Archive for October, 2009

Writing a Good Press Release

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

There are countless sources you can turn to for advice on writing a good press release, so I’m just going share what my own experience has taught me. While many of my colleagues are exploring and testing social media, etc., most of the small business owners I’ve encountered still want to master some basic skills in the more traditional, and in some ways more mystifying PR tools of the past, like press releases.

After teaching PR Writing at USF at least six times, maybe seven, and cranking out press releases for about 15 years now, I’m sure I have something to contribute on this basic PR tool. For the most part, this post is for the Do It Yourselfers, particularly the small business owners who are experts in their own fields but who, every now and then, want or need to tap into some PR expertise as well. Read this, print this and keep this. You will thank me later.

But first, before we dive into tips and such, I have to address the constant line of questioning I’ve been reading in PR industry publications, blogs and various other PR communication forums. The question is, “Do we even need press releases any more, now that social media has become so prominent as a means of communication and promotion?”

Well, the answer is yes. There is still a place for press releases, even though their purpose might be changing in light of some easier, shorter ways to communicate. You must always remember that there is no “magic bullet” for communication with different groups of people, and, as always, it takes multiple attempts across multiple communication channels to reach multiple targeted audiences. So, the press release to the news media lives on as part of any solid external communications strategy, working in tandem with some of the newer tools now available for certain purposes.

So, if you are going to take time to write and distribute a release, here are some things to note. You can also use this is a quasi-checklist if you are hiring someone else to write your release.

Release Title — VERY important. State the main topic in 12 words or less, and be sure to include an action verb — remember that phrase? A subject is DOING something. For example, “Customers Save Time and Expense at Rapid Refill Ink” is an action statement, and leads to descriptive writing, which is far more effective with a reader than a label that says “Savings Abound at Rapid Refill Ink.” With the action title, we know WHO is saving and we know WHAT they are saving; with the label, we don’t know much at all. Try to work the company name into the title whenever possible. Subtitles can also be used to include one other important but supporting detail.

The title is important because it is the very first thing a news media gatekeeper reads. You must pique the interest of the news assignment desk, the editor or the reporter in order to get someone to report on your story — so your title must be compelling, and action verbs will help strengthen your writing.

The Lead Paragraph — If your title is good enough to keep them reading, then you really want to make sure you say the most important things about your story next. To a reporter, the five Ws are going to be the most important things in the story, so you don’t have to guess what they want to know.

In the first paragraph of your release, immediately state the “who, what, where, when, why (and how)” of your news in two to three sentences — right up there at the top. If you have news, they will keep reading. If you don’t, then they will stop right there. Period. In a deadline-driven business like news reporting, no one has time to read anything that is not a possible story lead. You get just a few seconds of consideration to sell your news. Make it count.

If you need another real-world comparison, equate the press release to the resume. When a job opens up, resumes pour into the HR office all day long. The hiring manager cannot possibly read every resume and cover letter. You must capture their attention in just a few seconds in order to avoid the trash bin and move on to the next phase of the hiring process.

It’s the same thing with a press release. They pour into newsrooms all day long. You are competing against hundreds of others with news to share. You must captivate the initial reader enough to make them pause and keep reading your release. So, the most important information goes at the top — and it’s what’s most important to your AUDIENCE, the MEDIA and their CONSUMERS — not what is most important to you and/or the company/client. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s called “framing” the news. If you do it right, you will get your chance to emphasize other important things too. But you should always position the story from the perspective of your audience. Self-serving stories are deemed as advertising, and the news media will not report those stories as news, so be careful.

Quotes — A little authority goes a long way, and real people are interesting, so be sure to include a quote pretty early on in the release. But be judicious. Quotes are special, and here’s why:

1.  No one can edit a direct quote. They can use parts of it or paraphrase the information, but they cannot change it. You said what you said in a quote — end of story. It is absolute. It cannot be changed at all.

2. That said, a quote is the perfect chance for you (or your expert spokesperson) to say something really important or interesting that adds something to your news story. Don’t WASTE the quote by restating something that is already included in the news release. Think about the most important things you would want to say in this instance, and then work those points into quotes. They are protected and offer an unparalleled chance for you to get a key message point out to your audience — which is ultimately the media consumer.

Contact Information
Unless you want your client or your company CEO getting a direct call from the media, you better put some contact information on your news release. In larger companies, it’s typically the name, phone number and/or e-mail of someone in the PR department or someone in a PR firm representing the company. Typically, it is not the person or people being quoted in the release.

We want our spokespeople to speak intelligently and accurately when they are interviewed, so we try to avoid surprise reporter phone calls directly to company spokespeople and we often step into the middle to coordinate the interview process. Reporters know the drill when they work from a press release, and this process shows respect for the spokesperson’s schedule and time, and ultimately helps the reporter get better details when our spokespeople feel comfortable, focused and prepared. All of these things work together to build those “magical” reporter relationships that you always hear about, but it’s not mysterious or difficult. It’s just good customer service on both sides of the fence.

But I digress … If you own a small business, then maybe you become the spokesperson and the contact — and that’s OK too; just make sure your full contact information is a separate part of the news release. I like to put it right up at the top, but some people put it at the end. To me, the top makes the most sense because that’s where all of the other very important information is presented. Plus, if your release goes on to two pages, it’s more likely to get separated from the first page and then the reporter is at a loss on whom to call for more information or to schedule an interview.

Other things
Of course, there are some other overarching things to consider when preparing a press release — first and foremost is to make sure your topic is actually newsworthy. If you’re not sure, consult with a PR pro for a quick assessment and to discuss various possible story angles.

The are some mechanical things to note too, like datelines, editing marks, formatting and spelling, along with upholding the writing guidelines of the Associate Press stylebook, but if you have REAL NEWS, any transgressions in these areas will most likely be overlooked in the interest of reporting on the story, so beginners need not overburden themselves with these concerns (but do try, and use your spellchecker and proofread your writing, at a minimum).

Writing a good release is one of the first steps in sharing your company news. In the future, we’ll spend some time talking about how to distribute your news release to increase the chances that it will actually make it into a newspaper or television report or another means of mass media communication. You might also want to watch for tips on preparing for a media interview.

And, of course, if this is all very interesting but you just don’t have the time or inclination to tackle press releases yourself, just contact us. We can help!

Field of Magic: Behind the PR Media Relations Curtain

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

If you’ve seen the ever-fantastic “Field of Dreams” movie, I do not have to remind you of the ghostly whisper, “If you build it, they will come.” You thought about it the second I mentioned the movie, didn’t you?

Well, unfortunately, that same immediate reaction is tied to press releases in public relations — “If you send it, they will come.” Oh! If only that were true!!!

There is so much that goes into a good media relations program — things clients and executives never see. Too often, people think that if it’s a well-written news release and their quotes are strong, of course they’ll be on the front  page! But nothing could be farther from the truth. A great release is just the beginning.

One of the first factors that can make a difference in placing a story is service. We walk a fine line in PR. We want our client or employer to come out on top — they are experts, they have great things going on, etc. But, we also have a service role to fulfill for reporters. We have to give them accurate, objective and newsworthy information. If the release or “news” is too self-serving, vague or incorrect, it is actually harmful to send it out. It hurts our indvidual credibility as well as that of our client, and it decreases the chances of getting coverage ever again from anyone who wasted their time reading our non-news release. Not good.

So, good service — recognizing real news and packaging it appropriately — comprises one of the first steps in a successful media pitch.

I will never forget the time, in my first PR job, where I was asked to send a news release out about a bake sale. This was before the gift of social media. E-mail was just taking off, and there was no web site to speak of. In fact, the whole web site topic was confusing and mysterious. So, back in those days, it was challenging to let people know what was going on. And, since this was a non-profit organization, there was always something going on, but I really did not think we should “waste” a pitch on a bake sale.

I already felt compromised, sending out press releases over borderline events and topics under the organization’s belief that any positive attention would help cut through the competitive non-profit contest for funds. They were probably right, in theory, but I really fought the bake sale news release to the point of fuming. “It’s not news!” I said, until I was blue in the face.

In all honesty, I don’t remember if I won or lost the fight, but I still know that I was right, and this is a small example of an epic battle many have fought in PR. If it’s not news, you cannot “spin” it into anything else. It will fall flat and go nowhere. That’s one guarantee we can make in the realm of media pitching.

I have more to share on this topic, for sure, including other reasons why a great news release might fall flat — even when there’s a newsworthy story to tell. Heck — just a few weeks ago I had a TV news camera at an event, client interviews, the works … and it never ran. Of course, those of us in PR can all relate to a story like that — or the news conference/event where no on comes (I hate that one) — but explaining this to others is difficult, so stay tuned as we continue to lift the PR “Wizard of Oz” curtain a little higher next time.