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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein
MARCH 2, 2000


Why Press Releases Fail: It's the Message, Not the Medium

Often they try too hard -- and are too hard to understand
(First of two parts)


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Editor's note: Today's column is not based on a specific reader query, but on a question we've heard in various forms about how to write an effective press release. We'll return to our regular question-and-answer format next week. Please continue to send your questions about running a small business to smartanswers@businessweek.com.


The following comes from a press release that crossed our screen recently. The names have been changed:

"Product Y provides the architecture that links enterprise business processes with new e-business applications using component-level technology. Applications can quickly access data from any source and be componentized for reusability, allowing customers to avoid cumbersome reengineering efforts. The [product] enables drag-and-drop functionality designed to simplify the access, manipulation, and retrieval of information within traditional enterprise data applications."

Got that?

In the millisecond before we hit the delete key, it occurred to us that fewer and fewer of the press releases bombarding us by fax, e-mail, and the U.S. Postal Service are intelligible. What makes this so galling is that small-business owners, competing to get their stories out to wider audiences of customers and potential investors, actually pay public-relations agencies to write these missives (emphasis on the "miss"). In many instances, the quality they're getting doesn't match the price they're paying.

How bad are they? Here are a few examples we've gathered in the past couple of weeks, again with the names excised. For an expert's perspective, we asked for comment from Gary Clemenceau, a public relations veteran who recently signed on as director of communications for Cyras Systems, a telecommunications equipment company in Fremont, Calif.

"Why [use this product]? Because, in a dogfight with larger, pricier application service providers, [the product] is the Millennium Falcon -- small, fast, affordable, and able to take a business to hyperspeed faster than a Wookie can cough up a hairball."

This quote, from a press release for a software startup, touted the fact that one of the company's four founders had been an executive with Lucas Films. In the one-page release, there are no fewer than five Star Wars references. After three read-throughs, I was still confused about whether the company was entertainment-related (it's not), and I had no idea what their product actually did.

What happened here? Clemenceau says small companies, especially high-tech startups that are flush with venture capital, tend to hire the flashiest, biggest-name PR agencies they can find, if only so they can point to the agency when investors ask about their marketing efforts. "A lot of dot-coms have loads of money but not a whole lot of sense or experience. They realize that certain forms of advertising work, and that something clever and funny will work. The sock puppet from Pets.com -- that works. But unless it's truly clever, which takes a lot of creativity, it's a waste of money."

Some are filled with straight-out babble: "As the demand for e-business applications continues to increase, [the product] delivers the technologies necessary for Web-enabling front- and back-end office systems for customer-centric e-business solutions...[the product] remains a leader in product functionality among technology providers that Web-enable enterprise applications."

Perhaps that makes perfect sense within their industry. But the intended audience would need an interpreter. "Most of this stuff is written by committee," Clemenceau says. "The client is some executive who wants to use all those words because it makes him feel comfortable. The big agencies are having a hard time holding onto their more experienced people, so people with less experience are doing more work and the quality starts to suffer."

Then there are the dire warnings and hyped-up claims: "Your company will no longer exist and will become obsolete in short order if you do not join the 21st century by using the Internet to promote your services and business," predicts one ominous press release. From another: "The eliminate-the-middleman cost advantages of the shortened supply chain are revolutionizing how small businesses make money -- allowing them to double and triple their net margins." Sounds great, but anyone who runs a real business knows how unlikely that seems -- and how poorly it reflects on the rest of the release.

"There is a profound need for a PR agency that is no b.s.," says Clemenceau. His advice: Lay off the hype and propaganda. Stick to plain language and education.

NEXT: What makes a good press release.



Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an E-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 46th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.



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