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Individual Letters: A Productive News Release Alternative :

Individual Letters: A Productive News Release Alternative

There’s little doubt that the simple news release is the single most common form of promotion. Releases are so common it’s tough to write one that stands out, but even if someone creates an interesting release, one has to ask: Is a news release the best way to reach the media?

We live in an increasingly streamlined society, one that’s computerized, refined, purified and in too many cases sterilized as well. News releases are part of our modern era, a form of mass communication that allows us to reach many reporters quickly and with minimal effort. In a word, news releases are “efficient.”

But is efficiency appropriate? Are there situations where being efficient is not the best strategy?

The ability to quickly move information from one location to another perhaps thousands of miles away is a remarkable feat, particularly in a historical context when entire centuries have been dominated by communication via messengers, drums, smoke and — who knows — maybe pigeons. Yet although the means of communication have been vastly altered by technology, the process of creating information remains an art. At some point, a live person must think up a concept, write the words, and produce the graphics that make communication worthwhile.

There is a fundamental conflict here. Journalists create customized work in an era of mass production. And promoters, for the most part, send standardized materials to journalists — a practice that’s the equivalent of mailing a paint-by-the-numbers kit to a fine artist.

The point is not that news releases should be banned (though there is a substantial body of opinion within the journalism community that would probably support such an idea), but rather that instances exist where the use of mass-produced news releases are inappropriate and unproductive.

Why is it wrong to sit down and write a letter to a reporter explaining why a story is worth covering? Since individual media outlets serve different audiences and typically offer a vast array of perspectives, why can’t promoters originate separate, customized letters for different journalists, letters that show why a particular subject will interest that reporter’s specific readers, listeners or viewers?

The idea of writing individual letters is a time-consuming and expensive proposition, one that greatly resembles work. But there are benefits that should not be overlooked.

In an era emphasizing email and mass communication, individual contact stands out. A letter writer is not only someone who is literate, but also someone who has invested time, thought and energy to communicate with a specific individual. In response, a journalist is likely to invest his or her time reading such missives, if only because they’re so rare.

Although writing individualized letters to journalists is attractive, many promoters are tempted to skip personalization and head for the nearest computer keyboard. Why not meld mailing lists with word-processing wizardry to produce computer-generated correspondence? One can readily produce individually-typed letters all day that are correctly spelled, devoid of typos and prepared by devices that do not tire, smoke, go out for lunch, or strike.

Computerized mailings, when properly done, offer the possibility of personalized letters without the drudgery of manual labor. Yet while computerized mailings are not a bad idea in theory, in practice something is often lost. Who among us has not received a “personalized” letter saying:

Dear Mr. Resident:

Yes MR. RESIDENT, we are sending this personal letter directly to you, MR. RESIDENT, because we know that green, healthy lawns are an important part of your lifestyle. Certainly you want the RESIDENT property to be the best-kept yard on the block and so we at Plague’s Lawn Service are now offering for a limited time only a tested, ten-point program . . . .

Writers of letters similar to the missive above apparently believe that form letters can be magically converted into personal correspondence through the repeated use of a recipient’s name. Nobody wrote to Mr. Resident individually; his name just popped up on a mailing list, perhaps because he lives in a certain zip code, subscribes to a particular magazine, or belongs to a given association. Surely recipients will wonder about the credibility of the letter writer’s product, service or idea if the letter itself is nothing more than a heavy-handed, outright sham.

In like fashion, letters to reporters often abuse computer technology. It’s tempting to lean back, press a button, and send out 200 identical letters. But when TV correspondents get letters explaining how a story will benefit “readers,” or city magazines are peppered with identically-worded letters to eight staffers, it’s obvious that button pressers are at work.

Using computers to generate personal letters may seem like a contradiction, but a well-written letter is a well written-letter, whether it’s produced with a computer or a pre-historic manual typewriter.

As alluring as computerization may appear, promoters should remember their goals. The ultimate purpose of letter writing is not to save time, but to gain coverage. If the choice is between mailing 100 computer-generated letters that look like they came off an assembly line, or mailing one letter written with a quill pen that will get results, practice your penmanship.

There’s no reason why a personalized letter cannot include a news release and background materials. Indeed, individualized cover letters will greatly enhance the value of such standardized materials precisely because they customize appeals.

As with news releases generally, no one guarantees that writing letters to journalists will result in coverage. But if you were a reporter, which will stand out more: Another cookie-cutter, look-alike news release or a letter from someone who made an effort to understand your audience and your needs?

© 1997, 1999, 2003 Peter G. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

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