If you’re planning an event you want publicity, and if you just carried out some activity where no one from the media was there, you still want people to know what happened. To achieve this, you issue a press release. But you’re not alone: editors receive hundreds of press releases every week, and most end up in the bin. You're up against formidable competition, often by professional public relations firms, so no matter how relevant the issues you want to draw attention to, if your press release doesn’t grab the editor’s attention, the public will never hear any of it.
Before you get down to writing and sending your press release, there are a few other points to consider. Whom are you aiming at? It is obvious that a motoring magazine doesn’t want to hear about computing technology, but often the choice is not quite that straight forward. You may have two local papers, but they often want exclusives and don’t want to print what the other one has already covered. So you have to decide which paper to send your release to unless you feel it is important enough to get picked up by both. You should also consider how and when to send it. If you send your release by email, don’t use attachments but put everything in the body of the message. Often fax is still a more effective way of sending a release. You should time your release such that it fits the paper’s publishing deadlines and you need to consider whether the issue you are writing about is already being discussed in public or relatively unknown and needs better introduction, whether already too much has been said about it, and it might need a different and fresh angle. Finally, before you send the release, make sure that you have people ready to deal with interviews and follow-ups and that they all sing from the same hymn sheet. There is no point sending a good press release and then letting yourself down once the paper or radio station has picked up on the news.
Another caution is that if the media want the story you told them about, they will call you (provided you have included your contact details). Don’t follow it up with your own call on whether they got your release; it will definitely get you in their bad books.
When writing your press release it must both be a short summary of your story as well as substantial enough for the media to take and quote directly from it, even if they don’t want to talk to you for further comments. Technical jargon should be avoided unless for a specialist publication, and you must avoid sounding like you’re selling yourself or your ideas. There is no point either in stating the obvious or making value judgments, like that your event was unique or the greatest ever. Unless you or your group are known well, a brief introduction to who you are must also be included, but not the whole history of previous activities.
A good press release should be two pages at most, but one should do for most cases, and it must start with a meaningful headline. As with a newspaper headline this grabs the attention of the editor and helps him/her make up their mind whether to read on or not. The headline, in about ten words or less, should summarise the contents of the press release in an exciting way, and is then followed by the first paragraph which sets out your stall. As much as possible all the who, what, when, where, why and how should be crammed in the first paragraph of the body of your press release. From there onwards, you add additional relevant information in the order of the most important first, so that the editor can cut the release from the end without losing any critical information. In this section you can include quotations, personalise the story, or include anything which makes the item more newsworthy for the reader. Here you will also include photo opportunities, reactions, or anything which links the item you write about to other events.
Finally, in the third part of your press release you may repeat the essential points very briefly, if the release is of the more lengthy type, and must add complete contact details to enable the paper to get in touch with you, that is contact name, address, phone number, email address, website URL. Make sure that the people at the other end of, let’s say the phone, know that the media might call and are both able and willing to answer questions. Again, the timing is important. There is no point issuing a release shortly before you are about to leave for a meeting and will be unavailable for comments.
In this last section you can also mention and photo material you might have for publication. If you send a report of a past event, you should, of course, already include pictures, but if you fax or email, then simply have them ready should they be called for.
Lastly, your press release should be proof-read carefully, and you might want to check with somebody who was not involved in writing it how it comes across. There is nothing worse than a release with apparent mistakes or, perhaps, a misprinted contact number. It will have you sitting at the end of the phone for hours wondering why nobody calls back.