Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Researcher Finds Complaints against Press Releases Are Justified

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Researcher Finds Complaints against Press Releases Are Justified

Article excerpt

FOR THREE DECADES editors have complained of press releases that public relations practitioners produce and distribute to you in towering piles.

Like most practitioners, I have preferred to believe that your complaints were based more on bias against us than on weaknesses in our press releases but, after studying releases for a decade, I admit you have cause for complaining.

As early as 1961, you were advising researchers, and probably any public relations practitioner who would listen, to: keep releases short; include a photograph; refrain from sending a release to the same publication too often; and make sure that releases actually contain an element of news.

Seven years later, you told another researcher that you rejected releases primarily for three basic reasons: They were not localized enough to be readily usable in your individualized communities; they were propagandistic and heavily slanted; you lacked space enough to include them.

Twenty years later, in 1981, you were still complaining. You told one researcher that releases: were not localized; were not newsworthy; were too long and cumbersome; contained too much puffery; arrived too late; and were written poorly.

You complained to another researcher about: out-of-date mailing lists; missing information; illiteracy; lack of localization; blanket mailings; and releases that were written more for clients than for journalists.

You have probably concluded that nobody has been listening. For the most part, you are right. A few researchers have listened, but have not generally helped your cause.

For instance, a researcher who surveyed your opinions in 1976 also statistically analyzed your publication decisions. He noted that you reported rejecting releases because: They were unworthy of reporting; they duplicated information already received; they read too much like an advertisement; and they had "style or presentational problems."

Yet he concluded from his analysis that distance between your paper and the source of the release accounted for most of your decisions. He also found that length of the release and the practitioner's relationship with you influenced your decisions. He found no relationship between the writing style or news elements in releases and your decisions.

Then other practitioners and I concluded from his research that your publication decisions are based more on bias than on the release criteria you have long complained against. Now, after 10 years of researching press release publications, I reject that conclusion.

I have tested three of your complaints and have found support for them. Releases are usually written in a complicated style, are seldom localized, and are frequently not newsworthy. Let us look at this support, one complaint at a time.

Complaint one:

Releases are poorly written

Releases are generally poorly written. That is no surprise to you. You have been telling us that all along. However, as a practitioner I preferred to dismiss your complaints as being without merit.

As a researcher, it took me a while to determine a way to test writing style quantitatively. (Quantitatively means with numbers that can be statistically tested.) The way has been around since the 1940's. Rudolf Flesch's reading ease formula does a good job of testing the criteria that we in journalism use to judge good writing. It considers length of sentences, words and paragraphs, and the percentage of active-voice sentences. The scores produced by the formula provide a quantitative estimate of writing style quality.

Numerous readability studies have been conducted on newspaper copy. They indicate that newspaper journalists write sentences between 14 and 26 words. Your average sentence length is 22 words, and your average word length is 1.5 syllables. You write less than 6% of your sentences in passive voice. Your readers with an 11th grade education can read and understand your copy. …

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