Writing a good press release isn’t rocket science, but there are some important rules to follow and mistakes to avoid if you want to increase your chances of scoring publicity.
I became all-too-familiar with these mistakes in my first newspaper gig. Part of my job involved taking press releases and turning them into listings or briefs — short blurbs with just the bare facts. Besides being incredibly tedious, this chore exposed me to common errors in press releases that make it difficult, if not impossible, for journalists to get the information they need.
Though I transitioned out of that listings gig a long time ago, I still receive press releases on a regular basis, and I still see the same errors. Some are minor, but others basically guarantee that the release will end up in the trash bin.
So in no particular order, here are the most common mistakes in a press release, and how to avoid them:
- The release is written as an advertisement, not a news story
Many releases are written like advertisements, full of cliches, wild claims and adjectives like “amazing,” “top-notch,” “cutting-edge” and “incredible.” A press release is essentially a promotional tool, but it should not be written that way. It should be written in language a journalist will understand and respond to — it should be written as a news story.
If you visit a news website or open up a newspaper or magazine, you’ll see the difference between ads and news stories. Ads are blatantly self-promotional and make bold and often unsubstantiated claims to compel people to buy something. They tend to be emotionally driven. News stories report on facts and circumstances from a third-party, supposedly unbiased viewpoint, relying on objective details, not subjective conclusions. News stories aren’t trying to sell anything — they’re trying to inform or educate people about some aspect of the world. Your press release should adopt the same tone.
Show, don’t tell. Instead of saying it’s “amazing” and “incredible” and using cliche upon cliche — all of which essentially means nothing — show the reader why it’s amazing and incredible. Here’s an example of the difference between showing and telling.
“The tree is magnificent!”
“The 2,000-year-old Redwood stood more than 300 feet tall, towering over the other trees in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Its thick, twisted trunk cast an intimidating shadow across the forest floor, while its spiky green leaves seemed to graze the sky.”
See the difference? Telling, as advertisements often do, actually tells you nothing. Showing offers us specific details that help us picture or understand something and draw our own conclusions about it.
So don’t tell the journalist the tree is magnificent. Describe the tree, and allow the journalist to draw that conclusion themselves. By extension, don’t tell a journalist your company is great. Describe your company, describe your products, describe your services, cite statistics and case studies, reference facts, provide evidence and allow the journalist to come to that conclusion themselves.
Bottom line, journalists don’t respond to excited business owners screaming about how awesome their company is. Journalists respond to logical, legitimate details that tell an interesting story, so that’s what you have to give them.
2. Using “I” or “you” in the press release
And in related news, please do not use “I” or “you” in a press release, as in “I’m really excited to offer this new service” or “you will love this new product!” The only exception would be using “I” or “you” in a quote. Don’t use “I” because you should be writing the release as an independent third party, not as yourself. Don’t address the reader as “you” because the reader is a journalist, and when you say things like “you will love it!” you have in fact ensured that instead of “loving it” the journalist will most likely be “pressing delete” or “throwing your release in the trash.” In keeping with the rules for news stories, write only in third person.
3. Using exclamation points
Have you ever seen an exclamation point in a news story if it wasn’t included as part of a quote? Nope, and you never will. Exclamation points may belong in advertisements, but they don’t belong in news. Keep your tone measured, conservative and focused on interesting facts and detail. Do not include phrases such as “This product is truly astounding!” The only thing that’s “truly astounding” is how quickly your release will get tossed in the recycle bin.
4. There is no news
Press releases exist to alert the press of an actual story, but some releases have no story to tell. They’re just a thinly veiled advertisement passed off as “news.” Journalists may be a lot of things, but they’re not stupid, and they can spot a ploy for free advertising from a mile away. Next time you write a press release, honestly assess whether you’re offering actual news, or just trying to avoid paying for an ad. Is your release tied to an actual event, a development or a newly relevant piece of information? Is it tied to a discovery, a breakthrough or a new product or service launch? Or is it just you talking about how great your company is?
The problem is, being great is not newsworthy, unless you can translate that greatness into terms that readers or viewers will care about. If you want to GET publicity you have to GIVE the news outlet a story that will matter to their audience. Dig deeper to uncover that story. Is there an upcoming event you can tie your release to — such as a seminar or workshop? Did you just publish a book in your field? Is there a newly published study with information that relates to your business? Is there some growing problem that your services solve? Determine what is actually newsworthy about your venture before you try to pass off your advertisement as news.
5. The news is buried
I recently received a press release that was well-written and promoted an interesting news item, but didn’t announce that news item until the fourth paragraph. The first three paragraphs were spent setting the stage and leading up to the actual news. Not a wise move. The essence of your news item should always be summed up in the first paragraph, because sometimes that’s all that gets read. Journalists are busy, and they don’t have time to skim through your release to find the news that should have been communicated from the first sentence. Start by announcing everything a journalist would need to know — the Who, What, Where, When and Why of your news item — in the first paragraph.
Sure, you can flesh it out and expand in later paragraphs, but your first paragraph needs to neatly summarize your news tidbit. Assume that’s all a journalist will read, but make your release so interesting that they’ll keep going.
6. Poorly written and nearly impossible to understand
I recently received a press release twice in two days — and couldn’t understand it either time. I read through this release repeatedly trying to figure out what product it was promoting. After about the fifth read through, I had a vague idea of what the release might have been trying to say. So I deleted the release and asked the sender to take me off their list.
There is no better way to guarantee that your press release results in zero news coverage than to write it so poorly that a journalist can’t understand what you’re trying to say. Most journalists are juggling multiple assignments and multiple duties each day. They don’t have time to sit and try to decipher what your press release may or may not be getting at. If they can’t immediately grasp your story, chances are they’ll toss your release and never give it a second thought.
It’s OK if you’re not Shakespeare, and it’s not the end of the world if there’s a typo or two. Though you obviously want to send a release that’s well-written and error-free, mistakes do occasionally happen, and no one’s expecting your release to read like poetry. But if your press release is confusing, convoluted and unclear, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. A journalist is not going to tell a story they can’t understand.
7. Complicated, distracting layout
The most important part of a press release is the information. But some people insist on “jazzing up” their releases with weird colors, graphics, fonts and layouts that assault people’s vision and distract from the actual news. Pictures, charts and visual aids are a great supplement to your press release, but that’s where the optical bells and whistles should end. Journalists are not going to be wowed by your purple and green color scheme with little dancing monkeys at the bottom. They’re going to be wowed by an interesting story. So focus on the story, not cursive font and bullfrogs in top hats.
8. No details or specifics, just vague claims
I recently read a press release that was full of cliches and hype that basically said nothing at all. Then the release mentioned an interesting development — but it talked about that development in the vaguest terms possible, along the lines of, “And then something upsetting happened one day, and it changed his life.” And that was the entirety of the explanation. I wanted to cry. This was the only part of the release that was actually compelling, and it was completely skimmed over in favor of more meaningless self-promotional filler.
This mistake is closely related to the advertisement vs. news error, where fluff is included instead of actual substance. The solution here is to provide details and tell the story. Find the unique angle and work it. Give the journalist all the information they could want (within the space of a page, that is) to get them interested in your story. Don’t feed them lame adjectives and then leave them wondering about the one interesting thing you said. Ironically enough, this terrible press release was written by a company that claims to specialize in PR. Which leads me to my next point…
9. Leaving it all up to a PR company that “knows what they’re doing”
Listen, if I had a nickel for every “expert” PR company that had no clue what they were doing, I wouldn’t have to go to work and read press releases from “expert” PR companies that have no clue what they’re doing. Saying you know what you’re doing and actually knowing what you’re doing are two very different things. In my experience, many PR companies are well-versed in the former — not so much in the latter.
Some of the worst press releases I’ve ever read were from supposedly big-time PR companies. So don’t be fooled by a slick website or a posh building. The only thing that guarantees a good press release is:
1) Legitimate, interesting news.
2) An ability to communicate that news clearly to a journalist in terms they’ll respond to.
A nice office, a fancy website and bold claims of PR knowledge have nothing to do with being able to write a good press release. If you don’t have a legit story, and your release doesn’t tell that story clearly to a journalist in terms they’ll respond to, then you’re out of luck, no matter how much that big-time PR company charged. Which leads me to my final point…
10. Lack of input from someone with a journalism background
All of these mistakes tie back to one main problem — lack of input from a current or former journalist. When people who don’t understand journalism try to write press releases, they make these mistakes, because they don’t really understand what journalists need and want. When people who know what journalists need and want — like, you know, journalists — write press releases, voila! You get a press release that gives journalists what they need and want. Simple, right?
The bottom line is that only a journalist knows what a journalist needs. Everyone else is just guessing. That’s why I strongly recommend that someone with a journalism background either write or edit your release. Because I don’t care if your PR company has marble floors or connections with God; unless they employ former journalists, I highly doubt they can deliver the killer press release you need.