“When I looked up from the menu, I was staring into the eyes of a man who had been dead for three years.”
– Opening sentence from “Time of Terror” by Louis L’Amour
“When Speeke came at last to water, he was two days beyond death.”
– Opening sentence from “That Man From the Bitter Sands” by Louis L’Amour
Successful pulp fiction writers like Louis L’Amour had to grab their readers with their first sentence. They did not have the luxury of hoping readers would warm up to their stories after a few pages. Most pulp fiction fans flipped through the magazines before buying them and purchased the stories that grabbed them by their shirt collars and compelled them to read more.
Your startup’s press releases must be as compelling as pulp fiction. If the reader is not engaged at the outset, it is unlikely they will take the time to read the remainder of your release.
A Misnomer In The Making
In the classic sense, Public Relations is non-existent at a startup. There is no public for your adVenture to relate to. No one knows who you are and no one cares about your adVenture. It is unlikely that your startup will generate real news and you cannot afford to “buy” good press. As such, you must entice the journalists, editors and other media gatekeepers to give your startup valuable mindshare by making it clear that your story is worth telling. Thus, startup Public Relations is best thought of as Public Validation.
Third-party validation is priceless. Credibility impacts your adVenture’s ability to close sales, obtain financing, establish partnerships and recruit employees. Without credibility, your startup has no chance of survival.
The following press release tips are intended to help you effectively garner public validation, establish credibility and generate revenue, at minimal costs.
- Set The Stage – Headlines Should Tell Your Story
- Power Of The Pen – Write the First Draft of the Release
- Laser Focus – Specific Objectives For Targeted Audiences
- Film At 11:00 – Inject Your Story Into The News
- Opposition Research – Do Not Do Competitors’ Homework
- Project Victory – Prematurely Circulate Releases To Drive Partnerships To Closure
- Marinate Stakeholders – Send Releases To Those You Love And Those Whose Love You Desire
- The Ringo Theory – A Steady Beat is Better Than an Occasional Percussive Flourish
- Beg Forgiveness – Cite Key Customers / Partners
Set The Stage – Headlines Should Tell Your Story
The title is the most important aspect of your Press Release. In many cases, the title is all a reader will see, especially if your release is posted with a number of other releases on a news website. The title must be intriguing enough to cause the reader to click and read the remainder of the release. “Company XYZ Hires VP” will not garner many readers.
At times, the title can be used to divert attention from a negative event. For instance, one company announced the layoff of 48% of their staff with the headline “Company X Announces Strategic Growth Initiatives.” Imbedded in the text as a “growth initiative” were the details related to the layoff.
Tee Shot – The Opening Phrase Should State Your Market Position
The first phrase of your release informs the reader of your market positioning. Are you the “foremost developer of nano-visualization devices” or have you created an “industry-leading VoIP PBX?”
This positioning phrase can prove troubling for startups, as it forces you to articulate who you are in a handful of words. In addition, it is normal for your position to shift during the early stages of your adVenture. As such, start with a broad positioning statement that you can refine over time, without appearing to be unfocused and potentially confusing the market.
If you craft your positioning statement too specifically at the outset, it will be potentially confusing if you continually restate it in different, but equally specific, terms. If you cannot consistently articulate ‘who’ your company is, then you cannot effectively Thrill The Messenger. As you can see from the progression of positioning statements below, taken from the actual releases of a company that struggled with its market positioning, abrupt repositioning can undermine a company’s credibility.
1/05 – “a leading provider of VoIP applications”
11/05 – “a leading provider of VOIP enhanced services”
6/06 – “a leading provider of on-demand communications services to service providers and consumers”
8/06 – “a leading provider of On Demand communications solutions to service providers and consumers”
2/07 – “an innovator of applications that make phones and PCs work better together”
12/07 – “a mobile telephony and speech application company”
2/08 – “a leading provider of mobile applications and services that integrate mobile phones and computing”
5/08 – “a leading provider of Internet and mobile based unified communications solutions”
Power Of The Pen - Write The First Draft Of The Release
If a release involves a relationship with a Stakeholder, such as a partner, customer, investor, or supplier, do not rely on the other party to craft the release. Just as it is important that you create the first draft of an agreement (see Kiss of Death), you can better control your message if you write the release’s first iteration.
As noted in PR Passion, early-stage adVentures should handle their public relations activities in-house. As such, you will not have a Cyrano de Bergerac to lean upon when you draft your releases. This is a good thing, as even a well-meaning (and very well-paid) Cyrano will be unable to communicate your story as aptly or as passionately as you.
Laser Focus – Specific Objectives For Targeted Audiences
Develop an overall strategy for your releases over an extended period – each release should build upon those preceding it to achieve an overarching goal. Some releases will be opportunistic and unplanned. However, planned releases should combine to form a cohesive messaging mosaic.
Your goal with a press release is not to land the cover of Business Week. Pulp writers were paid by the word. If their stories did not drive magazine sales, they were dropped by their publisher. Assuming you have launched your product or service, enhancing revenue and sales should always be one of the objectives underlying each release. If your adVenture is in the pre-production stage, then the focus might be on establishing beta customers or a similar form of pre-revenue validation. In any event, the releases should be written with a concrete objective in mind, not to stroke the management’s ego.
In order to assess the impact of your releases on your revenue, establish mechanisms to facilitate tracking the customers and prospects derived from each release. One approach is to create vanity URLs that facilitate such tracking. For instance, a release announcing an international initiative, might utilize a URL such as www.yourco.global.com.
The vanity URL should be prominent in the release, ideally in the header, body and footer. It should allow online readers to click directly to a landing page that either allows them to complete a specific call to action, such as: complete a lead form, download a whitepaper, sign up for an online trial or buy your solution. The specific action will depend on the stage of your adVenture and the nature of your solution. However, in no event should you drop readers onto your site’s front door, unless it conveys a compelling call to action.
Film At 11:00 - Inject Your Story Into The News
As discussed in Thrill The Messenger, the more newsworthy your release is deemed by the media gatekeepers, the more widely it will be distributed and thus the more validation and potential revenue you will derive from the release.
Write news-oriented releases as if they were a treatment for a Video News Release (VNR). VNRs are brief (two- to three-minute) video pieces which companies create and distribute to local news affiliates. They are shown in the context of “news” and thus have a more significant impact on the intended audience, as compared to traditional press releases.
Be aware of your target publications’ editorial calendars. In many instances, you can create “news” stories related to holidays, anniversaries, etc. For instance, at one of my startups that sold remote access software, we conducted a survey of teleworkers and announced the results during National Work From Home Week.
An effective way to cause your releases to be accepted as “newsworthy” is to become an opinion leader in your industry. The more newsworthy your releases, the more readily your company will be identified as an opinion leader which will lead to more of your releases being considered newsworthy. Take advantage of this Virtuous Circle. For instance, at the software company mentioned above, we were recognized as a “news source” with respect to remote work habits, due to our periodic publication of user survey results. In such releases, we generally included a quote from an industry to give them an additional air of objectivity.
Opposition Research - Do Not Do Competitors’ Homework
As noted in Competitive Sleuthing, scour your competitors’ press releases and other public statements for clues regarding their future plans. When you draft your releases, assume your competitors are loyal readers of your releases. As such, write each release to enhance your validity in the market but do not show your hand regarding proprietary issues, unless you can immediately capitalize on the public disclosure in the form of near-term revenue.
Project Victory – Prematurely Circulate Releases To Drive Partnerships To Closure
Do not wait until a BDC deal is done to write the first draft of a press release. Keep the momentum of the deal process moving forward with your potential partner by writing the release during the latter stages of your negotiations. The more Big Dumb Company (BDC) personnel you can draw into the press release process, the greater the extent to which your deal’s consummation will become a foregone conclusion.
Prematurely pushing the finalization of the release will cause members of the BDC to internally discuss the relationship with your adVenture in definitive terms such as “when we launch” not “if we launch.” A release can bring a potential partnership to life within a BDC and help spread the spirit of the relationship beyond the “deal-makers” within your partner organization. Once BDC personnel start editing and discussing your release, the risk of the deal derailing at the last minute is reduced. The sunk cost of their time and effort will vest the BDC participants in the deal’s success, which is exactly the mindset you want them to share.
This approach also mitigates potential disappointments that might occur once the deal is signed. Getting specific approval of press release text concurrent with the negotiation will ensure that you are not precluded from publicly proclaiming the nature and existence of your relationship with the BDC. Do not allow the BDC to “promise” to “take care of you.” As discussed in Kiss Of Death, at a minimum, contractually lock in the right to issue a unilateral press release which discusses the existence and general nature of the relationship.
Marinate Stakeholders – Send Releases To Those You Love And To Those Whose Love You Desire
In addition to generating revenue and enhancing your firm’s market visibility, releases are also a convenient way for you to remind potential and current Stakeholders that your adVenture is gaining momentum and achieving its milestones. As such, email each release to the appropriate Stakeholder audience.
As usual, do all the heavy lifting for your Stakeholders. Personalize the brief introductory text in a meaningful way. Do not send an anonymous email blast to a litany of blind carbon-copied recipients. Although this approach is expeditious, it greatly reduces the probability that the recipients will bother to read the release. In the body of the email, directly reference something in the release that you think will be of particular interest to the recipient.
For instance: “As you can see from the quote from the XZY executive below, we continue to make progress in our mission to partner with market leading XXX companies. I look forward to finalizing a similar relationship with your company.” The point of this text is to pique the recipient’s curiosity and give them a specific reason to read your release.
Paste the press release text directly into the body of the email, as some recipients will not bother opening an attachment and others may be precluded from downloading email attachments for security purposes. You should also attach the actual release as a PDF document, to facilitate the recipient’s ability to forward the release, print it, save an electronic copy for their future reference, etc.
The Ringo Theory – A Steady Beat Is Better Than An Occasional Percussive Flourish
Ringo Starr was not the world’s most innovative drummer. However, most critics agree that his understated, steady beat was a cornerstone to the Beatles’ musical success. In a similar way, a consistent flow of press releases is more effective than occasional bursts of press release activity. Media gatekeepers tend to be most receptive to messages consistently delivered over time, as it gives them a chance to become acquainted with your story and assess its credibility before they risk their reputations by affording you press coverage. In addition, websites on which the most recent release is months old communicate a lack of momentum. You are better off not displaying historical releases on your site, if there are large passages of time between the releases.
You should also annually revise the copyright date at the footer of your website. An out-of-date copyright notice is an indication that the site is stale, which may cause a reader to infer that there is little going on at your adVenture.
Beg Forgiveness - Cite Key Customers / Partners
Depending on the nature of the release, you should include a list of your most renowned customers and/or partners in the standard footer verbiage at the bottom of the release. This standard text should support the initial Tee Shot positioning statement.
If you seek approval from each of the cited entities, their lawyers will likely say “No.” That is what BDC lawyers are trained to say. As such, it is far better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. As long as you are not misrepresenting your relationship or explicitly violating a contractual provision precluding such disclosure, there is no harm and no foul with this approach.
Below is a real-world sample footer. This text should be fairly consistent, other than updates for new customers of note, awards, etc.
About Company X
Company X, Inc. is the leading provider of <reinforce your Tee Shot statement>. The company's award-winning technology enables users to <describe value proposition>. Company X offers two products: <describe products>. The products consistently win best-in-class awards and reviews, including <list awards if impactful>. Company X has more than <specify customer count if significant> corporate clients worldwide, including Cisco Systems, Siemens, Sun Microsystems, Verizon, Best Software, Intuit, Cablevision and Microsoft Business Solutions. Founded in XXXX, Company X is privately held, with financial backing by <list investors if highly regarded>. The company is headquartered in Small Town, Calif., with its European operations based in Big City, Europe.
“To err is human, and Bill McClary was all too human, which accounted for the fact that the six-shooter pride of the Big Bend lay flat on his face in the bottom of a sandy draw with a hole in his head.”
– Opening sentence from, “The Passing of Rope Nose” by Louis L’Amour
Just like Louis L’Amour, Max Brand and other successful pulp fiction authors, you are writing your press releases for money, not ego gratification. Many pulp writers did not even use their own names, preferring to write under pseudonyms so they could publish multiple stories in the same publication without alerting readers to the concentrated source of a particular magazine’s content. The more stories published, the more money they made, irrespective of the penname appearing in the byline.
As such, craft your releases like pulp fiction – make every word count, write for revenue and grab the reader from the opening sentence, because you may not get a second chance.
Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.