media to get just about anything I want. And I’ve used it over and over and over again.”

Clever PR

Whether you send out a press release or use another PR strategy the goal is to get massive exposure for free. That’s what a Florida strip club did to get positive exposure on national news. Here’s the story from NBC.

“Strip Club Gives Seniors a Shot in the Arm

Central Florida gentleman’s club offers free flu shots

Amid the shiny stripper poles, strobe-lit stages and scantily-clad performers at Rachel’s Gentlemen’s Club, you’ll find Barbara and Sylvia, two old beauties who come for the free food and flu shots — and stay for the ambiance.

“I love it, I want to know where the girls got those sexy stockings that stop up here. I need some of those,” said Sylvia.

Every year around this time, the flesh den in the small town of Castleberry, north of Orlando, offers the shots in a setting way more exciting than a sterile doctor’s office.

And the return of the complimentary lunch buffet has geriatrics coming in droves.

“I hope it’s not my last meal…I think Rachel’s should be commended for doing this for the seniors, really,” Barbara Becker told WESH as she waited for her shot yesterday.

It’s Rachel’s sixth year of offering the shots, which includes the lunch buffet free for seniors and veterans, as well as all Casselberry residents and city employees.

The gray hairs don’t seem to mind the skin show.

“I think it’s great. I wish I had some of these figures like these gals do, they’re beautiful girls,” Becker said.

If you’re hoping to get the shot from a stripper in a sexy nurse outfit, no dice. The shots are administered by registered nurses in the club’s VIP room.

“A little uncomfortable at first, I actually texted my wife to try to find her and go right to her immediately,” Casselberry resident Tom Rogenski said.

Club employees said they just want to help the town.

“At this time with the rising cost of health care, it’s a great way to give back to the community,” said Rachel’s food and beverage manager, Kevin Ruscitti. “We’re proud to be a part of this community and it’s a chance to give something back.”

If you’re thinking about getting a flu shot, but a trip to the doctor’s office makes you squirm like a six year old, you might want to make the trip up to Castleberry. The club is scheduled to give the flu shots again on Oct. 6 from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.”

Press releases don’t need to be long to get attention. Here’s the Annual Tour de Donut press release:

“Staunton, IL is proud to host the 21st Annual Tour de Donut and 4th Annual Rib Cook-off on Saturday, July 11, 2009. The Tour de Donut is a unique bike race, in which you can eat donuts at the designated stops in order to reduce your race time. Last year, more than 850 riders participated in the race. Registration for the race is now open. In conjunction with the race, a Rib Cook-off will be occurring in which food will be served starting at 9am, with the ribs being served at 5pm. Entertainment will be provided by Five and Dimers, The Wherehouse Project, and Gumbohead. For more information visit, bebikeclub.com or stauntonil.com.”

The tongue-in-cheek press release below is fun to read and makes a very simple promotional event (one bus dropping people off at some bars on Long Island) sound like a full-blown party. Who could resist?

“PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL CAPTAIN MORGAN OFFERS NEW YORKERS FREE RIDE TO THE HAMPTONS TO ESCAPE THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION

WHAT: New Yorkers seeking to vacate a politically-saturated city during next week’s RNC just got their free ticket to ride, courtesy of presidential candidate Captain Morgan. The Captain and his grassroots a-political party, Americans for a Better Party, are offering FREE shuttles to New Yorkers 21 and older who seek refuge from the political chaos that has descended upon Manhattan, physically transporting residents of The Big Apple to the politics-free party scene in the Hamptons.

WHERE: New Yorkers must show up at the following location, ready to depart, with a photo i.d. proving they are age 21 or older:

* Sixth Avenue at 42nd Street, northwest corner of Bryant Park.
* Look for “Captain Morgan Politics-Free Shuttle to the Hamptons” signage.
* One-way shuttle drops off at noteworthy party spots in the Hamptons.

WHEN: The Captain Morgan Politics-Free Shuttle to the Hamptons will depart Sunday (8/29) through Wednesday (9/1) at 5:30 p.m., carrying 57 lucky riders who verify they are age 21 or older with valid i.d., and have their lottery number pulled from a hat (riders should arrive beginning at 5:00 p.m.).

WHY: Captain Morgan recognizes that many New Yorkers prefer that their parties remain 100 percent focused on fun rather than serious political talk, an impossible feat next week once political mayhem envelopes Manhattan.

“I wanted to make it easier for my loyal supporters to enjoy a break from politics,” says Captain Morgan. “So I’m transplanting these party-minded New Yorkers 21 and older to one of my favorite spots, allowing them to focus on politics-free, responsible partying.”

Offering the Captain Morgan Politics-Free Shuttle to the Hamptons is just one more way Captain Morgan is bringing his campaign platform, Party Without the Politics, to life. The platform is based on a “national survey” that found 75 percent of Americans 21 and older say they would appreciate a break from the constant political talk during this presidential election time. Now that break is just one free ride away during the RNC, thanks to a presidential candidate who understands the people’s need to party.

In addition, The Captain and Americans for a Better Party have been hosting Politics Free Zone events along the campaign trail, starting in Boston at the Democratic National Convention. The events offer Americans of all political affiliations a chance to pursue issues-absent celebration and policy-free merriment on neutral ground.

Liberal with the cola. Conservative with The Captain. Drink Responsibly!”

Action Steps

Writing an Effective Press Release

1. Make a list of current hot topics and news items.

Stick to subjects that will interest your target market.

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2. Piggyback your press release onto one of these topics.

For example, during the Christmas season I sent an article titled What Santa Knows About Marketing to my mailing list; just before the Fourth of July, I sent How To Create Marketing Fireworks. Then there was What Oprah Knows About Marketing (lots).

List at least 3 ideas for press releases or articles that leverage a news item to tell your business news:

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3. Identify stories.

Every company has stories to tell; the challenge is to come up with an interesting way to describe it. Try thinking of events and situations from perspectives other than your own; from the client’s perspective, or from your employees’ perspective. Remember that you’re telling a story that you want your reader to like so much that they pass it along to their friends and colleagues.

List 3 stories you can tell about your products and services:

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4. Put some punch in your headlines.

Write 3 headlines that will make your readers curious and keep them reading. Then edit them and make them even better.

For example, one of my coaching clients sells composting systems that help farmers increase their crop yield per acre and thus their profitability.

He could use a title like this:

Farmers Beat Tough Economy By Turing Dirt Into Cash

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5. Write 2 to 4 variations of your press release.

Now you’ve got a PR campaign.

6. Distribute your press releases and articles.

Spend the $200 or so it will cost to get wide distribution or hire a PR specialist to work the phone and follow up with the top 25 places you’d like to have your press release appear.

It’s true that traditional media are shrinking and reporters are becoming a endangered species, but the essence of what worked in traditional PR still works. A good headline and a good story will give your press release legs of its own.

Ignore the guides to writing press releases that litter the web; most of these are a waste of your time. Too much PR fails because it doesn’t spark the curiosity or interest of the target market.

How can you tell if your PR efforts worked?

If you’ve got a good press release, you should see results within a few weeks. You should see more traffic to your website, have more people calling you and be getting requests for interviews or more articles. I’ve had PR professionals tell me it takes months for PR to have a positive effect. If this was true in the past, it certainly isn’t now.

My first attempts at using PR over a decade ago put my name and my business on the map. You can do the same!

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