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Getting Past the Template

There are times when I sit and stare at the computer screen and nothing happens.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: March 18, 2009

There are times when I sit and stare at the computer screen and nothing happens. I have no clue what to write about. Then, a special gift comes from cyberspace: a jargon-packed, trite-phrase laden press release that is just irresistible for comment. I've done this before, in what I call my “press release translation service.” You can see a past attempt here.

As I have written many times in the last few months, possibly to the boredom of some readers (“there he goes again!” I can hear them saying), public relations is the hot area of communications. But too often some of the practitioners of that trade fall into template-based efforts that do not inspire interest of the reader. Here's a chance, especially when it's a major announcement, to do something that makes readers hunger for more or to say “gosh, that was different!”

This is not meant to pick on or single out a company or press release, but I do have to use an example. Many of these releases are done under intense pressure and deadlines, especially if it is about something highly confidential that must be released to investors with some urgency.

The press release announcing Quincy Allen's appointment at Vertis is a great example. You have an innovative company, with compelling cross-media capabilities, in a very difficult financial situation, much of it of their own making. Vertis was built starting in the late 1990s and they still have the debts to prove it. They are trying to turn their fortunes around in a recession where advertising and communications budgets are contracting. This is a new CEO up for an extraordinary challenge. Not many of us would be willing to take it, no matter what the salary or upside, because this job will require 25 hour days, 8 days a week. It's the kind of effort that can be all-consuming. As a reward, there is the opportunity to create a turnaround story that will be in case studies in business policy classes for years to come. This is a risky job, and there's no doubt about that. You need an entrepreneurial spirit to take it.

The press release does nothing to impart any of this to the reader. Remember, press releases are directed to end users today, not just editors or writers. The news is important to investors when it is a public company. While Vertis is not publicly traded, its bonds are, and the company has been operating in a news environment where much of its financial news has been negative. After all, it's in chapter 11 reorganization and expects to lose more than $100 million this year.

So here's what they said (or more correctly, approved for distribution), and I'll follow it with what I would say, and why.

“With more than 25 years experience in the printing and graphic communications industry, Quincy is uniquely qualified to provide the strategic direction to position Vertis at the forefront of the future of marketing and advertising, communications and media,” said Marjorie Bowen, a member of Vertis’ board of directors. “His immediate priority will be to optimize Vertis’ vast printing capabilities and value-added services to reinforce the company’s position as a leading marketing partner to North America’s largest grocers, retailers, consumer packaged goods companies, advertising agencies, newspapers and merchandisers.”

“My goal is to combine my printing experience with a passion for product innovations and digital workflow solutions to empower Vertis’ highly skilled teams to create even more opportunities for our customers,” said Allen. “We will enhance current products and uncover new services to deliver results-driven marketing programs and print campaigns—from strategy development through point of sale and multiple touch points.”

What would Dr. Joe have approved for release? I would make it personal. I don't care what his lists of tasks are. This is trite, jargon-filled, and accomplishes little. It tells us nothing about the change or why he was selected. It has no vision of the future under Mr. Allen's lead. This is the direction I would have taken; I've changed the names so my suggestion would not be confused with the original:

“We were impressed with Alan Quince from the first time we met him,” said Marge Bolan, a member of Sitrev’s board of directors. “Our company's financial challenges are well known. It became obvious that they were dominating our thinking in a way that prevented us from seeing beyond our problems of today. Something was lacking in our company. We realized that we needed an outside perspective, especially grounded in experiences that included new technologies like digital printing and new media, and an emphasis on why clients use them. Alan was at Zorex when they had their brush with bankruptcy and was part of the turnaround. We realized that our executives and staff could benefit from his experiences there, and to bring that knowledge, and new ideas, to our company.”

“I was pleased to be selected by Sitrev,” said Quince. “This company has made it through difficult times including this bankruptcy. I would not be joining the company unless I felt that the effort to build a turnaround was possible, and would have significant rewards for everyone involved. We are in a recession where our clients are cutting back spending, and allocating more dollars to digital media. Debt obligations have limited Sitrev's options in addressing these market needs, but we have done well where we can. It's easy to keep hunkering down and cutting costs, but that does not give us a financial future worth striving for, and it won't give our clients good reasons to work with us. We need to look forward to the what our clients will need three and four years from now and start building a company today that fills those needs in compelling ways that our competitors won't and that our clients have yet to consider. I'm looking forward to the challenge.”

There. Okay, it's a little wordy, and a PR professional would tighten it up quite well. The idea is that he spoke to the clients, the bankers, and the entire company. No sugar coating. Goals, not a list of tasks. Proactive, not static. Not a list of accomplishments in a resume. Top executives are picked for what they have done and what they will do, not lists of things. Better yet: plain English, no jargon like “touchpoints” or “optimize” or “value-added” that mean little.

In the end, Quincy's performance and success will be what matters, and the press release will be long forgotten by that time. Financial problems affect the morale and initiative of employees and creates skepticism among customers. These are the kinds of jobs many executives take in recessions because to some extent, the only way to go is up, or the organization they are currently in is no longer expanding and their career paths are blocked, or both. I hope it works out well for him and for Vertis. Having Vertis turn to the upside would be good for them, and our industry.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink.com's Economics and Research Center.

What do you think? Please send feedback to Dr. Joe by emailing him at drjoe@whattheythink.com.

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