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Battle-Hardened Journalist Reveals What Makes Press Releases Stand Out

Ken McGaffin
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If you're looking for a content promotion and white hat link building technique that can be done at scale, you need to consider public relations. But what's involved and can the skills be learned? Yes, says Geoff Hill, an award-winning journalist, travel writer, motorcycle adventurer and novelist, and a man who should know – he can reject hundreds of press releases every day.

What makes him pay attention?

Hill has either won or been shortlisted for a UK travel writer of the year award nine times, as well as winning European and World travel writer of the year awards. Check out his Amazon.com profile. (Author's disclosure: I have created training programs with Geoff Hill.)

I recently sat down with Hill over coffee to ask him some questions. 

Ken McGaffin: How has the world of media and journalism changed over the last 5 years and what does this mean for you as a journalist or editor?

Geoff Hill: It's changed in a couple of major ways. First, virtually all newspapers today, apart from those owned by trusts or families, are owned by shareholders. And those shareholders want profits. And the best way to create profits is to put accountants in charge – accountants whose prime motivations is not how well they can do something, but how cheaply. And the easiest way to do that is to get rid of journalists.

The situation has been made even worse by the fact that the recession has shrunk newspaper income in the U.S. by a third, so the pressure on newspapers to make a profit has increased proportionally.

As a result of that double whammy, the number of journalists in the U.S. today, for example, is the lowest since records began. It's the same pretty much worldwide apart from developing countries like India.

That means that today journalists rarely get the luxury of getting out of the office to spend time working on a big story, meeting people and developing contacts the way they used to.

Instead, they're stuck in the office working constantly under pressure and against deadline – and ironically, doing more work than ever because of the twin demands of print and online editions.

Which brings me to the second main change: the inexorable rise of the Internet, which newspapers still haven't figured out how to deal with.

One body of opinion is that you give away your website free in order to get huge traffic, which means you can charge a lot for ads. The other is to charge for the site, have far fewer readers on it, but make your money from subscriptions.

Another way to do it is to make your site content very different to your print content so that people use both. The Daily Mail did this when they noticed that any showbiz stories created a huge spike in traffic, so their website is now virtually all showbiz content.

The jury's still out, but either way, my feeling is that with news sites such as the BBC so good, for newspapers to succeed, they'll have to become more feature and lifestyle orientated, which is one reason why the circulation of weekend newspapers in the States is actually increasing.

KM: What is your favorite source of new stories, given that you are always under pressure?

GH: Trusted contacts who send me press releases from that are tightly written and to the point, with all the details I need to write the story.

And one-click links to high-resolution pictures or videos, a website link for more info if readers need it, and contact details for the contact so that I can clarify anything instantly if I need to.

KM: Many people say that the "press release" is now dead. Do you agree?

GH: Not at all. What is dead is the press release that is useless, irrelevant, and without good picture or video back-up, and either contains no news or news that is not complete – a journalist simply doesn't have time to rewrite the story or chase up potential photos. Good visual back-up should be included.

The implication is that a good PR should provide everything that will make a newsworthy, visual and complete news story – with the minimum amount of work on the part of a journalist.

KM: What for you are the essentials of a good press release? Of course a good press release being one that makes you want to write the story.

GH: That's easy. In terms of content, it's got to be news, unusual, weird, wacky or humorous. Anything that makes me go: "Wow! I didn't know that! Tell me more..."

It's got to be backed up by creative, dramatic photos.

And once it's grabbed my attention with those, it's got to have a killer intro, and all the facts in decreasing order of importance, written as tightly as possible.

If it needs editor's notes at the bottom to add more detail, that's fine, but I don't want them in the body of the story, where the key rule is less is more.

KM: Do you get stories from services like PRWeb.com, PRnewswire.com, BusinessWire.com, etc.?

GH: No. In my experience, journalists, certainly in the UK, use those very little.

KM: You're an award-winning travel writer and have created travel guides for print media, online editions and even within apps. This means you link to many resources – how do you take the decision to link?

GH: It depends. If I'm writing mainly for print, links will not be included in the body of the story, but in a factbox at the end. If it's mainly for online, I still prefer to include links at the end of each section of a story, or the story in general, rather than interrupt the flow of a good story.

I'll link to good, wacky, interesting resources that I know of, that have come recommended or that I find through Google.

KM: And if you happened to miss my wonderful restaurant in your guide to New Orleans, how could I let you that I exist?

GH: Make sure your restaurant really is wonderful. Then drop me an email with brief details, quotes from happy clients or guidebooks, links to high resolution photos, and contact details so I can get back to you if I need to.

KM: How much do you think journalists know or want to know about SEO? Do you ever get pressure to use certain keywords or link to certain sites?

GH: I suspect very little if they're working primarily for a print edition. But increasingly, if they're also working for online editions, they use SEO basics and social media to draw attention to what they've written.

I don't feel pressure to link, but I will when I think it's useful. For example, in my weekly motorbike column for the Daily Mirror, I might be short of space and it easy to give brief details and a link to a relevant website which has all the details I don't have space for.

KM: Do you think that relationships between journalists and PRs are still important? If so, in what way?

GH: It's more important than ever, because, as I said, journalists today simply don't have the time to go out chasing stories from scratch, so they rely heavily on good PR contacts to give them a feed of good stories. Not the word good there – twice.

KM: In SEO, there's a growing interest in media relations. Do you think a novice can learn the rules of pitching to a journalist or should they really use an experienced PR?

GH: It depends. The basics of creating a good press release are pretty simple, but the genius that gets mega coverage takes a little longer. My suggestion would be to become an avid reader of news stories in your niche. Take time to read each story and try to work out what caught the journalist's interest – then try to replicate that.

Cartoon image: The Blarney Zone, LinkingMatters.com


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