Miranda Tan, CEO, MyPRGenie

Every now and again, even the most experienced PR person can find themselves on the receiving end of an awkward phone call from an editor or customer service person at one of the press release distribution services. Those calls include some variation on the phrase, “We’re sorry, but we can’t post the press release you submitted.”

According to Miranda Tan, CEO of the fast growing social media and PR platform MyPRGenie, those calls usually happen because the PR person has made a mistake that puts them into conflict with some legal or regulatory rule.

“Usually, we’re able to work with our customers to edit or adjust the copy so that it’s ready to post,” she says. “But sometimes, for various legal or regulatory reasons, we have to ‘just say no’.”

According to Tan, these are the four most common mistakes that raise red flags for her editorial and customer service staff.

Clarifying Trademark / Brand Ownership

“One of the key questions we ask about every press release is whether or not the company submitting the press release owns or has a right to release the news,” she says. “You’d think that no company would want to spend time and money promoting someone else’s products, but of course, nearly every business sells products that it didn’t create.”

Usually, she says, problems crop up when a business is excited to be selling a hot new product. But just because Anne’s Mobile Tech Store sells iPhones doesn’t give it the right to announce the newest Apple product. So, Tan explains, a press release headlined, “Apple Releases New iPhone” wouldn’t run on the MyPRGenie service unless it were submitted by Apple Computer.

So how does a small business get the word out that it is selling the latest new product from a giant company? By saying just that. Tan says that she’d be happy to publish a press release with any of these headlines:

  • Anne’s Mobile Tech Store Now Offering New Apple iPhone
  • Want a new Apple iPhone? Anne’s Mobile Tech Taking Orders
  • Local Retailer Says New Apple iPhone in Stock

Another common problem is when resellers, partners, or vendors to large companies want to publish press releases where there are copyright or trademark image problems. “For instance, let’s say that Aurum III Jewelry sells David Yurman brand silver pendants, and a movie star promoting a new film shows up on The Tonight Show wearing (what looks like) one of the pendants. The local jeweler can’t announce the sighting in a press release — and he certainly can’t use a photo of the celebrity wearing the jewelry to illustrate a press release,” the New York lawyer turned PR executive says.

Why? “First, because he can’t be sure that the celebrity is really wearing a brand-name item instead of a studio prop. Also, because doing so could run afoul of multiple laws.” Among the legal issues are:

  • NBC’s rights to images from The Tonight Show
  • The star’s “right of publicity” to control what products he/she endorses
  • The manufacturer’s right to control his/her brand
  • Copyrights to the photography from the show, and perhaps to the jewelry

The bottom line, Tan says, is that you can write an article for your blog that says, “I was watching TV last night and was excited to see Miss Famous Moviestar wearing a pendant that looks just like the one’s we’re featuring this week…” But you’re not in a legal position to issue a press release announcing the sighting.

She adds that it’s the responsibility of the company submitting the press release to a wire service to ensure that they have the legal right to publish the photos, images, videos, trademarks, and copyrighted material that it submits. “Don’t rely on the press release service to catch any mistakes you might make. If there are problems with the content you publish, you’ll be responsible for any litigation costs or fines — not the wire service that carried the release with the problem content.”

Making Unsupported Claims

Some federal regulatory agencies (notably FINRA, the FDA, and the Federal Trade Commission), and some states treat press releases as advertising, and apply strict standards to the kind of proof that is required when making a claim. Before you make any kind of claim in a press release, make sure that you have the evidence to back it up.

“Recently, we helped a small marketing firm avoid problems with a press release that was submitted with the proposed headline, XYZ Marketing is the Best Agency.

“After reviewing the press release, the headline was edited to read, XYZ Marketing Named Best Agency by Ourcity Chamber of Commerce,” Tan explains.

Press releases should offer reliable information that can be checked and verified. Third-person voice (not, “I” or “we” say it, but “The chamber of commerce said in its annual awards ceremony…”) matters — legally, and in terms of how your audience responds to the message.

Exhibiting Poor Taste

This is a more difficult area, but Tan says, “MyPRGenie doesn’t accept press releases that make accusations and slander others. We don’t accept press releases for illegal products or services. And we wouldn’t approve a press release filled with obscenities or offensive language.”

What constitutes “good taste” in a press release? Tan explains, “That definition is a bit like the definition of obscenity that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once gave in a court ruling: ‘It’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.'”

Mentioning a Public Company

The Securities and Exchange Commission has specific rules for press releases issued by publicly traded companies — companies who sell stock on the NASDAQ, New York Stock Exchange, or other public exchange.

“If you work for one of those companies, you already know the rules. So we wouldn’t monitor your press release for SEC compliance. Every now and again, however, we run into a press release where a private company is announcing a deal or a partnership with a public company, and we require the approval of the public company before we’ll carry the release.

“Let’s say the press release is headlined, Tech Start-up and Public Company Announce Partnership. We don’t question the facts — but we do require written approval from the public company, so that we know that the information has passed muster with their compliance office before it goes out over our service,” Tan says.

Most people who run into problems with their press releases don’t intend to break any rules, she adds. They just don’t know that there are any rules to start with. “Those of us who distribute information for companies through social media and PR need to do a better job of educating our clients about the rules, and of complying with them ourselves,” she says.

Tan’s company is doing its part to educate its customers with a new blog that publishes how-to and tutorial articles twice a week, and a series of webinars and white papers that supplement the information on the blog.

Read more: The 5 Things BuzzFeed Can Teach You About Press Release Writing