By Kelsey Boudin
President and Founder, Southern Tier Communications Strategies, LLC
I wouldn’t dare guess how many press releases I received in my years as a journalist. Easily tens of thousands — hundreds found their way to my inbox daily. Heck, I remember still picking press releases off our dusty, old fax machine in 2017.
How many did I, as editor, take the time to read? More importantly, how many made it from my desk to our print edition or website? I probably processed and published less than 5 percent — and I’m damn proud of it.
So how did over 95% fail the litmus test and die in an inbox? Any number of reasons. Some releases offered absolutely no news value to our readership. Some highlighted events and initiatives nowhere near our coverage area. Some screamed “SPAM!” Others were formatting and editing nightmares that lacked focus, clarity and, at times, a strong grasp of the English language.
If your organizational self-promotion requires that much work — for an exhausted journalist amid a 70-hour work week — it’ll end up in the trash with zero explanation. Knowing that you first must impress an editor (or some sort of decision-maker) before your PR will ever see daylight, here’s a step-by-step process.
How to Write a Press Release that Grabs Attention
1. What’s Your Newsworthy Angle?
First and foremost, your press communications must answer an important question. Before you’re allowed to explain who, what, when, where and how, you must clearly convey why. Why what? Why should anyone care?
Honestly, most press releases I reviewed drew the following response: “Who gives a shit?” Now, that’s not to say your organization’s news isn’t exciting or relevant — to you. But why should it be exciting or relevant — to them? By them, I mean the news consumer.
Too many press releases are written with an inward focus and laden with jargon no one understands. “The organization is ‘proud to announce’ something big that will help the organization to be organization-y.” Yawn. The real story is how the news will affect some measure of the news-consuming community. Will your new staff member bring expertise and energy to community services? Will your organization’s new property purchase positively impact some demographic never before served. Will some new safety protocol ensure no one ever gets hurt in your factory again?
That’s your newsworthy angle.
2. Write Your Headline … Last
Even professional writers can get trapped in the headline. While there’s no law saying which order to do things, I recommend writing the headline last. You begin a PR project with an idea of the overarching message, as you understand it. So you try to plunge ahead and write it in seven words or less. Or worse, you agonize over what the headline should be and waste valuable time crafting your message.
So what happens next? You inevitably try to make the next 350 words fit the headline rather than letting the headline summarize those 350 words.
What’s more eye-catching, a bland headline written at the beginning that reads: “(Organization) Announces New Hunger Initiative”, or “(Organization) Food Drive Plans 3,000 Holiday Meals to Homeless”?
Writing is a process that takes some time and deep thought to unfold effectively, whether you’re crafting a 1,000-word analysis to an online industry journal or a 55-word television script. Undoubtedly, while drafting you’ll uncover the true crux of your piece — your absolute reason for informing the masses — and build a strong headline accurately foretelling the content that follows.
3. Follow the Required Style and Format
Nothing lands a submitted press release in the trash quicker than something that doesn’t follow guidelines. Media organizations and industry PR sites often have strict submission standards that are easily visible within the publication. These may include:
- Word/character count
- Acceptable document types
- Topic guidelines/restrictions
- Content requirements
If a submission process says articles can be no longer than 300 words, 301 is unacceptable. If they require Microsoft Word documents with 1.5-inch margins and 10-point Arial font, anything else is automatic failure.
Follow directions. It’s not difficult — or unreasonable — to meet guidelines. Remember, they’re in place to ease the burden of editors who may read and process thousands of words daily.
4. Write Concisely
Even if the publication has no posted standards for content length, that’s not an open invitation to submit a 15-page term paper. A standard newspaper announcement (online or in print) is about 350 words. An average television or radio spot may be less than 60.
Say what you must and get out. Overly verbose, flowery work — while you may think it a masterpiece — will be edited for space or thrown out.
5. Make it Timely
A press release announcing an event six months from now will be forgotten in a week or less. One slating one tomorrow morning is too late. A piece explaining your role in a disaster or controversy two months later (in most cases) rings hollow. An editor will make the decision to publish or not accordingly.
Public relations requires great timing. There’s a time to announce, a time to analyze, a time to promote and a time to apologize.
6. Location, Location, Location
I deleted so many press releases that didn’t affect the people we served here in the Southern Tier of Western New York. Releases announcing some big project in Albany or New York City — no matter how cool and inspiring — meant nothing to our local readership.
It’s not so much about coverage area as it is the audience, and what that audience can do with the information. A news release containing generally informative content may be best distributed to an industry PR site, where the piece will most certainly convey value to its audience. Wooing a local media decision-maker requires a specific local angle.
7. Name Your Media Contact
Sometimes a press release serves to introduce (or re-introduce) your organization and to establish relationships. It’s a bonus if the release is published by a third party, but your ultimate goal may be to build rapport with news producers and editors. You want them to call you or email you back, to come out for a feature interview, to be a partner in news production.
Or, at least, you want them to reach out for comment (more importantly, errors or misstatements requiring clarification).
Make sure your release contains professional contact info of your organization’s official media contact. This individual may be a PR staffer, director or the CEO herself. Place it prominently up in the top-left hand corner. Don’t assume the recipient will respond to the original email, which may already have been deleted. Also, editors pressed for time often delegate processing duties to staff, meaning the release may have changed hands at least once.
8. Include Boilerplate Info
Your organization’s boilerplate should be a well-crafted synopsis of who you are and what you do. It most often contains your:
- Name and date of founding
- Mission and vision statements
- Major services and/or products
- Accolades (leadership/staff awards and honors, milestones, special mentions, etc.)
Full disclosure: boilerplate information is almost always the first thing to be cut. Why send something that’s destined for the cutting room floor? To establish background and authority. You have only a few words to impress a decision-maker. Don’t bog down your piece with background noise that’ll undoubtedly be deleted. Place it at the end of the release for a quick reminder of your credibility to the journalists who make the final call.
9. Check Grammar, Spelling & Punctuation
A poorly written release makes your organization look terrible. An editor would rather throw it out and move on to something worthy of her time and editing skills.
10. Send to the Right People
You may have purchased a media contact list or have access to a database of journalists almost anywhere. Does that mean they each need to receive your press release? Not necessarily, although it may seem logical to “spray and pray” and that a high volume of recipients will equate to a high volume of publicity. But remember, editors and producers everywhere use the criteria described above to decide if it’s worth their time and consumers’ attention.
An experienced PR professional builds relationships with pertinent media contacts for a curated list that can be segmented to the proper audience. Your press release may be better placed directly in the hands of just one regional business editor or to a selection of well-vetted news producers.
11. Get Noticed in their Inbox
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with hundreds of emails a day. Those originating outside the organization that aren’t clearly and directly related to upcoming business are often ignored — or deleted.
A strong subject line indicating the true purpose of your message is far more likely to be opened and engaged. Emails with spammy subject lines will often bounce — harming your open rates and even resulting in spam reports that damage your future email credibility with external servers. An editor won’t respond to sales-y pitches expressing “urgency” or some “must read” distinction.
Simply enough, an email noting it contains a media release pertaining to “X” important subject should at least earn a quick glance.
(Bonus) Make it a Multimedia Package
The written word is not dead — because it forms the backbone of all media genres from Twitter to television. A writer is behind every spoken news piece, digital advertisement or 15-second radio spot. But news consumers value imagery. A picture is worth 1,000 words.
If possible, provide photos, video and other multimedia content to accompany and supplement your piece. Editors and producers are always hunting for good “art.” They may be deleted, or may run only on the outlet’s website or social media. But additional touchpoints have the potential to reach thousands — or millions — more eyes.
If you’re struggling with developing your organization’s PR strategy, don’t hesitate to contact a consultant with experience and demonstrated media success.