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An argument against boilerplates

By Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

Boilerplates - the often self-serving, general-purpose descriptions of organizations and their primary activities and achievements - aren’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of; nor does proficiency in writing them rank high on any list of resume skills. But they do crop up with annoying regularity at the bottom of innumerable news releases.

You may have gathered that I am not a fan of the boilerplate. And you’d be right. My opposition is based upon the premise that a good news release is one that mirrors a good news story; put another way, a news release and a news story are similar, if not identical, and should judged by the same journalistic standards. And boilerplates are not good journalism; that’s why you rarely see them in media reports.

But is that premise valid; should news releases and news stories be judged by the same standards? The answer is yes, and here’s why:

The news release is the story written as you would like it reported, but for the media to publish or broadcast your report as written (or close to it), it must also conform to the standards to which reporters and editors adhere.

In effect, the greater the variance between a news release and journalistic standards, the greater the likelihood that the media will rework the release - hence increasing the probability that it will be distorted - or that the media will ignore the release altogether. In the first instance, you are misrepresented; in the latter, your story never reaches your key publics.

Neither outcome is desirable. This is not to suggest, however, that this would be the fate of all news releases that contain a boilerplate. We’re talking about percentages, not absolutes. Nonetheless, this can place a dangerous pitfall in your path: Every time one of your boilerplated news releases gets accurate or extensive media coverage, your commitment to using boilerplates will be reinforced. And sooner or later, the odds will catch up with you. It’s like not wearing your seatbelt - having survived years and years of such neglect is not a valid argument that you are just as safe as those who do buckle up.

Admittedly, including a boilerplate at the bottom of an otherwise well structured news release may not, in itself, substantially reduce the odds that the media will misrepresent or ignore the story. But even if it doesn’t, you may still be paying a price in terms of lost credibility with the media. The boilerplate tells the journalist that you are willing to include sometimes irrelevant, sometimes repetitive or sometimes self-serving material in your news releases in an effort to promote your organization. Few reporters or editors would fail to recognize this an attempt at manipulation - and they don’t like to be manipulated.

Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist who doesn’t already believe that everything you do in PR is to promote the best interests of your organization. And that would be an accurate assessment. But for you to be truly effective in that quest, every journalist with whom you come in contact must also recognize that you will never distort, embellish or sensationalize a story in order to enhance media coverage. The media must hold your news judgement and your integrity in high regard - and both could be compromised by use of the boilerplate.

A recent news release announcing CCNMatthews' acquisition of e-News Services from BCE Emergis is an example of a boilerplate that was unnecessarily tacked onto an otherwise well told story.

The lead paragraph referred to CCNMatthews as "one of Canada’s leading news distribution companies." The second paragraph reads as follows:

"This acquisition will bring together two of Canada’s leading news release distributors under the CCNMatthews banner and significantly change the face of the newswire business. CCNMatthews will now serve approximately 40 per cent of the total news distribution market in Canada and 50 per cent of the news distribution market for publicly traded companies."

The third paragraph quoted CCNMatthews’ CEO Michael Nowlan as saying "we introduced competition to the newswire industry when we opened our doors in 1983." The fifth paragraph mentioned that "CCNMatthews provides its clients with targeted news distribution to thousands of media outlets across Canada, plus an international database of more than 300,000 media contacts." And it went on to detail ways in which the service meets the needs of the financial community.

The remaining paragraphs described the new service and thereby rounded out a solid news release. But then came the boilerplate, which began:

"CNNMatthews is one of Canada’s foremost news distribution and communications services companies. Founded in 1983, the newswire division of CCNMatthews reaches the media and financial communities throughout the world, 24 hours a day."

The body of the news release had already supplied any needed information about the organization, thus rendering the boilerplate redundant.

There is a lesson to be learned here. If there is something you want to say about your organization that is relevant to the story, then incorporate that information into the body of the news release in places most logically dictated by the narrative you are telling.

Doing this relegates the boilerplate to the rank of vestigial organ, which - like many a tonsil - ought to be removed.


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