Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Breaking News

I had to smile yesterday. I tried to feel angry but it didn't work. It must be something about my personality. A tendency to favour the upstart, the cheeky guy, the one man on his own with a mission to change the world. And yesterday I got wacked by just such a character who is clearly on a mission to change the world of PR. Meet "The Embargo Killer" !

Let me explain how public relations (PR) and in particular press releases work, from a tech entrepreneurs perspective. If you are going to be a "start up guy" you need to know about this stuff.

First, if you are serious about PR for your start up, get yourself a decent PR agency. We've got Band and Brown, one of the best in London. Some start up guys try and do their own PR. Forget it, you are on a hiding to nothing. You might get a little coverage here and there on a slow news day but if you want to build a serious company with a solid reputation, you'll need a serious firm to support you.

Next you come up with your idea for a story. It could be based on some research that you have commissioned. It could be something to do with what's happening in your business. Whatever it is, you come up with the story and write your press release.

Press releases seem to come in four parts.

  • the headline that grabs the attention

  • the issue and the research that supports it

  • what should be done about it

  • the spokespersons comment

The headline is vital. Try to sit in a newspaper editors shoes. Every morning that he comes in to work, there are 600 shiny new press releases screaming at him "LOOK AT ME. I'VE GOT THE BEST NEW WIDGET EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE". So he skims though hundreds of releases, pressing "delete, delete, delete". The only thing that stops your release getting deleted is your headline. So think long and hard about it.

Okay, let's assume you've got a press release with a great headline. Now you've got to get it out there. So you pick a day when you are going to "break the news".

Now here's the trick. You issue your press release "under embargo". You write on the top of your press release "Embargoed until 00.01 on 25th of Month" and send it out to hundreds of journalist a couple of days before D-Day. And an amazing thing happens. However exciting your news, not one of the journalists prints your story until the embargo date and time has passed. Amazing. There is no law that says they can't print it. They just don't. It's an unwriten rule.

So, you've bought yourself a couple of days to ring, email and generally harrass the editors and journalists saying "did you see our press release? Oh, you've lost it, don't worry, here's another copy". That's called the Sell In.

Everyone obeys the embargo because that's how the industry works.

Everyone that is except for The Embargo Killer.

So last week, we finished off our research into how young people are behaving online. We put the press release together, with a strong headline, wrote in big bold letters "Embargoed until 00.01 Thursday 3rd July" and sent it off to hundreds of journos.

Within hours much to our surprise, up pops the press release on this chaps blog busting the embargo without a care in the world. And not just busting the embargo on Garlik's press release, but busting the entire embargo concept - if it catches on.

Actually what happen in our case is that nothing happened. The mainstream journos stuck to the embago. I spent today doing eleven back to back pre-recorded radio interviews for Thursdays news and the story went in to the planning meetings of most of the national papers. It will be interesting to see what if anything happens in the press at 00.01 on Thursday 3rd July, but it appears that The Embargo Killer has not quite killed off the embargo yet.

I think he might be on to something though. If he gets a steady flow of press releases, if lots of people have google alerts set up on the things they are interested in, if the mainstream press spot that embargoes are being routinely broken putting news straight in to the public domain, then I think the whole concept of embargoes could well break down. Is that a good thing? I don't know. It's just different and the PR and media industry will just have to figure out what it means.

It never ceases to amaze me how much power the web can put in to the hands of a single individual. This one chap could change an entire industry just like that. Amazing.

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