Monday, January 28, 2008

Writing the Press Release that People Read

By Ben Delaney © 2008

In my many years as a journalist and editor, half the press releases I’ve ever received were tossed away after I read the first sentence. Half of those left were deep-sixed when I finished the first paragraph. Will your press release land in the recycling bin or on the front page?

The secrets of writing good press releases are not dissimilar to those of any good writing. You have to be relevant. You have to catch the reader’s attention. You have to spell well and write coherent sentences. Most of all, you have to write about something interesting.

Determining what is interesting is where many people seem to have problems. I’ve seen hundreds of press releases touting the latest upgrade to an obscure piece of software, or the recent promotion of someone I have never heard of, working for a company of equal obscurity. What these releases have in common is their lack of a hook – the bit of information that catches my eye, and makes me want to know more.

What they also have in common is a lack of understanding of the recipient. Your organization’s hiring of a new development director will not interest a vast audience, but it will interest other nonprofit leaders, foundation program managers, and large donors. So the key is to put the information in front of them – the people who care about your news.

Another all too common foible of PR writing is the overuse of jargon. I have gotten dozens of releases that start out like this: “XYZ Corporation Announces New Breakthrough in FPGA Speed – Attains 128MIPS with new AGX-SSP1405.” This is typically followed by a series of acronyms and abbreviations, interspersed with words that look sorta like English. Even in a highly technical marketplace (where I have spent a lot of time), this sort or language is a turn-off and is certain to accomplish little other than filling recycling bins. My advise is to keep your language intelligent and simple. Imagine that you are explaining the topic to your father. Making it easy to understand will not insult the cognoscenti, but will give you a chance to influence the people who are not experts in your field.

Here’s the PR checklist. If you keep these 7 items in mind, your press releases will work hard for you.

  1. Know your audience. How often do you think the editor of a computer graphics technical newsletter will print articles on new women’s clothing? Having had that position, I can assure you that the answer is “never.” However, I frequently got press releases on clothing and fashion, new music players, new food products, great real estate opportunities, and incoming executives in the banking industry. My total interest in those releases was equal to the likelihood of my publishing them – zero. More importantly, the communications people and PR agencies who sent them got demerits for wasting my time. If you want to keep on the good side of journalists and editors (trust me, you do.) do your homework and build of list of media contacts who are interested in your story and clients. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

  2. Sell the story. Journalists have a job to do, which is meeting their readers’ needs for information. To do that, they have to sell story ideas to their editors. You have to sell your story to the reporter or editor to whom you send it. This person is a gatekeeper – and their work is easier if they keep the gate shut and just say no. But they need material and they need to address the interests of their readers. So, know the journalists, know the readers, and be prepared to pitch the story on their terms – make it easy for the gatekeeper to say yes. You do that by having clear objectives. Keep these questions in mind as you craft your release and plan you list:
    • What do we want them to know about us?
    • How do we want them to feel about us?
    • How do we want to be perceived by them?

    When you know the answers to those questions, you are ready to write a good release.

  3. Remember the five W’s. Do you? Remember the five W’s? As a reminder, they are:

    1. Who
    2. What
    3. When
    4. Where
    5. Why

    Every story needs to include this information, and a strong lead paragraph (more on this below) will include the 5 W’s right at the top. Be sure that you include these items so your readers will get what they need quickly.

  4. Make the headline catchy. I think a creative headline can help the weakest story. And it won’t hurt a strong release to have a eye-catching headline. If we think about our example of an organization that helps Central American farmers, imagine that they issue a press release talking about the impact their program has had in El Salvador. The release is written, but a discussion arises about the headline. Headline one is, “Aid and education help farmers increase yields in El Salvador.” Headline two says, “El Salvador’s children survive, thanks to better nutrition.” Which story would you read first?

  5. Write a strong lead. The lead is the first sentence or two of an article. A strong lead pulls the reader in and makes that reader want to know more. A good headline catches the reader’s (and editor’s ) eye, a strong lead invites them to finish the story. To follow the headline we discussed above, we might write a lead like this: “In 1999, 40% of El Salvador’s poor children died from nutritionally-linked diseases or starvation. Last year, after [our group] taught El Salvador’s farmers better methods, child deaths from nutritional problems are down more than 78%.” Don’t you want to know more about that now?

  6. Write a story, not an ad. PR is not advertising, and that needs to be clear in your planning and writing. A big difference is intent – a news release is intended to form the basis of a story. Ad copy is intended to sell something. A PR is informative, an ad is persuasive. Editors will not print ad copy presented as a story. Your release needs to contain information. It needs to inform and interest the reader. It needs to address their interests. Save your hard-sell pitch for your ads. Tell a story in your news release.

  7. Skip the CEO’s quote. Among journalists, quotes from the CEO are among the biggest jokes going. Editors know the CEO is proud of this accomplishment and hope to continue this positive trend. We know she is thrilled to death to be teaming up with JKL company and that this will probably be the most important product release since the serpent’s apple in Eden. So don’t waste your paper and the reporter’s time with this drivel if at all possible. If your CEO really has something interesting or important to say, that’s great. If your product just killed 100 customers, the CEO had better make a statement. If the CEO is the subject of the story – for example, she just won a big prize – then let’s hear her comments. Other wise, let the CEO relax on the golf course, and give the public some real information instead.
Writing a good news release, like any other writing task, is a combination of inspiration and skill. These points will help you understand the skills you need.

Finally you need to pitch your release. That means that you write a strong, but brief cover letter that explains why your story is important, who will want to read it, and why a particular media outlet is the right place for the story. If this is a really important story, you may want to offer an exclusive to a few reporters. If you do so, do it sequentially, to one at a time. And be careful to live up to your promise. Remember, only one reporter gets an exclusive.

After you send your letters and releases, wait a few days and then call the people you sent them to. Talk to the reporters about your organization, your story, and their readers. This is when you are selling your story – and good reporters will appreciate hearing about good stories. They may ask for more information or an interview. Be ready to provide what they need quickly. And ask them what their deadline is, and respect it. Deadlines do not get stretched in the media business, so if you help reporters meet their deadlines you will get far better coverage.

Thanks to my friend and PR guru, Daniel Kennedy of Daniel Kennedy communications in New York City, who provided insights and guidance to me in writing this article.