Media Relations 101: A ridiculously detailed guide to writing a good press release
It’s true — the press can be your best friend. Or, it can be that hot guy (or girl) in high school who ignored you. The difference depends largely on the quality of the press release you write. I’m here to tell you how to write a good one.
I’ll start by giving you the cardinal rule of writing a press release, and writing in general: Always keep in mind who your reader is.
In this case that’s a reporter or editor at a newspaper or magazine, who probably has little to no time on their hands, receives stacks of press releases every day, and doesn’t initially care about your event or news.
It’s your job to make them care. It’s my job to explain how.
Something you need to understand: The newsroom is a busy place.
Reporters and editors constantly have stories waiting to be written. They’ve got phone calls they need to make, and people they needed to talk to yesterday that still haven’t returned their call. They’ve got Mrs. Jones calling looking for a copy of an article from three years ago that she can’t remember the name of. At the same time, Mrs. Smith is calling to find out if the honor roll at her son’s high school has run yet. There are deadlines looming.
However, amidst this hectic environment, the simple fact is that NEWSPAPERS WANT NEWS. Newspapers want timely, interesting news that matters to the community they serve. So give it to them. A press release is the way you do it.
What is a press release?
A press release is the most basic and effective form of communication between your company/school/organization/church/you and the media.
It is a written document that efficiently conveys the Who, What, Where, When, and Why (meaning why anyone should care) about your event or news item.
The first thing to know is that you don’t have to have a master’s degree in Public Relations to write an effective press release.
Case in point: I’ve gotten numerous press releases from big-time PR companies that supposedly “know their stuff” and claim to have contacts with everyone but God. In reality, their releases are boring, convoluted and generally ineffective in getting me interested in anything they have to say.
Prestige and supposed PR knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into a good press release. Understanding who’s going to be receiving your release and what they need and want, then giving it to them, does.
How Newspapers Work
Before you can write an effective press release, you need to have a basic understanding of how newspapers work.
In the newsroom, you have two basic contacts: reporters who write the articles that go into the paper, and editors who edit the articles themselves, decide which articles go into the paper when and actually put the paper together.
Usually a reporter covers a particular topic, or “beat.” This may be a town, the court system, or a particular subject such as religion, politics, or entertainment. Other reporters do “general assignment” work, which basically means whatever an editor assigns them. Some reporters do combinations.
Reporters work under the direction of editors, who also work in particular departments. Some editors oversee news from particular towns or schools. Others oversee entertainment/arts or lifestyle coverage, for example.
Reporters often generate their own stories, but usually have to clear them with their editors. Other times they are given story ideas from editors. Ultimately, though, an editor has the final say. That’s why it’s better to go directly to an editor, unless you’ve already developed strong contacts with a reporter.
It’s also important to remember that editors and reporters get news from a variety of sources, not just press releases. News is generated from meetings, elections, government reports and the like. They get tips from contacts they’ve developed. They see articles in other publications. There are media relations personnel from colleges and various other organizations who are pitching story ideas. Residents and local officials call with breaking news.
What About Phones Calls?
Phone calls may also be effective for story ideas that can be communicated quickly, as in, less than thirty seconds. Especially if you’ve developed contacts at a particular publication, consider a phone call or brief e-mail to your contact to pitch a story, and be sure to include all the basic details – the Who, What, Where, When, and Why it’s important – and do it quickly.
This method is more informal, but can be effective in the right scenario.
Still, in most cases, a press release is the way to go for an event or news item that is not urgent, such as a product launch or an event taking place in six weeks.
Just remember you are not the only person offering information. You are one of many. Therefore, you need to stand out. The first step is figuring out who to send your release to.
Where To Send Your Press Release
You could spend days crafting the perfect press release, send it to the wrong person, and watch all your hard work go down the drain. It could get lost in the shuffle, forgotten, or worse, thrown out.
Therefore, you need to know exactly who to send your press release to.
Releases should be sent to editors of the specific department that your news item or event pertains to. The editor can then pass it on to the reporter that covers the subject you’re writing about if they want to turn it into a story.
If you have an entertainment release, send it to the entertainment editor. If you have a news release about a new program in a school in Smithville, send it to the editor who covers the town of Smithville.
If you don’t know who covers what department at Paper X, look inside the actual publication. Usually that information is listed on one of the inside pages or, in the case of a magazine, on the masthead. If not, call the publication and find out. Ten minutes worth of research will save you hours of wasted time.
Also, make sure you include the name of the editor or reporter you are addressing, and spell it correctly. My name is Lauren. I hate it when people call me Laurie, and it makes me not want to hear anything else they have to say.
Once you get the correct contacts, update them regularly. At my newspaper we get inundated with mail for people who don’t work there anymore, and haven’t for several years. Or, the same poorly-written release is sent to seven different people in the newsroom.
Besides being a monumental waste of paper and environmentally irresponsible, this strategy is ineffective. One good release sent to the correct editor will accomplish much more than seven bad releases sent to seven reporters and editors, three of whom no longer work there.
How To Send Your Press Release
There are basically three ways to send your press release: E-mail, snail mail, and fax. Choose two out of the three. Three is unnecessary, and bordering on overkill. Two makes sure that if for some reason one medium doesn’t go through in time (e-mail glitch, problem at the post office), it will still arrive another way.
From my point of view, e-mail is the most effective, with snail mail coming in second. Fax may be quick, but often comes out faded, illegible, and many times we receive so many faxes that important ones can get lost in the shuffle.
E-mail is ideal because it is fast, inexpensive, allows you to send to many outlets at one time, and allows editors and reporters to take information directly from the release and put it into a new document. This makes our job easier. We like that.
Less work for us + timely, newsworthy information from you = greater likelihood of getting your information into the paper.
You can also link directly to your Web site in an e-mail, which is a major plus. That way, if an editor or reporter wants more information about you, it’s one click away.
Overall, an e-mail-snail mail combo should cover all bases. E-mail will get your information there quickly, and snail mail will offer the added impact that comes from physically putting something in an editor’s hand.
Tips for Sending Press Release By E-Mail
Get the e-mail address for the correct editor, and send it there. You can also cc it to a general news address as a backup if you want to be extra safe. Most newspapers have a general address for news – just check inside the paper or call and find out what it is.
Your subject line should be the same as or similar to your headline.
When sending releases by e-mail, do not send them as attachments. They are a nuisance. Often times attachments are difficult to open, cause a system crash, or come through garbled. It’s just one more annoying step an editor or reporter has to take to get your information. Make it easy: give them the information right in the body of the e-mail.
Also, when sending press releases by e-mail, avoid bright colors and graphics at all costs. Bright colors are offensive, especially to already-exhausted eyes, and graphics are slow to load and waste time. Also, they’re usually unnecessary. Timely, newsworthy information clearly presented is all you need.
A few months back, one PR contact (she was one of the “really educated ones” with lots of contacts and “PR know-how”) had a habit of sending press releases to me written in red font with bright yellow backgrounds, or electric blue backgrounds with black font, and other horrific color combinations that were painful to look at.
I felt bad just deleting her e-mails, but I literally couldn’t look at the releases long enough to get the information I needed from them. So I wrote her back and asked if she could get rid of the color scheme and just send me the information. She apologized and said she was just trying to “stand out” and “jazz up” the release.
The truth is, if you want to stand out, write a good press release. If you want to jazz up the information, write in an upbeat, interesting way. Provide good pictures whenever possible. But don’t expect an unattractive color scheme to make up for what good writing should do.
In terms of the timing, you should plan to have your e-mail release hit first, then snail mail or fax a couple of days later as a reminder.
Follow-Up Phone Calls: A Bad Idea?
For the most part, yes.
However, if it’s been a couple of weeks, and you haven’t been contacted, haven’t seen any semblance of your release appear in the paper and want to make sure your release actually got to its destination, it’s not a bad idea to call the editor you sent it to. You can also write them a brief follow-up e-mail.
This will handle the case of an editor who for some reason didn’t get the release because of some glitch, or got it and was interested but forgot about it amidst a mountain of other work.
What Will Happen To My Press Release?
When you send a press release, there are basically four possible things that could happen to it.
The first is it could get thrown away or deleted. If you write a bad one, this is very likely what will happen. Other times, it could get thrown out if it’s about an event that’s already passed, something that’s already been written about, or something that seems completely uninteresting and irrelevant.
The second possibility is that your event or news item will run as a community or calendar listing. A listing is basically exactly what it says, a very brief list of facts. It looks something like this:
John Smith and the Smith Blues Band, Dec. 8, 7 p.m., Smith Auditorium, 7 Smith Way, Smith, Ma. Legendary blues artist returns home for one night in concert. Tickets $25 in advance, $35 day of. 555-555-5000 or http://www.johnsmith.com.
A listing might appear in the weekly entertainment guide, or the community calendar section. It offers minimal exposure, but it’s better than nothing.
The third, and most common, possibility is that your release will be turned into a “brief.” Briefs are basically a cross between a listing and an article. They are called briefs because they are brief – usually no more than a few paragraphs. Often times briefs are taken directly from the press release itself and run almost verbatim, so it’s extra-important to write a good, clear release.
Briefs run in the paper on a space-available basis. This means that when there is space available in the paper, they run. When there’s not, editors hold them. Therefore, if you send the release last-minute, a brief might not make it into the paper in time.
A brief would basically look something like this:
On May 1 at 5 p.m., Smith Church will hold a spaghetti supper to benefit the Smith Food Pantry in Smithtown. There will be spaghetti, meatballs and garlic bread, plus cake and ice cream for dessert. There will also be games, and a raffle after the dinner. All are welcome to come and enjoy the Italian flavor. Tickets are $5. For more information, call John Smith at 555-555-5000 or visit www.smithchurch.com. Smith Church is located at 5 Smith St. in Smithville.
This is a pretty bland brief, but pretty typical of what briefs are like. It gives all the necessary details, but on the surface, looks just like every other community event out there.
With a little more “spice” and information in the release, this could have become an article. Maybe this spaghetti supper is part of a larger initiative by Smith Church to combat hunger and homelessness. Maybe there was a recent study done on the rising rate of homelessness in the area, and that’s why the church has made addressing this problem their No. 1 priority. Then again, maybe not.
The key is to take an objective look at your event or news item and see if there is something more there than just the “spaghetti supper.” If there is, highlight it. If not, write your release in such a way that at least a brief will give it some decent exposure.
Saving the best for last, the fourth option, an article, obviously offers a much more in-depth look at what you are communicating about. It is featured much more prominently than a brief, and generates much more attention. The positive effects that can be created from that attention are huge, yet tough to measure, because they are so far-reaching, especially if the article is written well.
The difference between having your press release turned into a brief, and your press release developed into an article, is the difference between a “spaghetti supper” at a church, and that same church’s resolution and strategy to combat hunger and homelessness on a local level.
It’s your job to highlight that difference in your press release.
You should take a look in various publications to see the ways they package information. Spot listings, briefs, and articles and notice the difference. Get a feel for what kind of information tends to fall into each category. Also, notice the format papers use for each package, and when sending your information, keep that format in mind.
Remember: Less work for us + timely, newsworthy information from you = better chance of getting your information into the paper.
When To Send Your Release
The timing of your release is important. Send it too early and it could be forgotten. Send it too late and the paper may not have time to get to your event or news item, even if they want to.
Truthfully, there is no exact formula for figuring out the right time to send your release. It really depends on your subject matter.
If you’re promoting an upcoming concert, about a month to a month-and-a-half in advance is a good guideline. This will give the editor enough time to list the concert in the entertainment listings for several weeks, do an advance story on the concert or arrange for a concert review if they want, but not so much time they forget about the event. You can always send a few follow-up reminders as well.
For a local event at a school or church, two weeks before the event is good timing.
For a recent news event or development, as soon as possible is best.
What Makes for a Good Press Release?
A press release is only as good as the information it contains.
First off, your information should be timely. That means it should relate to something that is coming up, or has recently happened. It should not relate to an event scheduled two years from now. It shouldn’t be about something that happened last month, unless some interesting development has come out of it.
Your information should also be newsworthy. In other words, it should be something readers, and therefore editors and reporters, would care about.
You should not assume that what you’re writing about is important — you should convey the importance in your release.
Understand that editors and reporters are used to being pitched ideas every day of the week and twice on Sundays. They can smell hype and fluff from a mile away. Therefore, avoid it at all costs. If you don’t have facts and actual evidence to lend credence to your information, find them, or go back to the drawing board and find a new angle.
Whenever possible, include good pictures. At the very least, they give the reporter or editor a visual idea of what you’re talking about, and they break up the monotony of staring at words on paper. At most, they can convince them to delve deeper and pursue a story. Even if all you get out of the release is a brief or listing, the picture may run along with it, giving you some extra exposure.
Other Tips Before You Write
Understand the nature of your media outlets. That means, understand what kind of publication you are sending your release to.
Is it a local paper that serves 20,000 readers? Is it a large city paper with 500,000 readers? Is it a trade magazine? Is it more news-oriented, or does it focus on entertainment? Is it a weekly paper that runs mostly briefs, and not many articles? Is it a daily paper that runs mostly articles, and not many briefs?
Doing your research beforehand will save you time in the long run.
Many times people just develop a list of media contacts, then send off press releases in bulk. This is ineffective. You’ll get a mediocre response, which for mediocre effort, is exactly the response you deserve.
If you want a great response, a little extra effort will go a long way, and that means tailoring your release for different types of newspapers.
Some papers, usually smaller, local ones, focus on local content. The way to spark their interest is to highlight the local angle.
Other newspapers serve a larger readership, and the local angle doesn’t matter as much. In that case, an artist’s national success, for example, may be more important.
You don’t need to write a different press release for every single publication. But you should tailor releases for different types of publications.
Different publications are different. They publish different types of news. Writing the same press release for all of them doesn’t make sense.
How Do I Write a Press Release?
For starters, check out a press release I wrote for an author that resulted in newspaper coverage. This should give you an idea of what a press release should look like and how it should be written.
And here is a sample of how a press release should look:
Remember, before you start writing:
- Figure out who you’re sending your release to, at each publication. If you don’t have the correct editor contacts, get them.
- Determine how you want to send your release — e-mail, snail mail or fax, or a combination, and gather all the necessary materials — paper, envelopes, labels if you want to use them, computer, etc.
- Determine how many releases you will have to write based on the different types of publications you’re sending to. You can break your release up into local versus national papers, entertainment versus news-oriented papers, newspapers versus magazines, or whatever is appropriate.
Now, for the fun part:
1) Press releases should be written on company/organization letterhead, if you have it, with contact information and the logo already printed on it. If you don’t have any letterhead, you should put this information at the top left corner of the page, with the company/organization name, address, phone number, e-mail address and Web site.
2) At the top left, under the company’s contact info write FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE. It should be in all caps, and you can bold it if you really want. This is generally ignored by reporters and editors , but it’s an industry standard, and still necessary to let the media outlet know that you are formally releasing the information.
3) A couple of spaces down (it doesn’t really matter how many spaces, we’re not measuring them with a ruler, just create enough space to achieve separation) include contact info for someone (it can be yourself) who can give an interested media outlet more information. Call it “Contact” or something similar. This should include name, address, phone number, e-mail address and Web site.
4) A couple more spaces down, include the date. Some people recommend putting the date further down, with the place your news is coming from. I prefer to see it here.
5) A few more spaces down, write and center your headline. This is a brief summary of what your press release is about. It needs to impact and inform. Look at headlines in some newspapers to get an idea of what a headline needs to accomplish.
This is an example of a headline that works:
Local Cardiologist Discovers Cure for Rare Heart Disorder
It is clear, concise, and tells the reader enough that they will want to read on. You can write your headline in bold if you want. Make sure it is large enough to grab attention, but not huge. Still, as long as it can be seen, the way it’s presented is not as important as what it says.
6) A few more spaces down, include a dateline – in English, this means where your release is coming from. Is it Boston? San Diego? This is presented with the city, state, and a long dash. For example: Boston, Ma.—
7) Next is the body of your press release, which begins right after the above dash. This is where the fun really begins. Make sure you double space your copy, and keep your margins wide. It’s easier on the eyes.
Remember that your release should be no longer than it absolutely needs to be. Usually, there is never a reason for a press release to be longer than two pages, unless the President of the United States has been caught canoodling with members of an alien civilization, and even then, two pages is pushing it. One page should generally be enough. If it leaks onto a second page, at the bottom of the first page, put this, centered:
Most important in the release is the first paragraph. Simply put, give them the goods.
Often times the first paragraph is all that gets read. And if you write it correctly, that’s OK. The first paragraph should encapsulate the nature of your event or news item with the specifics of Who, What, Where, When, and Why — the why being why it’s important. If you write it correctly, we’ll read on and find out more.
Keep in mind that your event or news item, as important as you may think it is, may only get turned into a listing, or a brief, as described above. Therefore, all the information necessary for a listing or brief, or most of it at least, should be available in this first paragraph.
Remember to highlight an angle appropriate to the publication you’re sending your release to. If it’s a local newspaper, highlight the local angle.
Beyond the first paragraph, expand as much as necessary while still keeping it brief. Flesh out the details, but only the absolutely pertinent ones. If your release is about a local artist putting on a concert, don’t try to tell his life story in a press release. Give enough information to pique interest, but not so much to overwhelm.
Your last paragraph should mirror the first one – a recap of the important details, but this time with an added call to action, and the contact information necessary for someone to take that action.
For example: For complimentary review tickets, call 555-5000.
To schedule an interview with Johnny Smith, call 555-5000.
If a reporter or editor actually reaches this paragraph, a) you’ve written an EXCELLENT press release, and b) this call to action with the necessary contact info will make it very easy for them to do something with your release besides put it on their desk and forget about it.
At the end of your release use the follow symbol, centered on the page, to signify that the release is over:
It is three number signs. Don’t ask me where this symbol came from, but in the press world, it means “the end.”
Then, send the release off.
Remember, in terms of format, your press release should look something like this:
Write in a clear, interesting way. Avoid buzzwords, corporate mumbo jumbo, unintelligible garbage, and the like. So your company is a “technology solutions provider”? I’d prefer you tell me what that means in English.
Facts presented clearly are the key. Editors and reporters are often cynical and unimpressed. Remember, they can smell hype and fluff from a mile away. Therefore, avoid using it.
Keep your sentences relatively short, with the occasional longer sentence thrown in to break up the monotony.
Write in a way that’s appropriate to the subject matter. You wouldn’t write about a new alternative rock artist in the same way you would an elderly painter who is having a display of over 500 paintings at a local hotel.
Speak the press’ language. In most cases, newspapers use Associated Press style, or AP style. In many cases this is not the same as standard written English. Capitalizations, some grammatical rules and other details are different. Get yourself an AP Stylebook (often known as the Journalist’s “Bible”) and consult it regularly. They are available at www.apstylebook.com.
By writing in AP style you will gain the respect of the editor or reporter reading your release. Trust me on that one. You will also make it much easier for us to take information directly from your release (sent by e-mail, of course) and put it into a new document. And we like it when you make our job easier.
Again, avoid corporate mumbo jumbo and phrases that have become meaningless with overuse. Another example: “meet the needs of.”
What does “meet the needs of” really mean? Nothing. So throw it away, and use something else.
Don’t use multisyllabic, inflated words, when simple, common words will do. Some people use the word “neophyte” when they could just say “novice” because they think they’re impressing people. They’re not.
Editors and reporters aren’t impressed. They’re pressed for time. They don’t want inflated language. They want a story that actually matters. Give them that, and you’ll get the coverage you want.
On using quotes: There is no cardinal rule on using quotes in press releases. Sometimes they work, other times they don’t. Quotes can infuse a human voice into the release. It can break up monotony and, especially if the individual is someone credible, can increase the impact of your release. Or it can just come off as more corporate mumbo jumbo.
As always, avoid the hype. People at newspapers can generally see through it. If a quote adds life and impact to your release, use it. If not, skip it and find something that does.
When using quotes, use only the word “said” to attribute quotes to an individual.
“It was an incredible experience,” Smith said.
Don’t use “added,” “exclaimed,” “announced,” etc., as in:
“It was an incredible experience,” Smith exclaimed.
Don’t do it for two reasons: It violates AP style, and it’s annoying.
Revise and Proofread – Several Times Over
Once it’s written, read your press release over several times. When reading, assume you’re someone in a newsroom who’s busy and has to read dozens of releases every day, in addition to working on all the stories they’ve already decided to pursue.
Make sure your release is clear and simple, in other words something the average person could easily read all the way through. At the same time, make sure it is informative, and provides plenty of facts and details. Lastly, make sure it’s interesting. If not, find ways to make it so. The moment your release begins to get boring or confusing, begin revising from that point.
Then proofread and spell check your release several times over. Don’t rely on your computer’s spell check to find all errors, as it won’t pick up misuse of words such as “here” instead of “hear,” “there” instead of “their,” or the places where you wrote “beings” instead of “begins.”
Hours and days of hard work can be wasted by typos that call your credibility into question.
Good press can be invaluable. Give newspapers and magazines the information they need and want, and you’ll get it. Press releases are the ideal way to make this happen.
Effective press releases follow certain basic conventions in the way of layout. But more importantly, they are timely, newsworthy, written clearly and concisely, and convey the most relevant facts in the most interesting way. They highlight an angle that is in line with the type of news that paper normally publishes. They are sent to the appropriate person at the appropriate time. They are free of spelling and grammatical errors, adhere to AP style, and steer clear of corporate fluff.
Remember that editors and reporters want news, but they don’t have time to sift through paragraphs full of garbled garbage to get to it. Respect their time.
Never force your reader to do the work you should have done in making sense of the information you present. Chances are they won’t.
Do your homework beforehand.
Finally, understand that press releases are not a one-shot deal. They are part and parcel of developing a solid relationship with the media.
When you consistently write and send good press releases, you become a reliable source of information for a newspaper. Reporters and editors begin to notice you. You begin to establish some level of familiarity and respect.
Even if most of your releases only turn into listings or briefs, when you do send along something truly newsworthy, you’ll be more likely to have it developed into an article. And when papers need a source in your field for a particular article, they may call you.
Writing a good press release gives the press what they need and want — timely news, clearly presented. It makes our job much easier. We spend more time developing worthy stories, and less on trying to sift through five pages on corporate tax initiatives when all we’re looking for is the location of your lecture.
In return, you will get what you need and want — good publicity, which, like most good things in this world, is something you can’t buy.