Is it a sales document, a blog post, a puff story about their business? What should it contain and how should it be written? Drawing on my experience as a journalist, the following article explains what I need to see in a press release to get me excited and give you a chance of being covered.
What is a press release?
Think of it as content for journalists. Great content should be interesting to the reader, and compelling enough to make them read and want to share it. No journalist is in the business to be unread. Every journalist wants their output to be seen and enjoyed by the widest possible audience.
They achieve this by educating, informing and often entertaining their readers. If your press release helps the journalist achieve these objectives you have scored, and likely not just once, because where there is one good press release there are likely more to come.
You can’t write good content without preparation so follow these steps and you will create press releases that journalists want to act on:
1. What is on the news agenda?
The news agenda is simply that which the media is talking about, at that moment. It is important because it’s a snapshot of the perceived actualities, if you like, of the world you are working in.
To become relevant to that world you must know what is being talked about by who and in what tone of voice. When you connect to that reality by sharing news that is relevant but unexpected you achieve instant interest.
Think about what is trending in your sector of news. What major successes or crises have occurred or are occurring? What threats and opportunities can you see and how are you responding to them? What major events and big calendar items are over the horizon? Are there any government figures to be released like trade figures, budget announcements, key legislation that affects your sector?
Journalists won’t want to know your price list; they want to know the insights you can offer to explain, back up or refute trends and events as they occur.
When your press release connects your news to the news agenda, you become instantly relevant. That is why a good business calendar is invaluable. It alerts you to what is going to become news and is also why you need to keep a weather eye out on the media in your sector.
This can easily be done via Twitter; following key media and journalists. Spending 10 minutes every day just scanning the news, makes you ready to identify what is news-worthy.
To understand why it is very important to use a business calendar and how it can help you, please read our blog on the subject
2. What is your big idea?
Each press release should introduce a news item or idea to the journalist. That idea will be some insight or development in your business.
It could be a product launch, new market extension, new hire, new partnership, new achievement, awards won or a funding round to name a few.
But the news item alone only takes on meaning when connected to the current news agenda. Even the invention of, for example, a perpetual motion machine, is only newsworthy because nothing like that currently exists, and the huge impact it will have on the world as we know it.
It is your news item and the insights you provide deriving from it that paint pictures in a journalist’s mind and gets attention. When you write a press release, be sure to clearly define what the big idea or news item you are presenting is and your insights into why it’s important.
3. Writing the press release
One mistake people make is to confuse the two steps of deciding what to say with how to say it. Some writers are very talented and can do both at the same time. My tip is to separate the two. First decide what you are going to write, or your big idea. Once that is clear then think about how to write it. It is far easier this way, and armed with clarity, the words will suggest themselves. Just ensure that you follow the tips below.
- Make sure your grammar is correct and your spelling checked. Most spell-checkers will do this you quickly
- Write your news item, the main body of the press release, in as few words as you need, avoiding repetition and waffle. Three to four paragraphs should be adequate for your press release, and journalists will be grateful. If they want more information they will be in touch. In the introductory statement at the top of the release (often called the teaser) I advise you cover the 5W’s and 1H – Who (did) What (activity or event) Where (the bounds of your business or sector) When (time frame of your story) Why and How. The journalist knows what you are about straight away
- Use short sentences, not complex clauses. The latter are difficult to comprehend and involve more work for a journalist who is reading twenty or thirty press releases every day
- Never sell, just tell! Tell stories that make and illustrate your point. Use data like statistics, your own research or anecdotal experience to make your case. Hype always comes across as bluster and is disliked by most journalists as do empty boasts like “'best' or 'amazing'. You make such points by putting them in quotes from real people and better still by showing numbers to make your case
- Avoid jargon wherever possible. Jargon does not make you clever, it makes you seem remote and nerdy. Plain English is always preferable and technical terms kept to a minimum because plain English gets far better engagement from the journalist’s readers
- Use quotes to give an interpretation of the facts in your story and a human slant. The more authoritative the quoted figure is the more influential the quote becomes. Sometimes the quoted party is a member of your company. That works well so long as the quote conveys insight and sheds meaning on the story in the press release
- Personal stories and anecdotes are engaging in press releases. Use them to show the challenges encountered and the triumphs achieved. Your news item becomes a mini drama, and everyone is engaged by challenge, risk and victory
- Pictures are worth a thousand words. Attach good high resolution images to your press release to illustrate your product in use, your company in action, or key figures quoted or featured in the press release. Pictures bring stories to life and sometimes are the reason a story is carried
- At the bottom of the press release add notes to the editor. Be sure to include contact names for further interview or comment, telephone numbers, Twitter handles, website addresses, and other data in short format to help the reader research the press release. You should include links to quoted data sources where appropriate.
4. Writing the headline
I deal with this last because its best to write the headline last, but it’s the most important part of the press release and worth spending time and taking team members' opinions on.
You can use alliteration, humour and any form of words that are arresting. But don’t worry if you’re not a born copy writer. Journalists feed on the steak (the content) not just the sizzle (headline), though the sound and aroma of the sizzle draws them in. It is perfectly adequate to write a straight headline so long as it draws attention to the story below. Do not go beyond 80 characters including spaces, and the shorter the better.
You can also use statistics in your headline to catch the attention of the journalist and in the content itself. If you want to know more that and why you should do it, read our blog giving 5 reasons why you should introduce statistics in your press release.
The templates we have on JournoLink guide you through these steps in writing a press release and our business calendar identifies key dates by business sector and geography for your business to identify the hooks that you can hang your news on in the news agenda.
Questions on writing press releases are welcome below (make sure you log in or sign up first!). So you see, it’s not such a dark art after all.
Written by: Tetteh Kofi, Brand Ambassador
Tet is passionate about helping startups build their relationships with the press, and with his journalistic experience, works each day towards bridging the gap between the two. If he's not speaking on the radio or at our next PR workshop, you'll find him tweeting on Twitter about marketing, business, politics and more.
This article first appeared on UKBusinessForums.co.uk.