Friday, September 26, 2008

Toxic showers & media buzz words

They may not respond to every pitch, but take heart publicists, apparently The New York Times is paying attention to our press release headers. In a story that ran earlier this summer (hey, it's been a busy summer), titled NeedPress? Repeat: 'Green,' 'Sex,' 'Cancer,' 'Secret,' 'Fat', Joanne Kaufman explores the power of buzz words in press release headlines.

The backdrop of the article is a case study on the "toxic shower curtain" story. You remember that one, right?

To the horror of soccer moms around the country, various media outlets, including U.S. News & World Report, New York Daily News, and The Los Angeles Times, reported that the thin plastic sheet dangling from shower rods around the country was actually a curtain of death.

From Kaufman's story:

"There was a news conference, this release said, at New York University Medical Center. It was led by a doctor representing an obscure if official-sounding group that few people have heard of, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. There were revelations about how shower curtains that are 'routinely sold at multiple retail outlets' and can 'release as many as 108 volatile chemicals into the

Thus, the Toxic Shower Curtain Story was born."

Kaufman's question--"How do stories of this ilk get such bounce from major news organizations?" She continues:

"Those who make their living composing news releases say there is an art to this easily dismissed craft. Strategic word selection can catapult an announcement about a study, a product or a "breakthrough" onto the evening news instead of to its usual destination — the spam folder or circular file.

"P.R. people want to invest time in things that are going to get picked up, so they try to put something to the 'who cares?' and 'so what?' test," said Kate Robins, a longtime public relations consultant. "If you say something is first, most, fastest, tallest — that's likely to get attention. If you can use words like 'money,' 'fat,' 'cancer' or 'sex,' you're likely to get some ink in the general
audience media."

I'm a big proponent of the 'so what' test, but publicists that are email pitching know that words like 'money' and 'sex' are more likely to land you in the spam filter than anything else.

So, what buzz words do work for publicists? Like everything else in PR, it depends on who you're targeting. It can be argued that, these days, "economy" should be next to each category below and indeed that's the topic that is dominating coverage from just about every angle right now. That said, buzz words are always relevant, even if issues like the economy/hurricane ike/presidential election temporarily dominate
the headlines. If anything, buzz words are what HELP authors stand out above all the "economy" chatter.

Here are some buzz words--besides the economy--that are turning heads:

National media: politics, green-living/eco-friendly, foreclosure, gas prices(ie: "at the pump"), Obama, McCain, Palin

Pop culture media: mommy bloggers, facebook, any current celebrity: Madonna, Miley Cyrus, etc.

Business media: entreprenuers, four-day work week, desk rage, foreclosure

Literary media: Twilight series, Stephanie Meyer, vampires

(Side note--we're eagerly looking for credentialed economists with
good books. If you have one, send me a note. We're also looking to work with Stephanie Meyer.)

On the flipside, what doesn't work?

Kaufman correctly points out that the best publicists are often former journalists because they know what "grates on the Fourth Estate." She mentions that Tom Gable, who runs a PR firm in San Diego and was once the business editor of The San Diego Union Tribune, "has compiled a list of words that will do a news release no good whatsoever, like "solutions," "leading edge," "cutting edge," "state of the art," "mission critical," and "turnkey."

So, let's review what we've learned:

The worst headline imaginable would read something like this: "Cutting edge company offers state of the art turnkey solutions for mission critical tasks" According to the article, this is something Mr. Gable would say is "empty, unsubstantiated and had no news value."

The best headline? "World's fastest, tallest cancer survivor is the first to trash toxic shower curtain en route to slimmer waistline." I'm off to pitch that one before the weekend.

Publicists: We'd love to hear what buzz words you're noticing lately. Chime in with comments, and add to our list!

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