Some time ago, we ran an informal survey among journalists/media/writers/editors in the games industry about their experiences with PR. Our motive was quite simple: to suck less… and to help other PR reps suck less. We’re releasing our findings in a series of posts called, collectively, the “PR Embetterment Campaign.” I know “embetterment” isn’t a word. You’re not a word. Don’t tell me what’s a word.

Ah, press releases. The very term sends shivers down my spine – equal measures of regret and shame, satisfaction and pride. For the PR practitioner, the press release is an entity of conflicting emotions: on one hand, a vital tool of corporate communication; on the other, a source of so much ire from those members of the media we seek to woo on a daily basis. The press release is perhaps the purest form of “public relations”: it contains the exact message the company intends to convey. No more, no less. It may, at the same time, be the most useless piece of crap that was ever crapped from the fabled giant Crapmonster of Crapland.

In this installment of the PR Embetterment Campaign, I’ll share some of the insights we received from media about what they like and don’t like about press releases, while injecting some of our own experiences with the medium. Onward, brave adventurer!

Cut the Crap

You know, I was a bit surprised by how many media types actually tolerate or — gasp — even *like* press releases. Again, in theory, they should be useful: they’re meant to provide a summary of an interesting event or other newsworthy occurrence, with all of the pertinent details that would help someone on the press side write a story that would be interesting to their audience. Sounds great! Let’s look at this in practice.

Here are two sentences I just made up about a news event that never happened:

Sentence 1: GameStud, the award-winning developer of the genre-defining “Hairbraider III: Escape from Shampoo Palace”, announces its latest groundbreaking effort, “Fantasycraft: Screams of the Damned Fairy King”, a revolutionary new role-playing experience with a unique, haunting story plucked from the imaginative mind of acclaimed author, Ludwig van Heldergast.

Sentence 2: GameStud, developer of “Hairbraider III: Escape from Shampoo Palance,” announces its latest project, “Fantasycraft: Screams of the Damned Fairy King”, a role-playing game in which you’ll guide a team of fairytale creatures in demanding tactical combat through a haunting world created by author Ludwig van Heldergast.

Both sentences convey similar info: GameStud is making a new RPG with a story from this Ludwig fellow. Sentence 1 is laden with hyperbole — all sorts of adjectives that make it sound more like marketing copy, and which ultimately mean that it takes the reader longer to figure out what you’re actually trying to tell them.

Sentence 2 happens to also provide a little more insight into what makes the game interesting — namely, the tactical combat with fairytale creatures. In one (shorter) sentence, we’re able to tell the reader that this is a game from a known developer, that it’s an RPG with tactical combat, and that it has a story from a recognized author. Does the inclusion of terms like “award-winning”, “genre-defining” or “groundbreaking” make Sentence 1 more informative? Let’s face it: if people don’t know who GameStud or Ludwig van Heldergast are, they’re not going to care how many adjectives you put in there to help upsell their importance.

The abundance of buzzwords and marketing text was among media’s biggest problems with press releases, but the idea of writing a press release without trying to really sell every element is likely to cause anxiety attacks in most PR reps. After all, much of the pressure to include that language comes from above: executives who read a press release and say, “this just doesn’t get me very excited.” Well, shit. A bit of a conundrum, huh?

A Question of Audience

Much of the issue here is that executives, PR and media likely all have different ideas of what makes a good press release. To the executive, it’s something that makes their company sound great… to shareholders and, I suppose, all those people who surf the PR Newswire archives (Pro Tip: nobody outside of the media, other than some failed PR rep who’s sitting on a stack of AdAge back issues and tending to a flock of cats in his disheveled home, is actually sitting around and reading whole press releases).

Media simply want the news; they want an understanding of what’s happened and what makes that important to their audience. The PR rep is somewhere in between: they need to keep execs happy while ensuring that media will actually read the announcement and care. If you’re an indie dev, you have the ridiculously awesome advantage of not having to care about the executive. As such, your audience is the media. Their audience is, for the most part, the game-buying public. So when you’re thinking about what will make an announcement interesting to the media, you’ll want to think about what makes it interesting to gamers. And — ta da! — if you’re a gamer yourself, try to figure out what makes the news interesting to you.

Would you care about the press release you just sent? Does the mere existence of your game — perhaps from an unknown developer, based on a new IP nobody’s ever heard of — stir the imagination of the most jaded gamer? (And boy, are gamers jaded). As such….

Get to the Damn Point

All of the fluff, and hyperbole simply gets in the way of that magical beast known as “The Point.” In previous installments, I’ve mentioned that media have a finite amount of time and a nearly infinite number of press releases, news blasts, asset packs, review copies, etc. to suck that precious time away. They may receive — no joke — hundreds of press releases in a given day… why should they read yours?

Thankfully, most respected editors will actually give every piece of news a chance, but only if you give them reason to. It starts with the headline. It’s your first and sometimes only chance to capture a reader’s attention, so make it interesting; make that reader want to open it to read more. If you’re an unknown developer, simply saying, “GameStud Announces ‘Fairycraft'” does absolutely nothing… seriously, not a thing. You may luck out and have some friendly editors check it out because they’re nice like that. For most, however, that’s an email that won’t even jiggle the excite-o-meter a little bit.

Beyond the headline, in my experience, you have about two sentences, tops, to get your point across. Condense all of your important information into these few sentences… to me, an ideal press release would actually only consist of these two sentences. Crazy talk, I know. But if you can convey all of the relevant information about your news event — what’s happened, why it’s important, to whom it’s relevant, and when it’s happening — you’re set. If you’ve announced something that’s truly newsworthy and interesting, you’ll now be able to get people to read the rest of the announcement… or maybe you’ve already given them enough information to want to follow up and/or cover your news.

Quote Me… Or Not. No, Maybe Don’t.

The information that fills the rest of the press release will consist of more gameplay details, story info, additional explanations of events and so on. I’m tempted to suggest that, as long as it provides more info on what you’ve said in your opening paragraph, you can put pretty much anything in here. However, one element that’s almost always found in press releases — particularly from more “corporate” companies — is the quote, or a collection of quotes, intended to share the personal feelings of someone involved with the announcement. But across the board, I think it’s pretty safe to say that these quotes are just more fluff that no respected journalist would consider putting into a news story.

Yes, we expect that the CEO will be happy to announce a partnership… otherwise why enter into a partnership? Yes, it’s great that the publisher’s business development VP thinks this game will have groundbreaking visuals sure to satisfy the needs of new and existing fans. There’s nothing interesting in here… this may, of course, be the case because that individual didn’t actually write that quote, as it was actually carefully crafted by the PR team to align perfectly with everything else said earlier in the press release. In fact, quotes will often simply reiterate what’s already been said, but maybe with a few more buzzwords that the PR rep didn’t want to include in the press release copy itself. Sigh.

If you’re going to include a quote, make it valuable. Start by attributing the quote to someone who actually wrote it, and then make sure it conveys something that isn’t found elsewhere in the announcement. Share an actual opinion. Talk about the individual’s experiences with the game that made it special.

Or just don’t include a quote, and leave the personal touches for an interview.

Vital Info

There’s certain info that you’ll want to include, regardless of what you’re announcing:

  • Contact info
  • Publisher and developer information
  • A link to media assets or a media FTP
  • Release date
  • Pricing
  • Ratings (if you have an ESRB or PEGI rating, for example)
  • Platforms

We changed our email templates last year to reflect a lot of this information in a side bar. It doesn’t take away from the announcement, while ensuring that if media need the info, it’s there.

A Little Personality Goes A Long Way

Most PR reps, I think, include a brief intro for each media blast/press release they send out. In a lot of cases, it’s a simple, “Hey, check out the news below and let me know if you have any questions!” — it’s nice, but the intro can also be a place to provide some more value to the reader. In some cases, our casual intro is really the entirety of an announcement; if we’re sending out screenshots, and that’s all we’re sending… well, why can’t we just say, “Hey, we have some new screenshots. Grab them here!”? Soooooo… we can and do.

A lot of the media we heard from thought that press releases were largely devoid of personality. Even if you’re stuck distributing overtly corporate press releases, that intro can be your wonderful little happy place in which you inject your own personality and, maybe, help you “get to the damn point” once more. Very recently, we started using our casual intros as a way of summarizing news in ways that we might not be able to within the body of the press release. For example, if we’re working on a game from an unknown developer, we can speak in a more casual tone about why media should care. “We’ve been playing this game non-stop since we got builds, completely hooked by the multiplayer” is something we might write in a casual intro, but which would have no place in a formal announcement.

Or would it? I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that there is no “right way” to write a press release nowadays. So many games get buzz without ever having a press release written about them. The key is finding an audience and making that audience care about your game, and whether you’re pitching media or gamers or publishers, it’s nice to know that we work in an industry where passion for our jobs and the medium is prevalent. Almost everyone in the videogame industry is a gamer (or should be), so the most important thing to understand about your game or your news event or your screenshots is: Why should anyone care? If you have a good answer, promote that. You’ll get fans, you’ll get coverage, and you’ll be able to share your passion with the world.

We’re just trying to give you a better chance of succeeding. And hell, if you don’t want to think about any of this, you can always get in touch with us. We’re happy to help however we can.

Have questions about press releases? Are you a PR rep who thinks I’m totally nuts and wants to argue the merits of a standard press release format? Media who thinks press releases rock? Comment or something, yo.

Previous Installments in the PR Embetterment Campaign:

Games Media’s Biggest Pet Peeves, Part 1
Games Media’s Biggest Pet Peeves, Part 2

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