Why your press release isn’t “working.”

Five questions to ask yourself before pitching the media.

By: Melissa Harris, MBA ’16 (XP-85), Executive in Residence at the Polsky Center

A company experiences something it deems newsworthy and wants to share. The marketing team puts together a press release, and someone works hard to write it just so, just the way the CEO wants it, with all the most relevant information perfectly outlined for all interested media contacts.

But then, nothing. The press release gets ignored, and the CEO is sullen, or worse, furious at “the media,” blaming them for their collective oversight or bias — whatever caused them to ignore his well-thought out press release.

Instead, it’s more likely that the press release should have never been sent in the first place. That’s because whoever decided the release’s contents were newsworthy lacked an understanding of how reporters and editors decide what to cover.

Taking a press releases through a journalist’s thought-process — it’s a test of sorts — should weed out the junk as well as moderate executives’ expectations about how much press coverage they can bank on going forward.

So, when weighing whether to cover a story, a journalist asks:

  1. Is the information timely? Is there something “new” in this “news”? If the press release had been sent three months earlier or three months from now, would it need to be changed? If the answer is no, then it’s not news. It’s a feature story at best.
  2. Is it close by? A reporter for a newspaper in Chicago is far less interested in a news event in San Francisco.
  3. Is it impactful? This is why government news often swallows so much media attention. A single regulation can impact the lives of millions of people. Meanwhile, how many people does the hire of a new CEO of a publicly traded company truly impact? If the market anticipated the move and it followed the company’s succession plan, the answer is very few. Possibly it impacts the board of directors and some shareholders, who might decide to dump or buy the stock based on the hire. It will impact some senior-level employees for certain. But rarely does a new CEO herald a major impact on mid- or low-level workers, whose day-to-day routines typically go on as usual. A smooth leadership transition, in fact, impacts very few people at all.
  4. Is it unique, odd or surprising? Is Procter & Gamble releasing the fifth version of Tide detergent unique? Isn’t product iteration and innovation what a company is supposed to be doing? To win national or international news attention, simply launching a new product is not enough. Instead, what about that new Tide container is unique? Is it the first-ever detergent container to be built solely from recyclable materials? Does the detergent itself no longer contain a chemical used in every other detergent?
  5. Does it have conflict? Or perhaps framed in a softer light, can a winner and a loser be identified? Apple and Motorola, for instance, have no direct, outward conflict or animosity, but Apple no doubt has stolen market share from Motorola. Whether a company chooses to address the conflict or not, a good reporter will find it — because big news has conflict.

Does every story a company pitches to the press have to include all of these elements? No. But the more elements the pitch contains, the more likely it will be covered. And if a story lacks most of these elements, the story shouldn’t be pitched at all.

The companies that are most successful at winning earned media have considered these principles long before a press release is drafted. They have baked it into their product development and design process. Is this product truly unique? Will it change people’s lives? Is it relevant to the day-to-day struggles of our consumers? Will it help us gain a competitive advantage? If the answer to these questions is yes — an example would be the iPhone — it is likely to earn media coverage. Even better, that news coverage will come at a fraction of the cost of paid advertising and with little prodding from public relations professionals.

Melissa Harris, MBA ’16 (XP-85), is an executive in residence at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago. She is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated business columnist and accomplished journalist who spent 13+ years at the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Orlando Sentinel. She most recently served as vice president of marketing at Origin Investments, a real estate private equity firm with about a half-billion dollars in assets, and she is a winner of the 2017 Reed Award from Campaigns and Elections for best earned media coverage around a single event. Melissa can be reached at mmharris@uchicago.edu.