Press Kits: Creating press kits with a purpose

The press kit is a time-tested media outreach vehicle that many PR pros turn to consistently. So how can you make yours stand out? Anita Chabria offers some answers

The press kit is a time-tested media outreach vehicle that many PR pros turn to consistently. So how can you make yours stand out? Anita Chabria offers some answers

Look on any reporter's desk (or the floor, shelves, and trash bins around it), and you'll likely find more than one press kit. These staples of the PR world have evolved from single-sheet releases placed neatly into folders to major UPS deliveries with gifts, samples, and swag dressed up in sometimes clever, more often corny, packages.

"It's all about getting attention now," says Richard Licata, EVP of publicity at Showtime Networks, which puts out dozens of press kits every year. "Once you have the attention, hopefully the product speaks for itself."

But with so many of these deliveries hitting newsrooms every day and journalists under ever-increasing time constraints, experts say the most important consideration when creating a press kit is to keep its purpose in mind - giving journalists the information they need to decide if there's a story to be pursued.

"Make it functional," advises Jen Scott of Portland, OR-based Maxwell PR Studio. "Don't just send a branded product. Newsrooms just put those in a giant bin and give them to charity."

Erin Isselmann, head of PR for Xerox Office Group, agrees. She says that when she creates a press kit, "we really have the news value front and center."

Making the news pop out does not mean your press kit has to focus on the press release, though. Many experts agree that a bullet-pointed fact sheet, a Q&A sheet, or any kind of quick and simple presentation of facts will be popular with reporters. In fact, many PR pros warn against long, complex releases that take time to wade through or that might come across as more marketing material than journalistic pitch.

Facts will always appeal to reporters, but the right bit of swag might help them remember your kit. This is where the temptation to load up on tchotchkes lies, but be warned: Branded Post-It pads and coffee cups are unlikely to win a media placement.

"Most journalists roll their eyes at gimmicky press kits," says Katherine Hutt, president of Vienna, VA-based Nautilus Communications.

Isselmann agrees. "The key," she says, "is presenting something that people perceive to have value."

Scott backs that up with an example from client Gold Toe Brands, a sock maker that wanted to reach out to the consumer press. She says that upon getting the account, she would receive panicked calls from fashion editors who had forgotten to get socks for photo shoots and needed some sent immediately.

"After three or four of those calls, I sought a solution that will help both of us out," she recalls. Enter the "emergency sock kit," an aluminum case containing a half-dozen pairs of socks that was sent to fashion editors. It has been so popular that refill kits are periodically sent out.

For Scott, catering to a real need was the trick to creating a valuable kit, but Isselmann says that sometimes that value pertains to reporters' private, rather than professional, lives.

She offers the example of a press kit her firm did that was tied to the fifth installment of Star Wars, revolving around the tag line "Light years ahead." The kit contained a collectable Star Wars Pez dispenser and a VIP invitation to the screening of the film, among other things.

"A lot of our target tech journalists are Star Wars fans, so it was really a home run," she says.

Scott cautions, however, that appealing to a journalist's soft side has its limits. While the company is careful not to send "trash and trinkets," it is equally careful not go to the other extreme and make the kits too valuable.

"There are ethical guidelines," she points out. "If your product is worth a considerable amount of money, even $100, most journalists can't accept that."

But she says plenty can be done within a reasonable range. "The biggest [press kit] PR success that we've had in 10 years," she says, was a mailing containing chocolate bars designed to look like a Xerox product.

"I have to send it out at least once a year or people complain," she says of the kits.

Scott has her own example of a freebie whose value was greater than expected. For her old agency, Cole & Weber/Red Cell, she helped create a kit for client Rainier Beer, a popular brand in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. Playing on nostalgia for the brew, the kit contained a CD of old Rainier commercials. It proved so popular that one reporter actually sold it on eBay for $123 to a Rainier fan.

While creating eBay-worthy content is certainly a goal, it often takes good packaging just to get a reporter to glance inside a kit. This is where the tricky line between cool and "what were they thinking?" comes in.

"There is a tendency for people to be cute and clever," Licata cautions. "In some instances, that compromises what the project is about." He says that he strives to make the entire kit capture not only "the essence of what the project is about," but, in the larger picture, to also reflect and uphold the brand image and values.

"Press kits should reflect not only the product, but also what the [company] is about," he says.

Scott adds that another factor that must be considered in packaging is price. Agencies report spending anywhere from $5 to upwards of $50 on a kit.

"It's a large range," says Scott. "Maybe you have to spend a bit more to make them open the package and see what's inside."

A newer trend in press kits is having an electronic component. Many reporters, and almost all art departments, need high-resolution photos at the very least.

"You're really missing the boat if you're just focusing on a pocket folder," says Bill Wolfson, EVP at Columbus, OH-based Landau Public Relations. "Each reporter I've talked to in the past three years doesn't want a hard copy of photographs."

Isselmann agrees. Her company has even been toying with the idea of bypassing CDs and sending information on USB drives, which have become small enough to hold in the palm of your hand.

No matter what you decide to send, or how you send it, experts agree that the days of blanketing all media with a kit are over. "The biggest mistake is sending out press kits en mass," Hutt says.

Wolfson seconds that, saying, "We're not sending these out unsolicited. It's largely a waste to go down a media list, dump stuff in the mail, and hope something will stick."

Vicki Hastings, director of Maxwell PR Studio, adds that her firm doesn't send a kit until after a reporter has been contacted to see if he or she wants it and if he or she is the right person to get it. This allows the firm to give the reporter advance warning to look for it. That's better than making a follow-up call, which reporters often find annoying, in line with the adage that if they had wanted more information, they would have called you.

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Technique tips

Do make the news the centerpiece

Do be certain that facts are easy to find

Do include items that have perceived value

Don't send junk. No coffee cups

Don't get too clever. A simple package is better than an over-the-top one

Don't mass mail your press kit

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