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A comprehensive guide to
preparing releases that
By David M. Freedman
Most experienced editors have a love-hate relationship with press releases. They rely on releases (and the people who write them) for story ideas, facts, and valuable sources. A good news release can be a lifesaver when it arrives just in the nick of time with a nifty story idea and an arresting headline, compelling lead, powerful quotes, maybe even a publishable photo.
On the other hand, editors typically have to slog through hundreds of poorly conceived, hastily written, misdirected releases before finding one that's worthwhile. Some releases are so junky that you wonder how the people who write such drivel ever got jobs in the "communications" business.
JOURNALISTS REWARD GOOD PUBLICISTS
When it comes to news releases, I've been on both sides of the desk. I was a journalist for 20 years, mostly as a magazine and newsletter editor. I've slogged through thousands of news releases, and learned to distinguish the wifty from the nifty in less than 20 seconds.
When I did receive a great news release, I got excited. Not only because a good story had landed in my lap for "free," saving me the effort of digging for one, but also because I had found a new PR contact I could count on for good ideas. I tended to want to reward that person.
On the other side of the desk, I've done a fair amount of freelance media relations work for corporations and professional practices. I learned that the people who succeed in getting good publicity are those who think like a journalist and know exactly what they need—or know how to find out what they need. If you learn to think like a journalist and help them do their jobs better, you will be rewarded.
PRECISION VS. SHOTGUN
The way to increase your chances of success is not by writing news releases more frequently and scattering them over a wider range of media outlets. That's the old shotgun approach, the classic numbers game: If you send enough of them out, maybe someone will use it.
To increase your chances of success, improve your writing skills, learn more about the subject, research your target audience and the publications they read, and target the media more precisely.
The next time you get an assignment to write a news release, stop and think about it before you start writing. Put your feet up on the desk and focus your brain. Bill the client for the time you spend thinking and focusing.
Imagine you're having lunch with members of the target audience. They ask you, "What're you pitching today?" You tell them about the news release you've been assigned to write. They're savvy and they're skeptical, and they ask, "What's the news there? What's so new about that? So what? How does it affect me? Why should I believe it? Who told you that?" If you can't answer those questions clearly, succinctly, and persuasively, get back to the client for more information and inspiration. Research the topic. Study the target media outlets (and cross those off your mailing list that won't really be interested in the story). Interview members of the audience; take a bunch of them to lunch really.
If you still can't answer those questions, tell the client they're wasting their time. There are better ways to get good publicity than spewing pointless verbiage all over the media—like doing pro bono work in the community.
All that researching, studying, interviewing, and entertaining takes time and money. If you can't bill the client for the cost, eat it. It's an excellent investment. If you want to rise to the pinnacle of your profession, and earn huge fees because you have a reputation for getting superlative results, you must be thorough.
Carry that philosophy through all aspects of your professional career. If a fact seems the least bit implausible, check it again. If a claim sounds exaggerated, verify it. If a quote isn't compelling, get a better one. Call all the phone numbers and visit all the Web sites given in the press release before you send it, to insure accuracy.
Don't hurry impatiently through interviews—let your sources blather on because they might reveal something you didn't think to ask about. Go to meetings and presentations thoroughly, thoroughly prepared. Think like an investigative reporter, because your work will be scrutinized by skeptical, cynical bloodhounds.
POSITIVE, UPBEAT GUIDELINES
Reporters are so sick of crummy releases that when they issue guidelines on how to write releases, many of them tend to present a list of don'ts, common mistakes, pet peeves, or deadly sins. They're written in condescending tones with titles like, "How to alienate a reporter."
I'll spare you the affront. Here are some positive, upbeat tips for writing a news release that grabs editors' attention and makes them want to reward you.
GUIDELINE #1: CLARITY
The most important skill in media relations is the ability to write a clear, unambiguous sentence. An engaging personality and tremendous enthusiasm can't compensate for a lack of clarity.
GUIDELINE #2: KEY TO SUCCESS: THOROUGH PREPARATION
You have to learn to think like a reporter, assignment editor, and program director. What do they need from you? If you're not sure, invite them to lunch (one publication or station at a time), and ask how you can help make their jobs easier. Are they interested in events, hard news, trends, background information, a local angle on a national story? Do they like case studies, success stories, the problem-solution approach?
Be sure to review their publications or listen to their news broadcasts before you meet with them. Ask about their editorial mix, their political leanings, their reader/listener demographics. If you demonstrate a familiarity with, and curiosity about, their publication or format, they'll love you. If you aren't familiar, they'll smell it in five minutes.
Ask them all about their beat or their specialized field. Reporters and editors love to be treated as experts and ambassadors for their industries —they long to be treated as a member of the occupational community. Ask them to mail you copies of the best news releases they've received recently, or to save the good ones for you as they come in, so you can learn what rings their chimes. Put the relations back in media relations!
Offer to buy lunch, but don't be surprised if the reporter insists on going Dutch as a matter of policy. If your employer or client won't reimburse you for these lunches, pay for them yourself. This is continuing education, much more valuable—and still cheaper—than a college degree.
GUIDELINE #3: THE NEWS, THE ANGLE, AND THE HOOK
The best way to learn what qualifies as newsworthy in any field, or what angle to take in a release, or what sort of hook will appeal to the audience, is to study their publications, attend their conferences—listen to the kinds of questions the audiences ask—and get to know the leaders in their field. Make a special effort to befriend the executive directors of professional and trade associations—when you show up at their conferences (and stay awake through most of them), they'll go out of their way to help you with research and introduce you to big shots.
In the case of business-to-consumer PR, hang out with the audience wherever they hang out.
Don't say you lack the time and budget to attend conferences, meet big shots, or hang out. Just find a way to do it. It's a low-risk investment that yields extraordinary returns.
I've seen several PR books and a few articles published on the Web that list criteria for newsworthiness, and suggest ways to create news when there isn't any. Read the articles, but don't rely on them. Develop your own sense of what's news by reading, snooping, and asking lots of challenging questions.
As far as the angle is concerned, focus on people. Especially how the news affects people in the audience. Especially local people and "people like us."
Local media love local angles. Search one out. A local angle isn't always necessary, though. Don't strain to contrive a local angle when there is none.
GUIDELINE #4: STYLE
Since this is an "advanced" article, I'm not going to run through all the fundamentals of writing an effective press release. Two good sources for that are Chapter 6 of Handbook for Public Relations Writing, 4th Edition, by Thomas H. Bivins (NTC Business Books, Chicago, 1999), and the Community Media Workshop's website www.newstips.org.
Practice writing in the classic journalistic style, best known as the inverted pyramid. Put all the crucial information concisely in the first two or three paragraphs, as though the reader doesn't have time to read further. Then fill in the details in subsequent paragraphs, just in case the reader's interest is piqued and he or she manages to find the time. The least important information goes toward the end, so that if the release were truncated, the reader would still understand the story and benefit from reading it.
You increase the chances of your release being used by a reporter if it's written in the style in which the reporter is accustomed to writing. Of course, you can't rewrite the release for each individual publication (or can you?). But you can write one version of the release for trade journals, another for business publications, another for broadcast media, and another for online media, each in the appropriate style. Learn the styles by reading, listening, and viewing, reading, listening, and viewing some more.
Your headline (and sometimes a deck, if you need to expand on a more complex theme) and lead paragraph are keys to the success of the release. You must compete with dozens of other releases, capture the reader's attention, focus on the theme, generate interest, and offer a benefit in less than thirty seconds. Subscribe to the New York Times and study its heads and decks. Practice writing them.
The most common type of lead, and usually the most effective, is the summary lead. You know, the 5w+1h formula (who, what, where, when, why, how). You hit the news and tell how it has affected or is going to affect the audience. You must give the reader a benefit up front, a reason for reading on.
The alternative is the anecdotal lead. It's got to be very compelling, or the reader will either skip to the hard news, or toss it out summarily. Use the anecdotal lead sparingly and concisely. If the anecdote is a long one, give a short version in the lead and expand on it later, or attach a backgrounder or fact sheet (see below) with the full anecdote. Subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and study its leads.
Write concisely, but include all the important details in your release. If you can't fit them all in less than two pages, attach a fact sheet. Some self-appointed PR gurus advise that you leave out a few details that you know a reporter will want, so that the reporter will have to call you, and then you can really sell your story mano a mano - you can generate lots more enthusiasm over the phone than on paper. The problem with that approach is, if you're unavailable when the reporter calls, or if the reporter just doesn't have the time to call, he or she may not be able to run with the story if important facts are missing. Give them a little kit, everything they need to put together a complete story.
Above everything else, be truthful and accurate. Habitual exaggeration and inflation will eventually ruin your career. Keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Understatement usually works better than hyperbole.
Most editors would prefer a newsworthy press release written in crayon on birch bark to a worthless one typed on 70# bond with "more" and "###" at the bottoms of the pages. Learn the formats and protocols, but don't sweat it. I recently read an article on how to write press releases that instructed readers to fasten the pages of a release together with a paper clip instead of a staple. Forget about these trivial details and focus on news value.
You can submit press releases by mail, fax, or e-mail. Ask what each party prefers, store that preference on your mailing list, and submit accordingly. Lately, many reporters have become annoyed by unsolicited e-mailed releases because they can clog up the recipient's incoming mailbox. Before you send e-mail releases, be sure they're welcome—and write PRESS RELEASE FROM (YOUR NAME) in the subject line.
TO FOLLOW UP OR NOT
You'll find articles written by self-proclaimed PR experts that caution you never to follow up a release with a phone call. Don't even call to confirm that the addressees received the release, never mind to find out if they are interested in the story.
Do not heed dogmatic guidelines that contain the word never or always. If it's the first time you've sent something to a particular publication or broadcast station, you may follow up to make sure the release arrived at the right desk, ask if there is anyone else in that organization to whom you should send copies of the release, and get reassurance that you're welcome to send them more releases in the future. (It's a good idea to call before your first release goes out, to introduce yourself and herald your inaugural release to that person—and ask for a copy of the publication if you haven't seen it.) If you haven't called for several months, it can't hurt to call and touch base. Whether you should inquire about the level of interest in a particular story depends on your relationship with the reporter or program director.
If the reporter says the story you pitched is interesting but not right for their readers, you could suggest a couple other angles that might appeal to them.
If you develop good rapport with certain reporters, and a reputation for scrupulous integrity, an occasional phone call to offer clarification, ask for feedback, or inquire about the industry won't be considered untoward. In general, your professionalism and forthrightness will determine whether your follow-up calls are considered diplomacy or nuisance.
By the way, the news that you pass along to reporters doesn't always have to be about, or involve, you and your firm. Occasionally give them items of interest that lie outside your own sphere of self-interest. You become a valuable source on whom reporters can depend.
HOW'D YOU DO THAT?
When you see people in your profession featured or quoted in the media and wonder how they managed to get such great publicity, call and ask them how they did it. Who writes their news releases? Can you have copies of the releases?
Make it your goal to have reporters, editors, and program directors look forward to reading your press releases, rather than have to slog through them. You'll be amply rewarded.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David M. Freedman is a Chicago-based writer and media relations consultant. He has served on the editorial staffs of professional, trade, business, and consumer magazines and newsletters. He has done media relations work for professional service firms, nonprofit organizations, and high-tech startups, and received a Your Honor Award from the Legal Marketing Association in 2001 for excellence in public relations. You can reach him by telephone at 847-204-6848, or by e-mail. Website: www.freedman-chicago.com.