Even though the whole journalism/print media model has been blown apart by the digital revolution, there’s still a role for the humble press release as you’ll see from recent interviews with leading PR consultancies in the professions (see, for example: http://kimtasso.com/the-move-to-digital-pr-a-conversation-with-tim-prizeman-of-kelso-consulting and http://kimtasso.com/digital-pr-in-the-legal-profession-an-interview-with-clare-rodway-of-kysen)
Different types of writing
At recent effective writing courses http://kimtasso.com/feedback-from-the-pm-forum-marketing-and-business-development-effective-writing-workshop, we explored the way in which those in marketing, PR and sales roles have to adapt to different styles of writing depending on whether they are preparing content for formal reports, web sites, blogs, email alerts, event invitations, pitches and tenders.
What became apparent was that many non-PR specialists needed a better understanding about the role of the press release and the particular style of writing that was required. So here’s a slightly updated section on press releases from the book that I co-authored with leading residential property journalist Graham Norwood back in 2006 http://kimtasso.com/publications/books/media/ :
What’s the purpose of a press release?
It is worth considering for a moment the purpose of a press release. It is to alert the media to a relevant story that they might wish to investigate further. In short, the press release “sells” your story and encourages the editor or journalist to pick up the phone and start a dialogue with you. The resulting article may look rather different to what you have put in your release – to reflect the particular interests of the journalist and his or her readership.
Some think that the media will simply reprint the press release as it appears – but this is rare.
The secondary purpose of the release is to provide information for your web site and social media channels so that your staff, clients and contacts are aware of new developments.
The history of the humble press release
It is said that the first press release was written by US journalist Ivy Lee – about an Atlanta train accident in 1906. It was thought to be the first time that a communication was written on behalf of an organisation for the media as a specific audience.
To understand why press releases have to be written in their particular way, you need to cast your minds back to the days of manual typesetting. During the letterpress era, moveable type was composed by hand for each page: “Cast metal sorts were composited into words and lines of text and tightly bound together to make up a page image called a forme, with all letter faces exactly the same height to form an even surface of type. The forme was mounted in a press, inked, and an impression made on paper”.
Structure of a press release
Because of the way in which newspapers were produced, press releases were always produced in a particular way (remember that this was before computers!):
- A title
- Date of release
- The body of the release
- Only print on one side of the paper
- Double space text
- With (more) to show further information was attached and (ends) when finished
- Contact details
- Notes to editors
This was because the editor and sub-editor would edit and mark up the actual press release from which the typesetters would work to create the newsprint.
Inverted pyramid structure
The history also explains why press releases use the journalist “inverted pyramid” of writing stories – editors removed material from the bottom of the release depending on how much space they had. Therefore, the story had to be able to stand on just its first paragraph if that was all that was printed. Subsequent paragraphs added further but less important detail.
- First paragraph (ideally the first sentence) tells the whole story
- Subsequent paragraph – with most important information first – cover the Who, What, Where, Why and How of the story
- Quotes from relevant people
- Less important facts and figures
- Least important information
Just take a look at any newspaper news story – the whole story is in the first paragraph – often just the first sentence. Subsequent paragraphs fill in the detail and the further you read, the less important the information. However, you will notice that just about every news story has quotes from named people (“spokesperson” means that the PR professional provided the information).
What makes a good story?
The short answer from a journalist would be one of the three main ingredients of “fear, greed or sex”! In the professions, we still have many fear stories from lawyers (“take this action or risk failing to comply or being sued”) and greed stories from accountants (“do this to save tax”).
But more seriously, to attract the media’s attention a story needs to be: relevant to its audience, timely and news (please note that this means it has not been covered elsewhere in a public medium – including social media).
The style in which you write a press release is rather particular too. You can’t fill it with “PR speak” and puffery about your organisation or service. The press release should use short, simple sentences and be devoid of any jargon (unless it is being sent to a technical journalist who will be familiar with it) and, ideally, offer facts and figures to substantiate the story.
Avoid capital letters for titles and refer to organisations in the singular. One to nine should be written as words, 10 and above as numbers. You would do well to invest in a style book – The Economist style guide is recommended.
Other points about press releases
Title – This should be short, use an active verb and tell the whole story. Do not attempt to write a headline – this is the sub-editor’s job.
Dates and embargo – The date of release must be shown. Naturally, journalists will only be interested in information that is timely so ensure that your release is issued on the same day as the date shown. Be aware of time differences if you are dealing with international media. Take great care not to embargo information (i.e. release information to the media before you wish for it to be published) as the advent of the Internet means journalists may inadvertently or deliberately release information before you would wish.
Quotes – Every release should contain at least one quote from an identified individual. Ensure that the name and position of the person is clear at the start of the quote and that the contact details (as well as those for the press contact) are shown at the end. The quote should be short and interesting – think “sound byte” rather than approved PR paragraph.
Notes for editors – Supporting information that might be helpful background to a journalist who is not entirely familiar with the subject matter or your organisation should be provided in this section rather than the body of the main release. Typically, you might have a short description of your organisation, background or technical information relating to the item in the release, biographies of those who are quoted or who provide their opinions.
Photographs – All media need good photographs (with a short captions and a date) and you will increase the chances of your release being used significantly if it has an interesting photograph. Video is increasingly popular.
Tailored versions – Whilst a press release contains general information, it is a good idea to prepare different versions if you are sending it to different types of media. For example, you might include a regional angle for the local consumer press, a business angle for the business trade and technicals and a financial angle for the financial press.
Multiple parties Sometimes – for example, when reporting major transactions – there will be a number of parties involved who will all wish for their role, contribution or views to be included in the press release. In these situations it is helpful if one party (and this could be the media relations agency) co-ordinates the preparation of a press release and works with all the third parties to obtain their input, convey accurate details about their role and to approve what information is to be released to the media and the timescales and other logistics. In such situations, it is also advisable to agree who will act as the major spokespeople on different aspects of the story.
Briefing packs – You should also consider preparing other background briefing papers for journalists if it is a major or complicated story. These briefing papers are not intended to be used in coverage (although you should be aware that they might be) but to help the journalists understand the context, background or technical details. The same care in drafting and approving these materials is required as with any other material you release to the media.
Internal communications – For a particularly important or major story you will also need to consider a number of other activities in addition to preparing and distributing a press release. For example, it is good practice to prepare – for internal use only – a Q&A document that lists all the possible questions (both positive and negative) that the media may ask as a result of the release. There is good value in helping everyone see the story from the media’s point of view, anticipating all the possible questions that might be asked and providing some guidance on what responses might be given. In addition to preparing all members of your organisation for fielding a wide variety of questions – which will boost their confidence – it will also ensure that all media will get a standard and consistent story on all the critical points.
Social media – These days you need to think about using social media such as Twitter to distribute news stories. However, you should also consider the status on the firm page and individual pages on LinkedIn and Google+ as powerful distribution mechanisms where you are keen for clients to be kept informed. You might also think about the relevant search terms for SEO purposes in your press releases.
Perhaps the best way to learn about press releases is to look at some examples. Here are a few from the professions – lawyers, accountants and surveyors:
The following blogs contain book reviews that might be of assistance:
There is a new Digital PR course through PR Forum soon http://www.pmforum.co.uk/training/