More content, less marketing

By Ariane Rüdiger, freelance reporter

Maintaining contact with journalists and providing them with information: these are basic tasks in corporate PR. However, opinion is divided on how these responsibilities should be tackled. Culture, and specifically communicating across cultures, plays a key role. This blog identifies several typical patterns of communications found in American companies that do not translate well into German. It also suggests a few tips on how to address the American-German business clash in the context of PR. 

PR is a matter of taste – not only for the receiver, but also for the sender. While all journalists have different preferences, there are some things that are not appreciated by members of the press across any culture or country. Here, we will focus on the local quirks; these cultural challenges are not reserved for American companies alone; they can often crop up in the PR activities of any company operating outside its country’s borders.

Let’s start with invitations for the media. What do journalists expect from these? Obviously, they want as precise an explanation as possible regarding the What, Where, When, and Why of the event. In other words, they want to find out whether what is on offer is worth sacrificing time for and, more importantly, whether it is worth travelling for. It’s a well-known fact that journalists don’t have much time. This time pressure is constant, not least due to the regime of 24/7 reporting and the speed expected when producing online copy.

Nothing to say — then don’t issue an announcement

If a newly-appointed executive has nothing more to say than that they have just joined a company and will be present at a certain on-site event, the company and its PR agency should think twice before issuing a release about this. A new hire simply is not enough to generate any enthusiasm, let alone trigger significant coverage. Even if the person in question plans to combine their arrival with a visit to customer Y’s premises, in town X, and invites a couple of journalists to a conversation over drinks, that is still not enough. If there is no substantial news, companies are simply better off waiting until they have something worth talking about – which should not take all that long with a proactive executive in charge. Such news will certainly be well received by the press, especially if the person concerned has built a good reputation with journalists from previous roles. Even news about a big-name new employee needs to be tied to something such as a company initiative, product release, or an important change of direction to be newsworthy. 

Specific announcements instead of woolly strategies

Let’s suppose you have a press conference coming up. In that case, make sure you have some specific, meaningful news to announce. Woolly or fuzzy “strategies” focusing on future events only have a very minor role to play. They will be met with a barely stifled yawn from experienced editors who have seen many shiny new plans come and go. Such strategies might barely survive the current financial year or the term of office of the current CEO. Specific data and products are needed, as well as milestones and concrete notes on strategies to indicate when they are expected to be reached (or if they have already been reached). For ongoing strategies, it can do no harm to indicate that milestones have not (yet) been achieved and to explain why. Otherwise, the press may quickly form the impression that the company produces strategies instead of products and services. ‘Our new X will be talking about our new Y’ will have a greater impact than ‘We have just hired X’. 

Non-disclosures are a nuisance

Much favored by companies from the English-speaking world, one of the features of the current media landscape that most irritates German outlets is the non-disclosure agreement. While sometimes quite modestly phrased, at other times non-disclosure requirements are festooned with threats of all types of draconian punishment, the scope of which could quickly bring an individual journalist, particularly a freelancer, to the brink of financial ruin. This begs the question of why someone would pay said company the honor of a visit at all… Why don’t companies make their announcements when the news can be published? Non-disclosure goes directly against the journalist’s natural instinct to publish the news items they discover. In a competitive business, they also wish to be first. Essentially, the non-disclosure requirement is counterproductive. This is especially clear when the news restricted by non-disclosure agreements in Germany or Europe can already be found in the America or in other English-speaking media before the agreement period expires. Remember, while few English-speakers read German, many Germans read English. If journalists feel adversely affected by this, the German media outlet might ignore your news altogether in the future. 

If you want to make a mystery of yourself, you don’t need PR

Some companies in the English-speaking world suffer from excessive secrecy. Sometimes even the most basic information about their companies – data which is more or less publicly available – is treated as official secrets. The oft-used argument that the company is listed on the stock exchange and cannot reveal anything at the moment (‘quiet period’) may just about make sense but the reasoning that a company is ‘private’, and is therefore not obliged to disclose information, is laughable. How is the German public supposed to be able to make a realistic assessment of a company’s viability (whether as a partner or a supplier) if the company will not even talk about how many people it employs in Germany or elsewhere? In such circumstances, the company should save the money it spends on PR and invest it in the search for more open management. What the company itself writes on the internet, in brochures, or by way of downloadable material, is already public hence can be published and quoted – even without permission. Period.

Europe has many languages

Let us assume that a company decides on a less ostentatious presentation of some current news. Normally, this means a press release will be issued. The aforementioned principle also applies here: less, but specific, information – especially in the regional language– is key.

While English is widely understood, not every member of the German press is fluent in it. It’s also, quite simply, polite to address people in their own languages, as any tourist who has learned a few phrases in the local language of their holiday destination can confirm. Europe has many languages, and they each come with their own peculiarities. If you have something to say to a potential customer in a certain region, it is ultimately to generate sales. It should therefore be worth committing a certain amount of HR and financial resources to it. This includes translations, which should not be done by an online automated translation tool, but by competent professionals translating into their mother tongue. All too often, anything else leads to results which have the potential to annoy editors, or worse even, make them laugh about the company and its PR efforts.

Empty words with neither rhyme nor reason

To put it plainly, on the other side of the pond, PR drifts into marketing. On this side, the focus is on factual information. When localizing press releases, don’t lose sight of the fact that extensive and largely meaningless quotes from corporate executives mean little to a German readership, or to the media. After all, these quotes could also be found in all competing publications. So, if you put quotes in, make them specific. For example, ‘It is our intention to open a branch in Germany in the next six months’, not ‘As part of our ongoing strategic commitment, our plans include intensifying our business activities in German-speaking countries.’ 

Get your choice of quotes right!

The same goes when quoting users. It is hardly surprising that a user who has invested thousands of euros in a product or service will not complain publicly about it in a press release. This is why journalists simply skip over such quotes, for example, ‘Peter Müller, CIO of X Industry Inc. said: “We have been able to achieve greater efficiency, flexibility, and customer focus, which represents substantial added value overall and improves our competitive position significantly within the framework of the digital transformation.”’ This sentence contains almost all the hackneyed phrases that bombard the media on a daily basis: efficiency, flexibility, customer focus, added value, competitive position, digital transformation. The information value is virtually zero. What’s the risk? Deletion of the quote, or of the entire release. If you want a quote to do more than impinge on journalists’ reading time, you must provide valuable details. For example, if Peter Müller were to report that production costs have dropped by X% since the product was introduced, or that average delivery time has been shortened significantly, that would be different. Specific details grab journalists’ attention and make them want to use the quote. And that is what the company wants. Isn’t it?

Ariane Rüdiger, freelance reporter

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