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Don't believe the hype

Journalist Sean McManus shows you how to work with press releases

It's a battle of wits.

On one side: our intrepid reporter, dedicated to the truth and trusted by readers to filter out extravagant claims and lies.

On the other side:an army of public relations representatives, paid to fight for space in the magazine and desperate to get good coverage.

I wouldn't say they'd actually lie to you. But the truth is pretty stretchy stuff...

Here are a few pointers on what they'll try to sneak past you...

The one and only

Manufacturers want readers to think that their widget is special and only they can supply it. Beware of these words:

  • unique - Everything is unique if you examine it closely enough. Is it unique in a way that matters? Painting it blue might make it unique.
  • only - see unique
  • first - if it really is the first, it's a better story, but it's often used by PR people to mean 'unique for now' where unique means 'blue'.
  • patented - Nearly every company patents nearly everything and indistinguishable products can be covered by different patents. Readers rarely care.
  • proprietary - implies non-standard, which isn't a good thing.
  • Trade Mark™ and Registered Trademark® - publications will have their own style on this but most just delete these words and symbols after product names. It's just the company trying to say 'we own this product name' and symbols like that trip up the reader and make the text harder to read. They also draw the eye, which companies love.

The very best

Companies would love it if you would praise their products in print too without thinking. Ever seen posters for films that say "Sensational! - The Local Newspaper" only to realise afterwards that the local newspaper didn't even see the film before writing the story?

It happens in business press too. A widget is described in the press release as 'unique', Widget Trade Magazine lets it slip through into a brief news story. The manufacturer's annual reports say "We've seen a lot of success this year with Widget Trade Magazine describing our new widget as 'unique'."

Here are some words that PR people pepper their releases with, which you should usually delete. This could become a long list, and I welcome suggestions, but for now beware of:

  • best
  • state-of-the-art - should be deleted anyway because it's an ugly phrase
  • popular - can you believe they'll even describe an engine as popular?
  • acclaimed - by whom?
  • well-loved - by whom?
  • legendary
  • luxury - where used to mean 'expensive' (eg, luxury car).
  • quality
  • seamless
  • complete, entire, accurate - is that a claim or the truth?
  • award-winning - say what award it's won if it's relevant

The leaders

Leading companies do not have to tell you or your readers that they are leading companies. You know already. Beware of:

  • leading (market-leading, industry-leading)
  • spearheading - where used to suggest they're leading something they might not be
  • innovative - just say what they've made
  • inventive - likewise
  • best-selling - is that for the company, or across the industry? Get independent figures
  • groundbreaking
  • revolutionary - oh, please. If everything that is called revolutionary really was we'd be holidaying on Mars by now
  • breakthrough - where they mean 'product launch'

Stating the obvious

Quotes bring life to stories, but very rarely do press releases supply quotes that you can use. Officials quoted in press releases rarely surprise. The typical reaction of the journalist - and the reader if by some lapse of attention the quote gets into print - is 'well, they would say that, wouldn't they?'. Look out for these:

  • Companies always win contracts 'against stiff competition'. It makes them sound better than saying the competition was a pushover.
  • People are always 'delighted to be working with...'
  • Companies working together always have 'complementary strengths'. Go into detail or go in the bin.

I've told you a million times...

not to exaggerate. But still they do. My favourite real example:

  • 'pin-point accuracy' for an in-car navigation system that lets you key in an address and then gives you directions to get there. So that would be accurate to a millimetre over 100 miles? Unlikely even if your car could stop that precisely.

It might seem like nit-picking, but when a story (or worse still a publication) is peppered with meaningless claims that sound good, it undermines the whole thing. If it's not true, don't state it as fact.

Further examples:

  • infinitely-configurable - if only we had infinite time to test it

Vaguely speaking

Be careful with words that sound like a description, but are really just a marketing claim. They've been planted because they encourage people to buy without imposing any burden on the marketer to supply any proper information. Quantify or discard:

  • compact, small, tiny, lightweight
  • big, huge, massive, heavy
  • fast, rapid, quick, speedy, immediate, prompt, instant
  • slow
  • new - for a slow-moving company new might mean the last few months but for a daily news service yesterday is history.
  • recently - always means 'ages ago' otherwise they wouldn't mind giving you the exact date
  • easy - products are always said to be easy to use, easy to install and so on.
  • user-friendly, simple
  • powerful
  • virtually - means 'nearly' or better still 'not'. For example 'works in virtually every country' conceals the truth that 'it doesn't work in some countries'.
  • up to - where most people experience a much lower performance than that quoted
  • starting at - of prices, where you'll have to pay a good deal more to get anything worthwhile
  • over - where 'available in over 13 colours' means 'available in 14 colours'

Take care too with rough numbers and estimates. Look out for:

  • nearly, about, approximately - is 750 nearly 1000? How about 950? That's still 5% off.

Testing it out

There was a story on Wired News (link no longer live) claiming that a program said to filter pornographic images by looking at them was bogus. The technology was supposed to be able to identify obscene images using sophisticated artificial intelligence to analyse the picture. Wired reported that its tests found that the software rejected most images irrespective of their content. By then, the software had already been praised by several publications and independent websites. The implication is that they hadn't tested it properly before endorsing the software house's claims by republishing them as fact.

You can't test and double-check everything - if you're writing for industrial magazines, you won't have the time, space or expertise to start reviewing machinery in depth. But you can make sure your article reads true by differentiating what you say from what the company says.

It might not turn out to be true that the product can do all they say it can, but it is certainly true that they said it can do it.

Here's an example:


Jones & Co is launching a new IEEE 802.1 compliant widget destined to capture half the market share in five years. "This product revolutionises the industry," says managing director Jim Jones. "It's a unique concept in widget usability and durability."

The product is fully waterproof to 50Feet and can operate in temperatures as high as 90°C.

The product is released 1 August.

And this is how you might write up some of the claims in that press release, in a rough order of increasing doubt:

  • Jones & Co says that its new product complies fully with IEEE standard 802.1 and that it will be available to ship in August.
  • According to Jones & Co, the widget can withstand temperatures of 90°C
  • The company claims that the product is waterproof to 50 Feet
  • Jones & Co believes the product will capture 50% market share in five years

If they've built a product, it's fair to say that they've tested it and they wouldn't want to mislead the customers. Their PR claims are probably true most of the time. But it's important readers can tell the difference between a company claiming its product works in a certain way, and you as an independent reporter saying it does.

A final note

It's hard to imagine things working any other way. A company would look weak if it said 'we think we'll launch in August' or 'we think we're leading the industry'. Any successful business sees itself as a leader that makes decisions and abides by them (although, unfortunately, 'circumstances beyond their control' sometimes stop things working out).

PR people are just doing their job of showing their client in their best possible light in the same way that you might present yourself at a job interview.


© Sean McManus. All rights reserved.

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