How to Write a Press Release

or News Release if you are a purist.

Here’s a guide to writing a Press Release. It’s meant to help people who have never done one before.

After I’ve given you a workable blueprint I’ll include a few words about why you might want to rethink why you are writing the thing in the first place.

Trust me, after decades as a senior journalist and as a senior public relations and strategic communications adviser, I can guarantee this format will work. Whether the people who told you to write a press release will agree is problematic. That’s because a distressing number of executives have a thoroughly mixed up idea of what a news release is all about. And yes, in the section at the end I will also explain the difference between a press and a news release.

So, enough. Here’s how to write a release.

Do not start to write until you can explain what the release is about in one short sentence. No subordinate clauses, no modifiers on conditionals, no self aggrandizing promotional phrases. If it cannot be done in one sentence, if it takes an all day management meeting to agree on the wording, then you do not have a clear message, you do not know why you are issuing a news release, and you should not be going any further.

Find the sentence. It is the most important thing in the release.

Examples:

MONOPOLY CORPORATION FIRES PRESIDENT

SECRETARY GENERAL CALLS EMERGENCY COUNCIL MEETING

NEWS CONFERENCE TOMORROW ON POLICE ALLEGATIONS

Once you have your short succinct sentence you can start to write.

These are the rules you follow . . .

No longer than one piece of Letter or A4 paper.

The ideal length is half a page.

My direct experience on both sides of the news release, backed by much opinion by journalists and PR pros is that you have at most, three or possibly four reading seconds to get your message into the brain of the reporter.

Most reporters and especially editors do not have the time, inclination, and certainly not the interest, for reading all the way through a release that doesn’t interest from the very first sentence.

Most releases these days are now displayed on a computer monitor. So, a good rule of thumb is to write no more than one computer screen worth of material. Write more than that and unless what the editor has already read is compelling the second screen full will not get read.

Chances are that if you are writing this release for a boss who has no real experience with the media, or communications, you will spend hours if not days polishing, rewriting, going to meetings about wording, sitting through fretting sessions about meaning, and on and on. I pity you but apart from bringing in an outside consultant who can ramrod through all of the bureaucratic business and fling the release out to the wolves of journalism like some beautifully ripe piece of meat, you likely will have to put up with it.

Just know deep in your heart that only some tiny, very tiny, percentage of journalists who read past the first line will ever reach the end. If your lunatic bosses insist on a release that goes past one page (I have seem some four and five page horrors) rest assured that no one will ever pay attention to those most tortured phrases the marketing meeting, or the political assessment department, spent days twisting into shape.

If you know what you are doing, (if you are reading this looking for guidance then you do not know what you are doing), and you have a Strategic Communication Plan , then it is possible to go beyond the half page to exploit lazy journalists, publications and web sites, and make it easy for them to print everything your send out verbatim.

It is done through attached “backgrounders” which in reality are propaganda pieces that the lazy and incompetent can pretend are real content.

But please, don’t waste your time trying this trick unless you really know what you are doing.

Tell People What This Piece of Paper is All About

This applies to both the print and electronic versions of your release. Put in large letters at the top, okay — you can put it under the organization’s letterhead if you must — PRESS RELEASE. I’d prefer you said NEWS RELEASE.

If you are sending it by email, and you should, put all of your creative effort into the email subject line. A vague, confused, or unclear subject line will not live to give birth.

example:

RELEASE — Treasurer loots bank accounts – Nevermind Resources Ltd

Don’t label it advisory, information, backgrounder, announcement, notice, or anything else. If it is to be sent to editors and journalists then call it a Press (preferably News) Release. In the hell that is daily journalism no one has the time to read brochures, newsletters, notes, pre-written feature material, or any of the rest of the junk that flows like a torpid Mississippi onto the monitors, through the faxes, and into the inboxes of people who have far too much to do already.

Some people like to put the word IMMEDIATE at the top next to the date on the theory that the desk editors are too stupid to determine that what you have to say is topical.

They’re not stupid. Leave the word off and use the page real estate for selling your message.

In the event that you want the details of the release to be delayed until a particular time or date then made sure you put in large letters something like , “EMBARGOED UNTIL JUNE 11TH 1330HRS”

Unless you have a good Communications Director shepherding this release into the world (and if you do then why aren’t they writing the damn thing?) try to warn your supervisors that in almost all cases some reporter, news outlet, or blogger, will break the embargo.

A basic rule of journalism is that once an embargo is broken then everyone is free to publish. A good communications director will anticipate that and perhaps has planned on a broken embargo as part of the strategic plan.

But if you are inexperienced, and your boss is ignorant of things PR, then expect to be beaten up metaphorically for allowing the embargo to be broken; as if you could stop a river by holding up your hand.

Remember that short sharp sentence we talked about at the beginning? Pull it up on your monitor, change it to all caps, strip out any other nouns, verbs, adjectives, that you can. Don’t worry about grammar. The sentence does not need to scan. Think in terms of a headline. All you want to do is get the point across. If the topic interests your journalist target then they will read at least the next sentence and so on, and hopefully so on, but probably not further than that.

That all-caps line is the first line of your news release. The remaining few, and please just a few, sentences flesh out the main message. You want just enough to interest, to entice, nothing more. If the nature of the release means lots of numbers or statistics then put one or two generalized numbers into your first sentences and make it clear that more detailed information is instantly available by calling the person listed at the bottom of the page. Keep in mind that you are not trying to write the article for the Wall Street Journal, or the script for ABC Television News. They have paid people to do that bit. Your job is to get them to want to write about your news.

If the release is being sent hither and thon around the country and world then it would be good idea to let people know where you are coming from, or where the news is. You do this by starting the first paragraph of your release, that all-capitals line, with the name of the city or locality, most associated with the release.

e.g.

Moscow: DACHAS FOR ALL INC. BUYS LARGEST US REAL ESTATE COMPANY

There is no point in calling a news conference for tomorrow in London if you’ve sent the release to Ulan Bator, Auckland, and Wisteria Illinois among half a hundred other places where no one, but no one, gives a damn.

You probably will have to send the release to wild and wonderful places, along with the most unlikely of news outlets, because executives without a clue like to be able to tell their bosses that they implemented “a full international public relations campaign including CNN, le Monde, the Shanghai Times, and CBS news” when in reality the only people who might, perhaps might, give the thing a look will be the local paper down the road, a specialty television outlet, two bloggers, and the two part time correspondents detailed to keep an eye on your type of organization and its business. The rest of them, if they have time to give more than a glance at what you have sent them, will mutter a “goddamn their horrible eyes” and move on.

Pull that trick enough times and your organization will be in serious trouble the day that a crisis develops and you are desperate for someone to give you the time of day so you can tell your side of the story. Good luck, you’ll be twisting in the wind before the initial news cycle is over.

Make sure your contact person listed on the release is available, and not “in a meeting”, “on vacation”, “can’t take calls.”

After all the work you’ve done to get some benighted wretch of a reporter or pay attention to your release the last thing you want is a iron fenced roadblock caused by the executive in charge of commenting on the release’s contents doing a walkabout or deciding that a golf game with the CEO is more important.

I’ve seen this happen many many times and it just makes you want to weep. Journalists take the absence of the contact person on a release as an insult and since journalists have highly trained memories they will not forget the insult.

From your point of view, all of your work has been wasted, the executive will probably find a way to dump the blame on you, and the organization you work for has done the equivalent of daubing sheep manure over itself.

Fire and Forget

Send the release out and try your best to forget about it. There is nothing that can be done if there is a mistake in it. No correction will every catch up with that misplaced modifier, or dropped comma.

There are many ways of distributing a news release depending on your organization’s Strategic Communication Plan. If there is no plan (sigh) then do yourself a favor and hire a company to do the work for you. There are many and all claim to be the best. Pick one and let the silly thing go. But if you are lucky then someone in your organization has a list of specific reporters, editors, and news outlets, that have shown interest in what you all do.

Treat such a list as gold and don’t ever abuse it. If by some chance James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly has once favorably mentioned the quality of the electronic widgets your company makes, and has left his email address, don’t swamp the poor guy with every quarterly report, change of management structure, notice of refinancing, or any of the other corporate detritus that gets spewed to analysts and shareholders.

Target your media contacts and treat them like shy garden faeries to be enticed out of the bushes with spice cake and Ceylon tea.

If you have a direct phone number for a sympathetic journalist then don’t hesitate about calling. But unless you are really good at cold calls don’t bother wasting your time by calling the central number of the New York Times, or for that matter the Cairns Lower East Side and Alley Weekly Shopper , and ask to speak to “The Editor”. If you are very lucky you might get to talk to the copy editor intern who signed on for the summer break two days previously.

For many companies and organizations the extent of the thinking about strategic communications starts and stops with news releases. Sometimes they extend their so-called strategy to include a monthly internal news letter and possibly a poster.

These are hugely ineffective unless part of a much wider strategic plan and often can work against what an organization is trying to say.

Large organizations commonly treat releases as internal documents and as a result the language that is used in them reflects the alliances and political allegiances of the bureaucrats and officials. Far too often I see the names of self import officials shoehorned into releases for the sole purpose of making a political point within the group.

I can put up with this sort of thing in internal newsletters, and those supremely useless monthly magazines which are only read by job seekers who have forgotten to bring a copy of the Economist with them to read while they wait in an outer Human Resources office. But this stuff does not belong in a news release.

I can’t stress this enough. The purpose of a news release, the only purpose, is to attract the attention of journalists. Think of it as a fishing lure. The job of the release is to hook the journalist and entice them to contact the organization directly.

A release that is put together by people consumed by corporate image, puffery, self importance, and spin control is doomed to failure, derision, and ignominy.

Why News Release and not Press Release?

Think about it. What is the press? Right, written publications. If you use the term Press Release you are ignoring all radio, television, internet, and journalists in media still to be invented.

Only a small proportion of journalists will object but given how difficult it is to get anyone at all to pay attention to your release why tick off anyone.

Call it a News Release.

Why are you doing this by yourself?

If all this seems a bit overwhelming and fraught with peril then consider hiring an expert. If there is only one release to be done then a professional can have it done, out the door, and into the maws of the journalistic hordes the same day, assuming your local management can delay the golf game long enough to approve the wording.

Not including the cost of an electronic service to distribute the email release it won’t cost more than a few hundred dollars.

If an organization, without a competent communications department –one that values urgency, tries to use existing staff and existing policy mechanisms then it will take days and days at a book value expense of redirected personnel so high to be staggering. And it probably won’t get any results.

Hire a pro.

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