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What the Hell is a Press Kit?



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Six Secrets of Simply Stupendous Press Kits

Now that you've hissed your way through that sibilant headline, let me just say I feel your migraine. But that's nothing compared to the temple-pounder that was induced when an independent consultant sent me his new press kit. As a rule, the marketing aim of any press kit is to inspire enough interest in you and your business that media types and potential clients (1) remember you, and (2) want to know more. A press kit should be a package designed to rock their professional world. But this particular effort, presented to me by a smart guy with a first-class reputation and a solid track record, produced none of those good business-building vibes. It did a brodie instead.

For starters, his PR kit sported an excessively elaborate trifold cover made from paper stock so weighty you could pave roads with it. Maybe that heft was intended to convey solidity, strength, and endurance (your guess is as good as mine), but the whole thing overachieved in an unfortunate way. The cover design was a clutter of fussy abstract shapes and complex cutouts, topped off by an annoying little tab closure you had to fool with to get inside. Once I finally pushed past that obstacle, my gloomiest fears were confirmed. The kit was crammed to within an inch of its life with reprints and bios and photos. "Oh my!" I thought, "It'll take me days to excavate through those piles." Which is probably why the sender had marked certain key quotes and paragraphs in bilious acid green or tangerine highlighter. And reading the consultant's accompanying ultra-formal cover letter was like eating a lemon. By the end, all I wanted to know was: "Why would anybody contrive a press kit as lousy as this one?"

Fortunately, not all press kits are disasters. In fact, if done well, they can be real assets. Press kits are relatively inexpensive ways to get you noticed -- perfect for creative but fiscally challenged freelancers. With an average price of $5,000, they're way cheaper than most forms of advertising. Pick any issue of PR News, an international weekly newsletter published by Phillips Business Information for public relations pros. You'll find oodles of case studies and stories like the one from last year about Opus Event Marketing, a Richmond, Va.-based firm. To announce the opening of its new office in Manhattan, Opus sent out tiny tubs of Play-Doh as part of a creative but inexpensive (total cost: $300) "Let's Play in New York" campaign. A short and snappy backgrounder accompanied the cans of goo. The creative gambit netted Opus a bunch of calls from trade reporters and at least one personal note from a journalist who happened to be a Play-Doh prodigy in his early years. Another industry magazine, Marketing News, ran a story about wildly successful cowboy-themed press kits. Each came complete with a bullwhip, to "whip business into shape." The client, a software maker, was launching (what else?) a new accounting program. The price? Less than $2,000.

Of course, getting noticed doesn't guarantee you'll get the work or the orders, but it's a fantabulous start. When you have something to say and something to sell, a press kit can be the perfect way to get a media campaign off the ground. Even counting the Internet and email, press kits are still a bedrock marketing tool, as anybody who's ever had to flog a book or plug a movie knows. They're immediate and in your face -- and if they're clever and compelling, they'll slice right through information overload. Here, then, are six secrets of stupendous press kits.

1.  Substance. I'm all for high-concept, high-style. Ask anyone who's seen my shoes. But a fancy-schmancy press kit won't fool anybody if you're all hat, no cattle. People might start wondering why you piled on all that rococo. Hiding something? Is there substance lurking in that wedding cake of a press release, or not?

Remember that the number of press kits that journalists and media pros see in a year would stretch to Jupiter and back. Make yours stand out by cooling it on the flounces and flourishes; instead, call attention to the substance. Put together a list of "Frequently Asked Questions" to cover the product or service you want to promote. Write out the top ten questions and answers about your product or service. Limit questions to a single sentence and answers to a paragraph; take some time with this, because you're going to hear them over and over again. Make sure they're the best ones. When you're satisfied, print a bunch of copies of your FAQs and stick them in your press kit folder, which you then deliver into the waiting hands of interviewers and journalists. They'll adore you forever, because you've saved them a godawful lot of time (they won't have to sweat it thinking up something brilliant to ask you about) and you made them look good (nobody wants to blow it). Bonus: When you're on the hot seat, you'll be cool as a cucumber.

2.  Selectivity. Target your package to a particular audience, like the trade press or senior executives in high-tech firms. This is one time a scattershot approach won't do you any good, which is to say, don't send your stuff off to Time or People, and don't waste your time spreading the word in anonymous chat rooms. Think narrowband: in 25 words or less, describe what you hope to achieve with this press kit of yours. Who should be aware of your product and your business? What industry publications would most likely be interested?

3.  Story. Once I went to an opera that was billed as a total artistic triumph. But the production flunked the simplest test: no melody! You couldn't hum a single short string of notes on your way out, because nothing hung together. The show, despite the enormous artistic talent that produced it, was a sundry bag of atonal avant-garde confusion. Keep the chaos out of your press kit. Your PR kit should, right off the top, tell an illustrative story that people will remember and can repeat. And repeat. People remember stories much more readily than the same points stated abstractly. Stories stick. Start there.

4.  Surprise. Most PR kits, truth be told, are simply boring. Dull. Dull. Dull. Or else they look like everybody else's. But not Susan Sargent's. She's a textile artist whose eponymous little design firm specializes in woven and handmade rugs, cotton and silk appliqué pillows, and hand-painted bedding and throws. Paging through her press kit is almost as good as sinking your toes into one of her lovely, color-drenched rugs. Sargent's packet is complete, vivid, and astounding, much like her quirky designs, which include Tool Box, a showcase of saws, hammers, pliers, and monkey wrenches; and Big Chicken, which, naturally, features a lot of big chickens. Even in print, the whoopee of her artistic sense comes through. Artist or not, you should aim for nothing less.

5. Specificity. A hall-of-fame press kit shouldn't try to be all things to all recipients. To your average outsider, such an all-pleasing kit only looks like you are incapable of planning, or you can't commit, or you're a mugwump, somebody who's got their mug on one side of the fence and their rump on the other.

Though it's tempting, don't throw into the PR cauldron everything you've ever done, thought, or wished for. Stick to your knitting: focus on the product or service or happening you want to spotlight now. When it comes to press kits, less is more. Fight the urge to stuff your folder with every little thing anyone ever said about you. Especially avoid anything that smacks of an advertisement masquerading as an interview. It should focus on what you've done well. Give 'em only the good stuff.

6.  Succinct Testimonies. Bought a hardcover business book lately? Then you must have noticed those jacket blurbs that pave the back cover, extravagant testimonials and mesmeric references to the Greats in the Business Book Hall of Fame from big names like Iacocca, Drucker, and Senge. I submit that they've gone way too far with these endorsements. They've done me in with that deep tone of academic approval and energetic adjectives -- "a most memorable book," "a must-read," "perceptive and down-to-earth." Press kits fall into the same numbing trap when they include page after page of client testimonials. After a (short) while, you stop listening. Like French perfume, a little goes a long way.

And that's about it for press kit secrets. Heed the six tips above and instead of giving people headaches, you may soon be getting work.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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