Writing a Press Release

Amazon has a culture of working backwards. Working backwards means identifying the right goals (and explaining why they matter), and then executing towards them – in that sequence. If this sounds obvious to you, you might be surprised at how difficult it is to achieve in practice. Even experienced individuals are led astray by their biases, allowing the brilliance of the solution to dictate the articulation of the problem. A clunky solution to a critical problem is far superior to a good solution that solves an unimportant problem.

A ‘press release’ (abbreviated to PR-FAQ since it is typically accompanied by a set of ‘frequently asked questions’), is a launch announcement written from the viewpoint of a hypothetical future launch of a product. It is a thought-exercise to “look back” at the product and evaluate if it makes sense to pursue (or not). More concretely, it is a lucid explanation of the problem and why it matters to potential customers. As a customer-obsessed company, Amazon chooses to work backwards from what customers need, but there is more to this. Customer obsession matters because it focuses effort on building things that have sustained long-term value, as opposed to things that offer short-term economic benefit to the business. Customers are the ones who sustain the business, when they reap the benefits of the value that the product generates. They are also the ultimate judge of which problems are actually important to them.

If you have a great idea that solves a problem, big or small, here are some tips to help you craft a good PR-FAQ.

1. Wear the CEO’s hat and own every decision.

Write the PR-FAQ as if you were the owner and final decision-maker. A commonly observed pitfall is presenting one aspect of the data while ignoring other, equally important dimensions. If you had to make the final decision, you would want to be informed of reasons to pursue the idea as well as reasons not to. The quote by physicist Richard P Feynman is very apt in this context: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

2. Identify the customer and speak their language.

Before you start offering solutions, make sure you understand whose problem you are solving. Write the PR from this customer’s perspective, not from the point-of-view of the business.

3. Figure out exactly what customer value you are creating.

You should be able to crisply articulate what problem you are solving for the customer. Get very specific and make an attempt to quantify each benefit, breaking it down if you appear to have several. Aggresively eliminate weasel words. For each benefit, ask ‘So What?’ and see if the value can be expressed in a language that the customer would more closely identify with.

4. Discard problems that are not worth solving.

Not every problem is worth solving, especially if there are more important ones to address. Avoid devaluing the core message of the PR-FAQ by talking about incidental benefits that wouldn’t make a difference to your decision to launch. Increase the signal-to-noise ratio.

5. Write the FAQ, then write the PR narrative.

Writing down answers to specific questions as part of the FAQ is a great way to gain personal clarity on what the PR narrative ought to be. Your mileage may vary, but it is helpful to write down all possible and relevant questions, attempt to answer them succinctly, and only then write the PR narrative. Once the material is in good shape, you can easily prune questions that turned out to be of less import.

6. Start with why the problem needs to be solved.

Taking a page out of Simon Sinek’s book, the most important thing to explain is why solving the problem matters, rather than what you are going to launch or how you are planning to succeed. Avoid burying the lead. The answer to this question of ‘why’ consists of several parts, including the value to the customer, the investment needed on your part to resolve this unmet customer need, the underlying business model, an understanding of why you are uniquely positioned to solve the problem better than anyone else and finally, why you believe this is the right time to invest in solving it. Answer the parts relevant to the customer in the PR, and the rest in the FAQ.

7. Solve the hard problem, not the easy one.

Don’t shy away from creating a bold vision. Identify and solve the hard problem, if it makes sense to do so. Don’t solve an easier problem just because the harder one seems to require co-ordination with other teams or appears…hard. Avoid settling for the easier problem just because you lack the data — talk to customers and gather the data you need, or make an educated guess, to be refined later. A common technique is to quantify the problem with placeholders such as ‘X%’, indicating that some additional data is pending.

8. Explain the business model.

Although the PR is written from the customer’s perspective of the problem, it doesn’t make good business sense to blindly please the customer unless we can do so in a way that sustains the business and makes it thrive. A business model simply articulates how you are generating value, who pays for it, and how that enables you to accelerate the generation of additional value. Amazon’s growth flywheel with its virtuous cycle is a great example of a business model in action.

Amazon's Flywheel

A common pitfall to keep in mind is that there are many ideas that can exploit inefficiencies in the ecosystem and generate economic value, and yet not accelerate the flywheel. Value generated in this manner is short-lived, and may disappear as inefficiencies are eliminated. These ideas ought to be viewed with a degree of skepticism. An example of this is when you act as a middleman in an inefficient process and simplify the process for the participants. Keep in mind though that there are exceptions to this rule of thumb as well, as we don’t live in a perfect market and need to contend with external forces such as state regulations and oligopolies.

9. Reach the right conclusions given the data available.

Good ideas may be rejected because the time is not right for them, due to limitations in infrastructure, technology or the state of the ecosystem. Or, the risks of executing on the idea could be too large to undertake. Your goal in developing the PR-FAQ is to capture all relevant dimensions in the FAQ and help guide the business towards the right decision – which could very well be to not launch. The quality of the PR-FAQ is judged not on the outcome but on the quality of the decision. Be specific, factual, to-the-point and transparent about the risks and outcomes, to help everyone arrive at the right decision.

10. Aspire to be credible in your presentation.

PR narratives sometimes suffer from too little context, and sometimes too much. Provide too much context, and the reader may get bored and miss the point of the narrative. Provide too little context, and the narrative starts to sound too technical and complicated. An effective strategy here is to assume that the reader is a lay-person not particularly familiar with the domain, and then provide just enough context to understand the point you are trying to make with every sentence. Eliminate all jargon, except what the reader absolutely needs to learn about. Customer quotes may help drive home the point once it has been expressed; keep them brief and simple.

On April 15th, 2021, Jeff Bezos published his 2020 Letter to Shareholders. In his final letter — he is stepping down as CEO later this year — Mr. Bezos talks in depth about how Amazon has created value over the past decades. He offers this pearl of wisdom:

If you want to be successful in business (in life, actually), you have to create more than you consume. Your goal should be to create value for everyone you interact with. Any business that doesn’t create value for those it touches, even if it appears successful on the surface, isn’t long for this world. It’s on the way out.

That’s all for today, folks! 🖖