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Make the Media Happy to Hear from You:
Part I: Pointers on Using and Abusing E-Mail News Releases

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The Internet has radically transformed the distribution of news releases. Judging from a recent survey, virtually every journalist in all media in the U.S. is accessible by e-mail. But do they like receiving e-mail news releases?


When I began using e-mail to distribute news releases in 1994, the only media contacts online in significant numbers were technology reporters. By 1997, you could reach the average journalist via e-mail, but most were not comfortable receiving news releases that way. Today, everyone is online, and most journalists prefer receiving releases via e-mail over any other method.

So why is everyone complaining about e-mail news releases? Simply because everyone hates spam. And journalists really hate spam because they can’t hide from it. Since they rely on e-mail for communications with sources, colleagues, and their audiences, they can’t keep their e-mail addresses private. The ease of locating journalists’ e-mail addresses has created a real e-mail management problem for the Fourth Estate

Off-topic news releases–that is, news releases sent by people who do not read the publication, watch the program, listen to the broadcast, or know what topics the journalists they’re sending to cover–are the biggest complaint the media have about online public relations.

But you can use e-mail releases to create productive relationships with media representatives. By using the guide that follows, you’ll not only cut down the number of complaints you receive, but also dramatically improve results from your releases.


1st E-Mail News Release Netiquette

2nd Target Your Contacts Carefully

Send e-mail releases only to the media contacts who are highly likely to be interested in the subject. It’s not good enough to rationalize that your website re-design is a technology story, and therefore everyone who writes for Information Week is a legitimate prospect. You need to find out who at Information Week covers website re-designs. Read the publication, think about where your story should or might run, find the e-mail addresses of the people responsible for those sections, and send your release to them.

That might seem like a lot of work, but it’s not that bad. After a single day in the library rifling through periodicals and directories, you could walk away with a contact list that has as many as 300 fresh, top-quality media e-mail addresses. (Specific pointers on finding them will appear in Part II of this series). Then, if you tag your list with appropriate subject codes, it will serve you well the next time you do a book in the same general field. A two-tier subject coding system works best for me. I give each contact a Macro code, such as “business” or “computers,” and a Micro code, such as “personal finance” or “software.”

But what if all you can find for a prospect is the generic e-mail address? Is it OK to send a release to a talk-radio station at something like feedback@WXYZ.com? I think it is if you have an interesting guest willing to talk on air, but don’t hold your breath. Generic addresses such as “letters,” “comments,” or “info” are often just euphemisms for “trashcan.” You need to try hard to find the personal e-mail addresses of real people who make decisions about what stories get produced. Ideally, you’d have the personal e-mail address for every show producer at that talk-radio station, coded with the subjects their shows are about.

As tempting as it may be to send e-mail to everyone on your media list, this strategy often backfires, resulting in blacklisting, flaming, or even threats of legal action. To give you some perspective, for a typical e-mail news release, I mail to about 2% of my database–roughly 500 media contacts–and get about 50 positive replies, 25 undeliverable message responses, and one complaint. I have weeded many complainers out of my list over the last seven years; it may take you a few releases to get your complaints down to zero.


2nd Keep It Short

If reading it requires scrolling, your news release is too long. Length is Enemy #1. This is the hardest rule for me to follow. Like everyone else, I tend to think that my current story is the exception. Because it’s so compelling, the story simply can’t be told in a shorter space. But it helps to realize that you don’t want to send a conventional news release via e-mail. It’s too long. What you really want to send is a query. In other words, your e-mail news release should not, in fact, be a news release; it should be a way of asking whether the media person wants to see a news release.

E-mail news releases should follow the same pattern as website communications; they should be layered. A good subject line will get your message opened. A good pitch paragraph will bring a request for more material. The delivery of that requested material may result in a phone call, an e-mail about artwork, or an interview. But if you start with a lengthy news release, it will either be trashed or saved for later, and then trashed.

I know several reporters who receive more than 300 pieces of e-mail a day. If it takes just one minute to read and process each message, that’s five hours per day simply opening e-mail! You have to get to the point fast.

Almost all e-mail news releases can–and should–be boiled down to a headline plus a three-paragraph pitch:

1st ¶. The news hook. What is the compelling news angle related to this announcement?

2nd ¶. The credentials. What makes you the right person or company to talk about this item?

3rd ¶. How to get more information. Provide contact names and numbers, a website address, and an offer to send more material. Combine your offer with an explicit request for coverage.

Using e-mail to query, and then following up with a faxed or printed news release is a great one-two punch. Print is still a very effective way to communicate. You can make a case for coverage much better in a printed document than you can in e-mail. You get better design control with print. People will read a relatively long printed document if it’s good, but they won’t read a long e-mail no matter how good it is (unless they print it out).

And once someone has responded to a query, the etiquette shifts. If they asked to see something, a follow-up phone call to find out whether it was received is appropriate. However, if they never asked to see anything, they’ll view a follow-up phone call as rude. Think of this as a process of seduction; your e-mail is a tease. You want them to beg for the whole story.


2nd Send Text Only–No Attachments

If you’re looking for a sure-fire way to anger media contacts and to get everything you send filtered out, try e-mailing a news release with HTML styles, embedded graphics, a VCF card, and an attached file. Do I need to depose the experts to make my case? From the Internet Press Guild comes this admonishment: “Let’s make this clear: unsolicited attachments merit the death penalty.” From the Journalists’ Pet Peeves site at Futuremedia, “I hate getting e-mail press releases in word processor formats.” What journalists hate most about “rich e-mail” is the arrogant assumption that they have the software to handle whatever you throw at them. But that isn’t all that’s wrong.

First of all, how an e-mail message looks and functions is dependent upon the receiver’s equipment. Not long ago, I received an e-mail news release from a company inviting me to a seminar on “Advanced Email” design. I don’t know how the e-mail looked on their screen, but on mine it was a nightmare of jagged line endings, broken URLs, and nonfunctional graphics. I decided to pass on the seminar. You have no way of knowing the computer configuration of the people you send news releases to, so you’re better off assuming incompatibility and just sending text.

Second, people are afraid to open unsolicited file attachments. You never know what disease they might contain, or whether they will infect your computer, destroy your data, and ruin your life.

Third, attachments are often stored separately from your e-mail message. It’s annoying to find files on your computer when you don’t know how they got there and when any e-mail message they were related to is long gone.

Fourth, you don’t need fancy graphics or design for a three-paragraph news release. (Note: Graphic design is good. It helps break-up long documents, organizes them, makes them easier to read, and helps them communicate better. It actually goes against my training as a former typesetter and graphic designer to have to create the world’s ugliest documents: ASCII text only. But until there is a universal standard that accommodates graphic design, I’m sticking with plain old text because it works.) Everyone can read plain text and it almost always looks on the receiver’s screen exactly the way it looks on the sender’s.

For these reasons, send an attachment only if you get a request for it, and try to verify that your receiver has the equipment to view it before you send it. This practice works well with my seduction theory; you want to offer graphics, or files, or documents, and get your media contacts to request them. When they ask you for something, half the battle is won. But you must be prepared with those files, in the proper formats, to handle any requests promptly and professionally.


Steve O’Keefe is the Executive Director of Patron Saint Productions, Inc. (patronsaintpr.com), a publishing consultancy specializing in online marketing strategies, campaigns, and training. This article is excerpted from his “Complete Guide to Internet Publicity,” copyright 2002 by Steve O’Keefe, by permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. To order the book, call 1-800-CALL-WILEY (225-5945) or visit www.wiley.com.



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