The death of press releases

Or at least I hope they die. I don’t think they serve any purpose anymore.

I’ll call this yet another “solutions” post, though I don’t know that the press release problem is one that many people have identified. I think it’s real, though, and in the ongoing discussion about how to promote classical concerts — and find a new audience — the press release is something we ought to reexamine.

It’s a formal document, written almost like a newspaper story. Headline, subheads, content. With the emphasis on who, what, when, and where. More or less like this:


Program to feature Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals

Concerts will be held at Silo Symphony Hall on May 20 and 22 at 8 PM, and May 21 at 7:30

Olivia the Pig will return to the Barnyard Symphony as guest conductor in May, conducting three concerts. Featured on the program will be Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals. Maestro Olivia will also lead Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Maestro Olivia has received much acclaim and many honors, and this past summer garnered rave reviews after becoming the first non-human to conduct Wagner’s magisterial Ring at the Bayreuth Festival. Orchestras that she has conducted include the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and many others. She last appeared with the Barnyard Symphony in the 2008-2009 season, helming Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

And so on, for perhaps two pages of printed text, complete with further eye-glazing biographies, quotes from Olivia and from the executive director of the orchestra, details about ticket prices, and more, more, more.

These things go out by snail mail and email. An active classical music critic might get 10 to twenty each day.

And what happens to them when they arrive? Well, they’re essentially unreadable. Very rarely do they say anything compelling, or even interesting, or even vaguely good to know. You skim the headline and the subheads, and you know what’s going on. And you know whether you care. So you don’t read the rest.

Or maybe you go further. You throw some of them out unread. I’d love to see a count of how many media people do this. You learn, after a while, which publicists and organizations have something to say to you. Those who routinely don’t, who routinely send out releases of no interest — well, it sounds cruel, it sounds unprofessional, but triage rules. Your days are endless, and the releases pile up. So some don’t get read.

Same for the emailed ones, especially those with subject lines (and this happens often!) that say nothing more than “Press Release,” or “For Immediate Release.” If you have 20 press releases sitting in your inbox, and you’re insanely busy, some won’t get read.

And why the formality? Why the headlines? Why write the silly things as if they were newspaper stories? Once upon a time, I think, newspapers would sometimes print these things verbatim, so you wanted them to read like news stories, with headlines, and a first paragraph — the “lede,” in newspaper talk — a just-the-facts-m’am who, what, where, and when.

But newspapers don’t print press releases anymore, except maybe for some very small operations. And these days news stories aren’t written in this style. They’re written more like features, with catchy ledes telling you the core of the story, including the most important thing, the thing almost always left out of classical music press releases — why. Why is this performance happening? Why should anyone be interested?

So let’s kiil press releases. If they don’t say anything, if most of their text is never read, if some are never read at all, if they’re written in an empty, deadly, forgotten style, suitable only for making a reader’s eyes glaze over, what’s the point?

Instead, my publicist friends, why not kill the snail mail press release entirely? And why not kill the deadly press release format, and instead just send a short, friendly, two-paragraph email. In it, you’d give me the key information — including that all-important “why” — with a link for me to click if I want more information. There should also be a link to music. If Olivia the Pig is conducting your orchestra (and lucky you, if she is! the first animal to conduct at Bayreuth!), give me links to recordings she’s made, and especially to recordings of concerts she’s done with your orchestra.

This is especially important for new music. If you’re a composer, how can you not give the media people on your list links to hear your music? What could be more important than that?

Here’s what a two-paragraph email would be like. The subject line might read, “Olvia the Pig Changes Her Mind.”

And the text would say:

Olivia the Pig swore she’d never conduct the Carnival of the Animals. “That’s stereotyping,” she used to say. “People expect me to conduct that piece, because it’s about animals. But I have other interests. And the piece gives a human view of animals, which frankly doesn’t interest me.”

But then she found herself at a concert where the piece was played, and fell in love. “Now I can see that I never gave the work a chance,” she says. “Saint-Saens may have been human, but he see things about animals that we ourselves can’t see. Now I’m eager to conduct the piece!” Which is exactly what she’ll do on May 20, 21, and 22 with the Barnyard Symphony.

If you’d like more information about these performances, and about why Maestro Olivia changed her mind, please click here.

And click here for recordings of her last appearance with the Barnyard Symphony.

Much better! Clean, quick, friendly, informative. And OK, four paragraphs instead of two, but the last two are nothing more than amplified links.

Will someone worry that you won’t impress us if you don’t tell us how distinguished Olivia and the orchestra might be? Please. If you can’t interest us with something like what I’ve written, you’ll never interest us. Cut the boilerplate, the empty verbiage, and just get to the point.

Maybe there still are media people who prefer the old-style press releases, but I’d think that most of my colleagues would rather have it this way.

I know I would.

(And, if we want to get a little more analytical, what I’m proposing is far more in keeping with the culture of Web 2.0, and everything else in the world we live in.)

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  1. says

    Hi – left a comment here but wrote in the wrong Captcha words. Thought you might like to know that it erases the original comment when you go back to fix the captcha.

    On WordPress there is the option to have comments require approval only the first time someone writes. Is that a possible setting on what I’m guessing is Typepad?

    The highlights of what I wrote are: I agree with you. Two paragraphs with basic deets and the hook followed by links to pics/media/further info is all I need.

    I just discovered the same thing about the captchas, when I tested to see if comments were working.

    This is Movable Type. That option you mentioned, or something like it, exists when commenters are required to sign in. Don’t think it’s otherwise available. But that function of the software is under ArtsJournal’s control. I’ll ask.

    Glad you agree about the press releases! I’m waiting for some veteran publicists to be shocked.

  2. says

    Me Three. You do still see the odd media release reproduced word for word in these parts – Australian media is a strange beast – but if you want to get my attention it needs to be, like you say, more like a great opening para of a news article, or a clickable tweet even!

    On much the same subject, I wrote an open letter to publicists a coupla months ago

    This was about the mega media pack – the 50 page package I get from opera / symphony / festival guys when they launch their lovely stuff. I’m glad they’ve done the research and I’m sure it’ll come in useful to someone but, honestly, if I write an in depth on any of their artists I will do my own research.


  3. says

    This formula would certainly make my life easier as a publicist for New England Conservatory. And as a former critic who didn’t read much of what was sent, I know you are right. Yet, it’s interesting how many smaller community papers will use a press release intact. And considering how little music coverage the big newspapers are doing these days, the smaller papers are often one of the most effective ways to get the word out. So maybe it’s two versions–short and punchy for you big guys and more conventional release for the smaller guys. But then, that’s not so easy for a publicist…

    –Ellen Pfeifer, Public Relations Manager

    New England Conservatory

    Hi, Ellen. The two-path solution shouldn’t be too hard to do. Just use the short and punchy version as the first two grafs of the longer release. Which will make the stories published in the shorter papers better than they were.

    Though when you talk about “getting the word out”…what exactly does that mean? Yes, you get your release published in smaller papers, and people see it. But then what? Do they remember seeing the release turned into a story? Does it make any difference to them? Do they act on it in any way.

    Maybe — if you could measure the tangible impact of getting those stories in smaller papers — it wouldn’t be worth your while to write special releases for them.

  4. says

    As you know, Greg, I send more-or-less traditional press releases, in the form of HTML email blasts. (Several writers have told me that they throw away most snail mail press releases without even opening them). I strongly believe that a good press release can tell a compelling story in a concise, informative way. Though I’m attracted to your approach, I’m not likely to give up the more detailed format anytime soon.

    Here’s why: recently, I sent out an email blast about a CD release event. That announcement contained a link where the recipient could download the disc in question (by an artist, I might add, who’s reaped a good deal of favorable press). The link was displayed right at the top of the page.

    My email program tracked 101 opens of the message – and only 4 clicks on the download link. With numbers like that, I’m pretty reluctant to make people click through to get the details.

    Why the imbalance? If someone is interested in a story, they’re going to want to be able to find the press release easily. An email is much easier to retrieve for future reference than a bookmark.

    But that’s just a theory. I’d love to hear from writers as to why they do or don’t open a release and/or click through to embedded links.

    Thanks, Steven. Very interesting to have these discussions.

    So I have two questions about the very few clicks on the music downloads. First, how much of the release did the many people who clicked on it read? And what difference did it make to them? Couldn’t I argue that the release isn’t doing its job very well, if few people clicked on the music?

    But maybe more important, what’s the baseline for click-throughs of this kind? What number should you expect? Are you getting fewer than you should, or — for all we know — more?

    We need a control for this experiment. Maybe if you wrote shorter releases, more people will click to find out more, or at least to hear the music. You write some of the better releases that I get, but still they’re too long for me to fully attend to on a busy day.

  5. says

    PR people still depend on the old fashioned newspaper to reach the huge numbers we all need, so sticking to the horrible old format might be a survival technique. Of course, writing an interesting news release is the point you made, and a little knowledge of the old rules might go a long way to helping newbies learn the craft.

    Franky, all that heading and subhead stuff just confuses their message. The first paragraph should have a hook, plus the who, what, when, where in succinct form. I think a line of ticket information also belongs there.

    Then, each succeeding paragraph should embellish on the basics in order of importance.

    In the old days, an editor could “cut and paste” and send it on to the linotype operators. Even today, online, the same cut and paste is often used with a fresh lede.

    Nevertheless, I think your idea of two paragraph emails is a great idea and I am all for them. Any editor or writer can ask for more info as needed. And I am more likely to read two paragraphs than two pages of densely packed words.

    Today, it is also an advantage for a publicist to include images, video snippets and the like – especially for those of us whose readers enjoy them.

  6. says

    No “shock” here!! Although, you’ve inspired me to go even further with my abbreviated press releases and try to be a little more clever about it – love the Olivia the pig thing. I came to my job in Orchestra PR and marketing through a back door and have learned on the job for the most part. I used to feel intimidated by the fact that I had no real training in writing a press release and oh gosh, maybe I’m not doing it “right!? But over the years, I’ve realized that perhaps there is no “right” way and if the stories get picked up, that’s the real test.

    I’m in a small market and some of the smaller papers do indeed print my releases verbatim. For the others, I check in with my reporters and editors regularly and ask them how to improve my releases. That, I find, is the best way to make sure I’m not boring them to tears. One thing they suggested to me years ago was to include a bulleted “Who, What, Where, Why, When” with my two paragraphs of text, so that they can just scan the basics for their listings and if they’re interested, they can contact me for more. I think I’ll add a link to the music now in my bullet list and see what happens.

    As always, thanks for the great ideas!

    How wise of you to ask writers and editors for feedback! Never once has a publicist asked me what I’d like to see from them. I’m not saying that to slag the many publicists I deal with. But more to praise you for jumping right out of the box, and doing something that makes total sense, the moment I hear of it. To paraphrase something someone recently said to me about something else, your idea goes way beyond “Why not?” into the realm of “Why doesn’t everyone?”

    I’d be curious to ask you something I asked someone else, in response to another comment. When your releases get printed in the smaller papers, what happens then? Are they read? Do the people who read them remember them? And do they then act on what’s in the release? We all assume, I think, that getting something in print is automatically good, but maybe it doesn’t make as much difference as we think.

  7. Galen Johnson says

    Greg, well, I guess I’m a veteran, lapsed, maybe–I did PR and marketing for Seattle Opera and the Ring 1979-82, and you are entirely right.

    After a disastrous tenure as Exec Dir of another opera company, I switched careers in the late ’80s to film, but now that I’m well into my 50’s, I’ve been drawn back into the classical music world as a consultant, board member etc etc. I was shocked to find that PR and marketing haven’t changed in 30 years! It’s the same old stuff: the long boring press releases, the semi-incomprehensible season brochures, the inane marketing campaigns that are STILL using the clichés we groaned at: “Celebration!” and one that was foisted on me by our ad agency in 1981: “Expect the unexpected!” Gawd.

    Facebook, websites, downloads, Twitter and e mail newsletters have lightly frosted the stale old cake of classical music PR & marketing, but it’s still dry and tasteless.

    Thanks, Galen, and amen to all of that. “Celebration”! You’re so right to single that out. “This year we celebrate Dvorak!” Does anyone care? Was the world just holding its breath, waiting for this celebration to happen? Seems like a fancy equivalent of the exclamation point people put at the end of their tweets, as if “Barnyard Symphony plays Rachmaninoff tonight!” was somehow more persuasive than “Barnyard Symphony plays Rachmaninoff tonight.” Without the exclamation point.

    Seems to me the real problem is that either the publicists don’t know what’s exciting about the things they publicize, or — could it be? — that there’s nothing to get excited about in the first place.

  8. Linda Fowler says

    I really can’t fault the “jes’ the facts” dignity of Olivia the Pig’s first release. When I began doing PR for an orchestra after 30 years as an arts journalist and editor, I fell back on what worked best for me in the newsroom: All the important info, up front, quickly. I gleaned what I needed from the first page; however, writers frequently found the bios and program descriptions essential guidelines for story development. With a shrinking populace of music writers with deep background — it’s more likely a news reporter who enjoys concert-going will be appointed a part-time critic at a regional paper — it becomes more imperative for publicists to provide clear, accurate picture of the concert/season/etc. in accessible language. This is also the type of release that an orchestra’s board and director expect to be sent under their banner.

    So I always send out a traditional release to cover the bases. (And to mollify crusty writers, yes, they do exist, who might smell amateurism in breezy e-mail pitches.) A significant portion of our subscribers read local papers that will print releases verbatim.

    That’s not to say I don’t follow releases with short synops and pitches to certain writers and critics, especially if I have a sense of their specialties and interests or know them personally. These e-mails tend to lapse into journospeak; to continue the barnyard metaphor, my board members would probably have a cow over the slightly irreverent, casual tone. But from my experience, writers want a no-nonsense assessment: What would attract people to this story, what kind of insights or interview subjects can I provide, and suggestions for story ideas, even if they require tying your organization into a larger trends or think piece involving other orchestras.

    There’s a lot to be excited about! I’m a former ink-stained wretch who’s amazed that weeks of work culminate in such a thing of beauty.

    Linda, as I’ve said elsewhere, the real test is what good any and all of this does. Is it attracting as many people to the events you publicize as a new approach would?

    It’s fascinating, to me, that you and others define success as — among other things — getting your releases printed in newspapers. But what good does that do? What interest does it truly create? How many people read the releases in the paper, and then say, “I’ve got to go to that concert!”

    As opposed to the number who might say that if everyone involved took a different approach.

  9. says

    I would totally go to a concert conducted by a pig. The writing of the press release wouldn’t even have to be particularly good.

    And Olvia, as we know, is a very special pig.

  10. says

    As a Youth Orchestra we struggle to get the same interest from press as professional Orchestras in the way of events and concerts, however we do have our USP in music education. I agree – write a short snappy paragraph or two in the body of the e-mail with a click through for more info (even just an attached pdf – make sure it’s not to large to be blocked from the e-mail inbox!). Make sure you have something to say – if you’re constantly just doing concerts no-one is going to be interested – they can read about those on listing sites and venue websites or in your brochure. In my experience Local Newspapers and Online media do often print press releases verbatim so it is worth taking a two pronged approach. And I know it’s time consuming but make sure you’re releases are tailored and personalised and a PHONE CALL goes a long way!