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April 2002
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Breaking the Ice

How to write press releases that get your product or service into print.

By Martha Sullivan

Dog & Pony Show Secrets

Dog & Pony Show Secrets WANT to win the hearts, minds and ink of journalists who agree to meet with you for a demonstration of your new Widget? Here are secrets your colleagues might not even tell you:

1. Back to Basics: The number one mistake made by vendors is forgetting to tell the journalist what the product or service is or does, and why it is relevant to the legal market. Too many vendors skip to the most intricate details, leaving journalists struggling to figure out just exactly what the Widget 5.2 does. Don't put the journalist in the embarrassing position of having to ask you about basics. Remember, you live and breath every nuance of your product, but to the journalist, it's one of hundreds that he or she must try to understand, quickly. Likewise, don't be insulted if the journalist asks basic questions; he or she may know the answer but simply wants to hear your team articulate it.

2. Demos: Software demonstrations on laptops in cramped conference rooms or in busy tradeshow booths can be helpful or excruciating. Remember that screens can be difficult to see, especially for middle-aged, far-sighted writers. Only use demos or PowerPoint if they genuinely enhance your presentation, and are very short. Even for hardware demonstrations, pick your three strongest points to talk about. Let your press kit speak for the minutia. (Always show up with a comprehensive press kit.)

3. Less is More: The journalist is not a user (in most cases) and is interested in an overview, not detailed drill-downs. Know the publication, the type of articles it publishes, and tailor your presentation. A sales pitch to a potential purchaser is different than a press demo.

4. Ask, Don't Assume: Journalists aren't shy, if they want more information they will ask. You are always better off to come right out and ask if they'd like more details, rather than assume they want them and lose their attention.

5. Be Flexible: Don't expect (or try) to speak from a "canned script." Journalists are going to interrupt you, ask cynical questions, want to know about your competitors, challenge you, and take you "off track" of your presentation. This is actually a good sign. It means they are engaged and interested in your presentation.

6. Don't bring expensive presents: Journalists are not allowed to accept gifts of any significant value from vendors. You put them in an awkward position if you bring or send inappropriate presents. Likewise, do not fight over meal tabs. Many journalists are required by their employers to pay when they have meetings that include meals. Journalists are leery of any situation that could give any appearance that you are trying to persuade them -- subtly or otherwise -- with anything other than the merits of your product or service.

7. Watch Body Language: As you give your presentation, monitor your audience. Are you getting eye contact? Are they interacting with you, or thinking about dinner plans? Less is always more. If you are losing your audience, wrap up quickly, ask a question, or shift gears.

Be very careful about invading the journalists' personal space -- especially at cramped tables or booths. If you are standing too close or enthusiastically waving your hand in their face, they are not going to be paying attention to one word you are saying, they will plotting their escape. And good grooming goes without saying.

-- Monica Bay

1. Target: Get to know the publications in your industry and what they write about. Ask yourself why readers would be interested in your story. Find out who covers the relevant "beat," and how they like to be contacted. Some journalists only take e-mail pitches; others actually answer their phones. (They tend to be gruff on the phone, but don't let it scare you. Most are nice people in real life.) If you're dealing with a journalist who only covers law firm news in Idaho, don't bother to send your release about CLE seminars in Florida.

2. The five Ws: Editors expect your press release to start off with a paragraph that explains "who, what, why, where and when." Follow a "pyramid" format -- put the most important information first, with less important information in descending order.

3. Assume readers know nothing about your product or service: In plain English, describe who you are and what you do, without clichés or jargon. End every release with a paragraph about your company, including full name, address and contact numbers. Keep your perspective. Even though you believe that you have the most important product and company, don't over-inflate your importance in the market.

4. You have 10 seconds to grab the attention of the gatekeepers: Mail is usually opened by editorial assistants who screen it before it goes to senior editors. Your headline should summarize the heart of the release. Keep it brief and informative.

5. Quality, not quantity: If you "snow" journalists with too many press releases, they will automatically discard your material. Then, when you do have a valuable announcement, it will be ignored.

6. Style: Keep a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style by your computer. Refer to it. Often.

7. Spelling: Get a good dictionary and use it. When you can't think of a word, there's nothing quite like flipping through the pages and discovering words that will inspire you.

8. Quotes: Some people believe that C.E.O. quotes add strength and credibility to a press release. Unless it's an incredibly slow news day (week, month), it's extremely unlikely that your beautifully crafted and relevant quote will appear in print.

9. Avoid jargon: It renders your content meaningless and bland, and defeats the purpose of your press release, which is to distinguish your product or service from the others on the market. There may be an argument for the use of words such as "application" in certain contexts, but it's best to use words that simply and clearly describe what you're trying to offer the world.

Breaking the Ice 10. Don't substitute press releases for other marketing activities: Sometimes, it's more appropriate to use advertising or direct mail to deliver your message to the right audience. (For example, if you want to invite every I.P. attorney in Chicago to a seminar.) Publications won't run an "announcement" for an event that is obviously designed only to generate revenue for your company. Journalists know the difference between news and advertising and they don't like to receive press releases that are thinly disguised advertising.

Martha Sullivan is the owner of Thornton Marketing, a strategic marketing and communications firm in San Rafael, Calif.

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