On the ‘lost’ discipline of press releasing in the Fax Age

Yesterday, I caught up with former colleagues from when I was the public relations manager at the University of Portsmouth (Oct 2001 to Jan 2004).

Much has changed in the world of public relations since then. There was no Twitter, no Facebook. MySpace was new! And mobile phones were, well, mostly just that – phones you carried around.

We even routinely sent press releases by fax!

It wasn’t entirely the dark ages. The fax machines that used a thermal process to print on a continuous roll of special paper (think glossy kitchen roll) were giving way to laser printing on individual sheets of paper.

These days even email is beginning to look old-fashioned. Electrons and photons can buzz as much material as we like to whichever journalists we like at the press of a button.

But there was a certain discipline in writing for the Fax Age. My rules were simple:

  • all the text on one single side of a sheet of A4 paper
    • if not, you could be fairly sure a newsroom would lose page 2 (not too much of a loss), or page 1 (story probably gone for good)
    • and the output cost the receiver money – that thermal paper in particular wasn’t cheap!
  • a sans-serif font, no less than 12 points in size – the thermal fax machines were notoriously good at blurring text in anything smaller (especially fonts like Times New Roman)
  • at least a line-and-a-half spacing – it gave the journalist space to write notes
  • paper with a *small* corporate logo – it was dead space

Anything more we could talk through on the phone – or send by email (yes, kids, we did have email).

It made us brief and clear. Four, maybe five, short paragraphs. No quote after quote after quote from every person under the sun. No ‘and another thing’. No tedious boilerplate in the notes for editors. They truly were notes to explain and amplify. (Do you really have to explain that yours is a prestigious institution to journalists you work with week in, week out? When was the last time a journo wrote that into the story?)

Keeping the word-count down was a discipline I tried to keep to in the electronic age. Okay – it could be more trying than keeping.

But I’d recommend any PR practitioner working on a news release – think: would I fax this? If nothing else, it’ll make sure you have crisp copy for your organisation’s web site.

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