Have press releases gotten so bad that a robot can write them?

Illustration: Sparkstudio

Illustration: Sparkstudio

I just received a pitch for a service that uses software to automatically write press releases. All you need to do is give it some facts about your company/organization, throw in a few details about what you want the news releases to be about, add a quote, and the software automatically crafts and distributes a press release to your media contacts. In my opinion, this is a horrible idea! However, I’m afraid it says more about the terrible state of press releases than about the business model of the company. Here is why:

Over the last year or two, we have seen a couple of examples where software was used to write articles. The Washington Post, for example, used software algorithms for some of their election coverage. Similarly, software is used by AP to produce narrative summaries of very dense financial news, such as corporate earnings reports. What these two types of content have in common, is that they are highly structured and can (more or less) easily be translated into rules.

Rule based narratives

For example, you can tell software to compare the earnings of previous quarters and write rules like these: “IF growth was negative for at least two quarters AND is positive this quarter THEN write ‘[name of company] turned their fortunes around this quarter'”. Similarly, for election coverage, you can write rules like “IF the seat is won by >5% THEN use the term ‘landslide’ in the headline”. It’s obviously a bit more complex than this, but that is the general idea.

Data extraction vs creativity

In other words, there is no creativity in these news pieces, nothing that really stands out. Automated news writing is a very sophisticated form of extracting data to fill in the blanks. I can see where this has its merit: in addition to financial news and election coverage as mentioned above, I can also see it work in sports reporting, at least where the reporting of results is concerned. The argument for these services is that it frees journalists from the drudgery of spending time on turning data into narratives so that they have more time for tasks that truly require creativity. Looking at the aid sector, I could see algorithms write those part of the daily/weekly SitReps that are only reporting achievements against goals.

You need to stand out!

However, press releases should be different. Press releases should stand out! Unless you are a Fortune500 company or a government agency, you can no longer get away with writing a generic press release that you send blindly to hundreds of journalists. The exception to this is probably crisis communication when your organization has become the story and you quickly need to get a statement out. However, when you want to pitch a story or get a journalist to cover your work, you need to write a personalised pitch that shows that you know the publication and the work the journalist has done in the past. This requires creativity, whereas the only thing you can achieve with software automation is more of the same. As I said above, the truly terrible thing is not that there is a company that offers this service, but that press releases have become so bland, boring and predictable that a bot can do just as bad a job as a human.

On the plus-side, it means that writing a pitch or press release that stands out is not rocket science. Here are two links that can help you:

What are your thoughts on press releases? Please leave them in the comments!