The issues – focus on the issues

Old Labour stalwart Tony Benn was famous for his insistent focus on the issues. He never had any time for all the froth and hype around personalities or the daily tittle tattle of gossip. Whether or not they agreed with his politics, almost all agreed that he was a serious player who was interested in really making a difference to the lives of those he represented.

Now this isn’t just a general ramble on twentieth century politicians. It has a point….

I thought about Tony Benn in a training session I was running yesterday for some bright and experienced agency PR folk. They had come from consumer backgrounds and were struggling to get coverage in the trade and business press. So, their HR Manager had called me in.

We looked through some of the press releases they were putting out. We talked about the problems they were having. It soon emerged that they were doing what many consumer PRs do when they turn their hands to B2B PR – they were issuing releases about product features, company news, and so on, and were “making it more B2B” by dressing it up in technical language and business-speak.

The problem of course is that trade and business journalists by and large aren’t interested in hearing about the success of company A. They aren’t interested in hearing about allegedly great new products from company B, the latest exciting new hire by company C, or yet another strategic alliance between companies X and Z. And they certainly aren’t interested in hearing about it when it’s described in technical language that the writer doesn’t really understand and then padded out with meaningless business-speak.

Yet this is what so many press releases contain. The examples I worked with yesterday were by no means the worst I’ve seen. The people I was working with are intelligent people who know how to write and who represent some of the UK’s largest consumer brands. They just weren’t nailing it for this particular market.

So, we talked about what trade and business journalists do want. They want press releases that are clearly written, where it’s easy to quickly grasp the story (that doesn’t by the way mean jamming it all into the opening paragraph). And they want the issues. They want to know what this news means for their readers, what trends it reveals about the market, what broader lessons can be drawn from this experience. We talked about how to frame press releases in those terms so that they also promote their clients. We looked at how to apply this theory to their press releases.

It was a fun session. I always enjoy working with clever people who just need a few tweaks to start looking at their work in an entirely fresh way – there’s always that moment where you can see in their eyes that they’ve got it.

And what’s more it reminded me of Tony Benn and his insistence on the issues. As I made my way home I remembered the time, more than 15 years ago, when I saw him speak. Leaning on the lecturer’s podium, hundreds of rapt eyes focused on him, he shook his pipe at us, a twinkle in his eye, and told us that we should “never get distracted, always focus on the issues, the issues”. He was absolutely right, and he’s still absolutely right – because of course he’s still very much with us – it is the issues that matter.

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