This guest post is by Michele C. Hollow of Pet News and Views
Journalists and bloggers are doing double duty these days. With massive layoffs and fewer staff, many are publishing press releases word-for-word. It’s been nicknamed churnalism. It’s when we get a little sloppy and use press releases as our own words.
As a freelance journalist and blogger who covers pets and wildlife, I get the same press releases as other pet and wildlife bloggers. I’ve often seen the same press release appear on different pet blogs. What’s wrong with this is that it doesn’t set our blogs apart, and what’s worse is that press releases always praise a product, person, or company. The press release on the dog-friendly hotel never talks about size and weight restrictions for dogs. (Some hotels only welcome small and medium sized dogs.) Or the release about cat food fails to talk about a recent recall. Usually press releases are one sided—and that point of view doesn’t tell the whole story.
A while back, I received a press release about a new organic human grade dog food created by a husband and wife team. The wife was feeding her husband dog food for one month to launch the product and they were raising money to fight canine cancer. I didn’t want to run their press release verbatim, so I called up the wife and started asking questions. I found out that they were also going to serve the food at a local upscale restaurant, and that the chef was pairing their dog food with different wines. I got a fun blog post from that interview, and my story was different from the others who ran the press release.
An easy out
A colleague of mine is working with a company that has 11 web sites. He complains that 80 percent of the copy on each of them use recycled press releases. He writes more than a dozen stories a week—many where copy gets pulled from press releases.
Public relations people love it when you run their press releases word-for-word. Unfortunately, you are not serving your readers.
As a freelance journalist and blogger, I have written hard news stories, features, and have gone over to the other side (public relations) to write press releases. The money over there is better. And as a journalist, I like getting press releases. Many fuel ideas for future stories. I do hold the line on printing press releases word-for-word. As a blogger, I cover animal welfare, pet care and people who work with and on behalf of animals. Pet and wildlife bloggers are a growing niche. There are thousands of us, and the same can be said of other niche blogs.
How to use a press release
If the press release seems like it would make an interesting post, look for a different angle. I may call or email the contact on the press release with questions.
Depending on the story, I may contact other experts to broaden the scope of the post. I just wrote a story that started from a press release about the negative effects the TNR (Trap Neuter Return) policy has on the environment. The Wildlife Society is against TNR programs. I’ve been hearing about this for a long while—and not just from The Wildlife Society. Veterinarians, wildlife professionals, and many birders deeply dislike feral cats.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to cover this point of view. I love all animals, and cats are at the top of my list. Still, I thought I should explore this fairly. I contacted The Wildlife Society and got quotes on why they are against TNR. Since this is a blog, I told my readers my side of the story. And because I love cats so much and disagree with The Wildlife Society’s point of view, I ran a follow up—this time with quotes and data from Best Friends Animal Society and Alley Cat Allies supporting TNR.
Thinking like a journalist and blogger
As a journalist, I need to present well balanced stories. Since it’s a blog, my opinions are often evident. Still, I think it is essential to get the entire picture. So, I email contacts and call them too. I usually start out by coming up with a list of questions. That has always been easy for me; maybe because I can be nosey.
If you have trouble doing this, go online and read other stories. Check out your favorite blogs and see if you can come up with a different angle on a story that you have enjoyed reading. Then ask yourself questions about the story. Is there more information that you would like to read? What questions are forming in your mind? Write them down.
Use the press releases; just don’t run them word-for word. Write your list of questions. If you have trouble coming up with them, talk to a colleague or friend. It’s easy to email questions to the people you interview. This way they can write down their answers and send them back to you.
At the end of all of my interviews, I always ask, “Is there anything we didn’t cover that you want to mention?” This is a good way to make sure you are not missing anything important.
I also like the person-to-person interview. When you are talking to someone, other thoughts and comments come up. This always leads to more information that is not covered in a press release. Personal interviews also build stronger connections. Many of the folks I’ve interviewed read, subscribe and comment on my blog.
Have you used press releases to create blog posts? How did you do it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Michele C. Hollow is a journalist who writes the blog Pet News and Views. Her blog covers animal welfare, pet care, and profiles people who work with and on behalf of animals. She is also the author of “The Everything Guide to Working with Animals.”