Writing a Press Release

… a core concept in Communication Skills and Atlas 109

PressReleaseConcept description

A press release is a brief written summary alerting the potentially interested media about an organization’s initiative or activity.

Like the Basic Op-Ed Structure, a good news release will make use of Ledes and News Hooks.

Eric Wadud’s article in Community Tool Box  (reference below) notes that press releases are similar to news articles in that they inform the public, but they’re usually prepared by people who are working in specialized fields. Wadud notes that, like a news story, press releases are:

  • Created either to preview an upcoming event or to inform the public about something that has already occurred
  • Written in a clear, concise manner that easily and quickly conveys its message to the reader
  • Written with the most current and pertinent information in the first two paragraphs
Tips for writing a press release that will be read

Wadud offers the following tips:

  • Make them read like news article – Study news articles in your local paper. News articles will have the five Ws and the H in their beginning paragraph. This is called the lead. These basic elements are:
    • What happened
    • Who did it
    • Why it happened
    • Where it happened
    • When it happened
    • How it happened
  • Emphasize what makes your release important – What in your release is going to grab people’s attention? Why is it important to the community? Why should they care? Emphasize one or two of the basic elements above. For instance, if the mayor is going to speak on the issue at your event, it would be a good idea to emphasize the “who”. If your event is the first charity fund raiser at the new recreation center, the “where” would be emphasized.
  • Be as provocative as you can – Most media, especially in large cities, get tons of releases every week, so you want to make yours stand out. Find an eye-opening aspect to your release, or at least make sure your points are strongly emphasized. For example, perhaps pro-life and pro choice activist groups are working together on teen pregnancy prevention, or real estate groups and housing activists are working together on a housing initiative. In both these cases, the organizations involved might use their unusual situations to create press releases the media would snap up.
  • Make the headline and lead as clear as possible – They need to hook the reader quickly or the release will be skimmed over and forgotten. Strong leads are more specific, refer to actions rather than events, and imply or describe a conflict.  All of these elements are attention-grabbers.  The more of them (and others – celebrity names, human interest) you can include in a headline, the more likely people are to read your release.
  • Make your release look professional – Credibility is very important in an editor’s decision as to read or pass over your release. Letterhead and formatting should look professional, and no typos! The release should also have short, easily readable sentences and paragraphs, as news articles do.
  • Consider sending other materials with your release – If you already have contact with a reporter or editor, you may want to send a short cover letter reminding him or her of your previous conversation. Maybe you know this reporter has a personal interest in your issue. The key is to try and personalize the release so it gets the editor’s attention.
Format and technical guidelines for press releases

Wadud offers the following guidelines:

  • A dateline – like in many newspaper articles (for instance “Washington, D.C., Oct 15”).
  • To double space or not to double space – it’s probably not necessary as most editing these days is done on computer, as long as your release is easy to read. Short paragraphs with a space between each and slightly wider than normal margins are helpful.
  • Your release should be relatively short – two or three pages, max. Keeping the release to one page does not necessarily improve readability, which is what you’re aiming for. Subheads are also useful to grab the reader’s attention.
  • Attachments – a summary of the key points can help the reporter write an article, if the paper decides that would be more appropriate than a press release for the story you have to tell.
  • Several full quotes should also be included – try to make the quotes sound like they were spoken, not written. For example, “The critical finding of the report is that many banks…” is not as effective as “This report shows that our banks are ignoring the needs of…”
  • Avoid using jargon or acronyms (such as “Section 8 subsidies,” CDC, GAO) – this can be difficult: as  you grow accustomed to them you may not even realize you’re using them. Instead, spell out the names of any organizations that normally go by acronyms, for example, “NAACP” is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. You can certainly refer to them by the acronym later on in the story, but the first reference should always be by name.
  • Use active verbs rather than passive verbs to keep the reader interested in your story – Active verbs are words that show that someone or something takes an action, such as, “State delegates from the National Organization of Women marched on Capitol Hill today demanding better health care for single mothers.” In this sentence, marched is an active verb showing movement. Passive verbs show that someone or something is being acted upon: “Capitol Hill was besieged by unicyclists on Saturday.”
  • Attribute quotes – When you quote someone you interviewed for your release, put the name of the person you’re quoting at the end of the quote.
  • Double-check your sources – the people who gave you information you used in the release – for accurate quotes, correct professional titles, and correctly spelled names.
  • Edit and re-edit your press release before you send it out to reporters.
  • Follow up –  Computers and people are imperfect, so it’s a good idea to follow up any distribution of a press release with a phone call to your contact to ensure your release hasn’t been lost or forgotten.
  • Timing – As with many things in life, timing is crucial when sending your press release. Three to five days in advance is usually the right amount of time to ensure the editors can put someone on your story. Mailing a release too early is just as bad as mailing it too late – it will be put aside and forgotten. At least if your story is last minute, you may be able to telephone it in. Deadlines do vary depending on the type of media, so be sure and check with them in advance.
Additional resources on writing press releases

CanadaOne, Step 1: When to Send a Press Release, at http://www.canadaone.com/promote/newsrelease1.html, accessed 31 March 2016. (The next four steps are also accessible from this site.)

The Marketing Donut, A complete guide to writing an effective press release, at http://www.marketingdonut.co.uk/marketing/pr/writing-a-press-release/a-complete-guide-to-writing-an-effective-press-release, accessed 31 March 2016.

Geoffrey James (2010), CBS Money Watch, How To Write a Press Release, with Examples, at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-to-write-a-press-release-with-examples/, accessed 31 March 2016.

University of Victoria, English 302, Writing for Government, Notes on Writing a Press Release, at http://web.uvic.ca/~sdoyle/E302/Notes/PressReleaseNotes.html, accessed 31 March 2016.

Erik Sherman, 7 Simple Changes to Make Your Press Release Soar, Inc., at http://www.inc.com/erik-sherman/7-simple-changes-to-make-your-press-release-soar.html, accessed 31 March 2016.

Zach Cutler (2013), 8 Tips for Writing a Great Press Release, The Huffington Post, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zach-cutler/press-release-tips_b_2120630.html, accessed 31 March 2016.

Sources

Eric Wadud, Preparing Press Releases, Community Toolbox, at http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/participation/promoting-interest/press-releases/main, accessed 31 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Writing to Persuade (core topic) in Communication Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 31 March 2016.

Image: WritersWin.com, at http://writerswin.com/5-tips-for-writing-a-catchy-press-release-and-doing-it-again-and-again-and-again/, accessed 31 March 2016.