The press release is such a fixture of PR work that outsiders can be forgiven for thinking that the term PR is actually short for press release, rather than public relations. Over-use has made press releases into exercises in formula writing, rather than creativity.
So I was surprised this morning when I came across a press release that made me question everything about press releases.
First, you have to understand this release was written by an organization not often recognized for its creativity: The Federal Government of the United States of America.
But it gets even stranger. The press release wasn’t written by an Obama administration staffer poached from the staff of of a Madison Avenue ad firm. It was written for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January of 1921.
Let’s start with the headline:
World’s Greatest Animal Criminal Dead.
Straight to the point, but creating more questions than it answers. This is the best click-bait headline, written decades before the internet.
Now onto the opening paragraphs:
We get our facts of who, what, where and why all right here, but we also get a highly readable dose of hyperbole. Just read the descriptions in the paragraph that starts “For nine years…”. Perfect.
Another paragraph describes how the wolf eluded capture for so long:
Rather than taking the direct, just the facts approach, the writer sets up the villain as a complex creature that defies simple classification and evokes emotions in all. There is nothing formulaic here. It reads like a novel or a very well-written feature article, not a modern press release.
As we move further along in the release, we get an introduction to a new storyteller, who was in direct contact with the hunter:
Nowadays PR professionals carefully craft “quotes” for executives that are so sterile that they have no meaning. “We are very please about X and will continue to strive toward Y.” They forget that in order to make the quote meaningful and useful to a reporter, it must move the story along, be something that only that particular speaker could say, and be interesting. What could be more interesting than hearing from someone deeply involved in the story?
And later we hear from the hunter himself, as he recalls the wolf’s final moments in in plain but descriptive language:
For startups, following old formulas only cements the status quo. Every day, startups and SMEs clog tech reporters’ inboxes with press releases that read as if they come from giant corporations that replaced their PR teams with primitive AI algorithms.
Just as with their business models, if startups want to stand out in PR they need to be brave and try things that others dare not do. Perhaps that bravery could start with writing entertaining press releases.
A few notes:
- Special thanks to This American Life for brining this press release to my attention. Make sure to listen to episode 582 of their podcast, entitled, “When the Beasts Come Marching In”.
- You can read the full press release, now hosted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, as a PDF on their website.
- Finally, the hunting and near extinction of wolves on the American frontier in the 19th and 20th centuries was misguided and does not fit the current model for wildlife conservation. This post is intended neither as an endorsement nor an indictment of killing wolves or any other wild animals. There’s certainly something we can learn from the press release, though.