Take it from those of us who know: An easy way to ruin your relationship with the news media is to send a bad press release.
Newsroom fax machines and reporters' inboxes are flooded on a daily basis with press releases from companies, government agencies, non-profit groups, and even average citizens trying to get their neighborhood plight noticed. If you send in a press release that's riddled with grammatical errors, buried in a convoluted e-mail, or completely irrelevant to the reporter's coverage area, you might as well be tossing your press release down a sewer drain. If you deluge a news organization with unprofessional or uninteresting releases, your chances of ever getting favorable news coverage are zero-to-slim.
But when done correctly, a good press release will grab a reporter's attention and force their curiosity to want to learn more about your announcement.
"I want to be a trusted resource for that media so I'm trying to give the journalist all the information when they need it so they don't have to go anywhere else," says Gillian Pommerehn, director of public relations for Crosby Marketing, which is based in Annapolis, Maryland, and whose clients include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DuPont.
The trick, professionals say, is knowing how to format a good release, where to send it, and what information to include. The release is the face of your company that you're sending out into the world, so it's not a task to be taken lightly. Don't forget: With most press releases now available online through wire services or your company's website, customers or clients may also be reading them, not just reporters.
"Really good, clean, crisp, grammatically correct writing is so important in creating a positive impression of your company," says Lauren Selikoff, chief marketing officer for Allison & Partners, which works with Samsung and Michelin and is based in San Francisco. "This is not a task to turn over to the intern."
Here's some tips to help you craft your message.
Mind the Message
One thing comes to the mind of any good journalist when they receive a press release: Why would I care? The "news" in your news release has to be obvious, or else your notice will be on a fast route to the recycle bin. The first step is figuring out exactly what message you are trying to get across, and how it qualifies as news.
"The hardest thing for people who are new to PR to grasp is you really have to take your ego out of it when it comes to finding something the press is going to write about," Selikoff says. "What's newsworthy to a publication's readers is often completely different than what you are trying to get across."
That means your release needs a good headline. That can be something saying how your new product is going to make life easier, or how it relates to a news event. Your headline should be an attention-grabber, so reporters can see right away how the announcement affects their audience.
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Seek out Examples
If you've never written a press release before, you're in luck: The Internet is chock-loaded with examples and models you can use. More than likely, someone has already composed a press release on the same topic that you can use for inspiration. Don't copy — but do soak up their style and manner of ordering the content.
PR professionals recommend checking out press release distribution services such as PRWeb and PR Newswire to find a model on which to base your release. Searching Google for announcements related to your business — promotions, new product launches, new branch openings, etc. — is also likely to produce an example you can copy.
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Mastering the Structure
Experts say press releases should be no longer than one page. Every press release has a basic structure:
Put the words "For immediate release" at the very top of the page. The headline — the key to grabbing attention — should be centered on the page, and usually written in bold or capital letters. Under that, put a subhead, often in italics, that elaborates on the headline.
The headline and subhead are the prime places to work in keywords that will help search engine optimization and draw traffic to your release once it's online, says Leyl Master Black, managing director at San Francisco's SparkPR, whose clients include Bing and Barclays. For instance, she says, if you're launching an e-commerce platform, you want the words e-commerce, platform, and software to appear in your headline and opening paragraphs several times.
Black and others say you should assume no one is going to read beyond the first paragraph, which makes it the most important. Many releases also take up a journalistic style, beginning with a dateline, or the city and state the news is coming from.
"You need to have the theme and anything that is newsworthy summarized very concisely and neatly," Selikoff says. "The remainder of the press release is kind of fleshing out the story. But the main story has to get across in the first paragraph."
The old standard is that a release should be similar to a story the journalist would write. Reporters often stick to a structure known as the inverted pyramid, which means the most significant parts or the story should be at the top, with everything getting less important as you go farther down the page. This ensures that even someone who just reads the top of the release will get the most important information, and makes it easier to cut text from the bottom for space.
Experts recommend that your release should also include at least one quote in the body. The quote should come from someone knowledgeable about the announcement being made, such as a product manager if you're announcing a new invention, or a top executive if announcing company wide changes. The quote can also be used to explain how your announcement makes you stand out from other competitors, even if you don't mention them by name.
"The quote is where you can add context to your announcement and offer an opinion about it," Black says. "The quote is where you can talk about why this is important to the industry."
Selikoff also warns against using a canned quote talking about how great your company is. Use a quote that provides some insight instead. It's also helpful to know some publications' standards on using quotes from a release. While blogs and very small publications will often use information directly from a release, and re-use quotes you include in the release in their story, major publications most often will not.
The last paragraph is typically a standard set of information about your company, including your mission, when the company was founded, awards it has received or other achievements. This provides basic background information the journalist or the public can use to put the release in context and understand more about who you are.
You don't want to pique a journalist's interest only to have that person scrounging and searching to find who to call for more information. Contact information can either be at the top or bottom of the page and should include the name, e-mail, and title of whomever the media contact for the story is. Usually, it will be your company spokesperson or a dedicated staff person familiar with the topic who can answer reporters' questions.
"There is a certain format for press releases that media are accustomed to getting, " Pommerehn says. "It's Important to kind of keep that format."
You'll most likely be sending out releases through e-mail and posting them on your company's website, so experts say you should consider including some digital features, such as video and audio. It's also an opportunity to link back to other company information available online — previous press releases and related matter such as customer testimonials or performance reports — that will give the news media additional context.
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Target Your Distribution
The first rule of sending out a press release to know which reporters you're trying to reach.
"Not only is the press release itself important, but who you're communicating with is very important," Pommerehn says. "It's a major pet peeve for journalists when the PR person or the person doing the press release does not do their homework."
If it's a local news event, find out who in the local media covers your neighborhood or issue. Do some research on bigger news organizations to find out which reporters or producers cover your industry. Some media organizations have designated e-mail addresses or fax numbers to which all releases are directed.
Professionals say to be mindful of what kind of organization you're reaching out to as well: a reporter at an environmental magazine, for instance, might be turned off by a flood of paper-consuming messages coming from the fax machine.
Most journalists expect press releases to arrive by e-mail these days. Put your document in the body of the message because most reporters won't open an attachment from someone they don't know.
If you have a public relations budget, you can also send your release to a wire service for broad geographical distribution. Small companies can distribute through PRWeb.com for as little as $80, Black says. Other services such as Businesswire.com and PRNewswire.com are pricier but will expose your release to a broader audience.
Don't' forget that media organizations run on tight deadlines. Pommerehn says the morning is typically the best time to send a release for most publications while late morning or early afternoon is better for television and radio outlets.
Advance notice helps too. If you have an event you are trying to get covered, waiting to send notice until editors are rushing out of the door on Friday evening could lead to a missed opportunity for media exposure. Editors will have to scramble to fit it into their story budgets for the weekend, leaving a bad taste in their mouth about your company.
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