A Guide to the Modern Press Release
With so many newspapers scaling back or going digital, the value and effectiveness of the traditional press release has become a bit of a mystery to us all. This has left many businesses even more confused as to how they should communicate with the media when they feel they have something important to say. Is the press release still relevant? From my conversations with print and online reporters and other PR professionals, the answer is absolutely yes! But we have to stay in tune to the changes and advancements to news sources that may alter the definition of “a great press release.” Overall, the core essentials have remained the same, yet are so often ignored – even by professionals in the field. In an effort to shed some light on the lost art of press release writing (and to adapt it to the modern art it has become) here is my general guide to writing a solid press release right now.
Modes of communication
Whether you own a fax machine or even know what one looks like, this is still one of the most common and important ways to disseminate your press release. When researching a reporter’s contact information, don’t assume the fax is an outdated system. Some reporters truly prefer receiving news this way, especially if their email inbox functions more like a black hole. The second big mode of communication is indeed email. I’d suggest using both email and fax whenever possible, and re-sending the email after a day or two with a new subject line for a second (or third) shot at getting noticed. Make the news relevant to each reporter (do they cover a specific interest?), their target readership and personalize the message whenever possible. Aim to build an ongoing relationship with reporters; don’t just spam them with press releases whenever you want their attention. One great way to do this is to provide them with consistently useful information in a neatly packaged press release. More on that now…
Now that we covered how to get your message out there, we can dig deeper into strategically packaging your news, and of course the title will be the first thing reporters see – and judge. The title should be the most newsworthy element of your press release. While it may be tempting to stick your business’s name or your own name up there right away, this is not likely the information that will catch a reporter’s eye and make him think “my readers need to know this.” For example, Jack Smith’s Auto Shop Merges With Tasty Treats Ice Cream has no immediate relevance to a reporter. A better title might be Two Locally-Owned Businesses Combine Auto Parts, Ice Cream In Unusual Merger. Really? Yes, because the second title spells out why a reporter should care to cover this news– it’s local and it’s unusual. These are two newsworthy elements that always attract readers’ attention. The reporter will likely change the title any way for their story, so don’t worry about writing for the masses. You just need to get the attention of one person – the reporter. This is your three-second “elevator pitch” and it has to cut to the chase. You are trying to sell to the reporter; the reporter is trying to sell to the reader. Remember that.
The critical first paragraph
Once you make it past the title, there is still another part of the press release that is of paramount importance for determining whether it lands on a reporter’s desk or in a trash can. It’s the first paragraph. I was taught that the first paragraph of a press release should never exceed two sentences. These can be long sentences, but two sentences is the rule of thumb. I doubt any reporter would see three periods in a first paragraph and toss a press release out solely based on this, but sticking to this rule does get you to get to the point – fast. The first of these two sentences should be the quick attention-getter and the second should be the single sentence that summarizes the key points of the entire press release. Sound like that’s asking a lot? The first paragraph is never easy. It may be the most time you spend on putting together two sentences and it should be. This is a critical component that far too many people gloss over. You may have heard that a press release (and any news story) should be written like an upside down pyramid, with the most newsworthy information on top, working down to the least newsworthy. With this analogy, you want to be sure the biggest part of your pyramid, the first paragraph, is built rock solid.
What’s in it for…everyone else?
Once you’ve made it past the title and the first paragraph, you’re ready to dive into all the other details of your press release. But this doesn’t give you a free pass to ramble on about unrelated, non-newsworthy tidbits. Throughout all of your writing, you need to keep a single question in mind. “What’s in it for everyone else?” Write this on a sticky note, the top of your word document or your cat if you need to, but don’t lose sight of this direction! Every paragraph in your press release should have an easily identifiable WIFM (what’s in it for me?) element – with “me” being the reporter/reader. It’s easy to see what you’d be getting out of a press release that’s picked up for a news story…free press! Don’t spend too much time tooting your own horn in the content. Instead focus on why anyone else should care about what you have to say. How will they be personally affected by this news? How will they benefit having read this?
Formatting a reporter will appreciate
Reporters and journalists adhere to Associated Press (AP) Style when formatting their news stories. For Public Relations professionals, it’s an industry-best practice to write press releases in this same style to keep all formatting the same. It also adds to your credibility. Everything from when to abbreviate a city, how to format dates and time, when to capitalize professional titles and more and more and more can be found in the AP Style Book! It was a handbook I bought early on in college and still have to this day (dog-eared pages and all). Resources to help you with AP Style questions can be found all across the web. Here’s the main web page. If you think you’ll be referring to this often, I’d suggest buying a copy. It’s far too much information to ever fully commit to memory, so having a copy on hand makes life, and press release writing, a lot easier.
Common mistakes and missed opportunities
Keep it to one page – It would take a compelling news story or announcement to convince me that more than one page was absolutely needed to cover all the truly newsworthy elements. Reporters can contact you if they’re intrigued enough and want more information. That’s why you provide that information in the header. Two-page press releases seem just as obnoxious as two-page resumes. Save something for the interview!
Quotes – Quotes are a key way to say something you would otherwise just write into the press release, while calling out a specific person of importance and breaking up the content. Quotes coming from you or your client can be easily molded to say exactly what you want them to say. Just make sure you format them correctly according to AP Style!
Make use of the subtitle – This is the sentence that appears directly below the title (and before the first paragraph). It is a great opportunity to explain the title a bit further as well as include a link to your web site, if relevant. By utilizing this part of the press release, you’re less tempted to weigh your title down with too many words.
Include a boiler plate – The boiler plate is that final paragraph that appears right before the “###” which signals the end of the press release. It’s a paragraph which can stand all on its own and usually summarizes the business or organization. Instead of trying to shove this same information into the body of the press release where it may not belong, the boiler plate provides a separate and organized space to highlight the core facts about your business at the very end.
One final thought on adapting to technology…
Video news releases (VNRs) are changing the way many reporters view traditional words-only press releases. I’m not entirely convinced that VNRs will take over the market anytime soon and so I suggest sticking with the written press release, but adding in b-roll footage, video clips and photos whenever available. Especially for online news sources, the more photos and videos that accompany a story, the more enticing it is to feature it. As readers, when we surf the web we’re drawn to images. Stories that include images are that much more attractive to news sites. It’s all about the web hits and readership!
What I thought would be a quick glimpse into writing a great press release has become a lengthier guide than I anticipated. I still have so much more information I could include here, but will save that for another time. Until then, please share your own experiences and expertise on writing press releases. Is there something I missed? Something you disagree with? Or something you’ve found to be particularly effective? Please share by commenting below!