PRESS RELEASES 101: How not to shoot yourself in the foot

Ever wonder why announcements from some companies always seem to grab news coverage, while others get overlooked?  Obviously, it could be related to the significance of their announcements, but chances are it may also have something to do with the way those announcements were made.

While Web 2.0 technology has given corporate communicators more tools than ever before, one “Old School” tactic — the press release — continues to be at the core of almost every media relations effort.  Surprisingly, many company press releases are ill-conceived, poorly written or both, rendering them ineffective… at best. At worst, bad press releases can potentially poison the well for future announcements.

So how should a press release be written?  Here are a few guidelines to keep you from shooting yourself in the foot.

Put the most important information first
You may only get a few sentences to make your point, so don’t waste time. Remember J-School?  (Or high school English Comp?) News stories are written in “inverted pyramid” format, with the most important information first and the least important details last. News releases should do the same.

Answer the “Who Cares?/Why Now?” question
Don’t just make your announcement — give it some context.  Why is it of interest to a media outlet’s audience? How does it fit into a larger trend?  Why should anyone outside of your company care? Context should also relate to dates and seasons…unless it is completely obvious, explain why your news is significant now (or will be in a specific future time period.)  For instance, does your story relate to a holiday?  A major upcoming event?  A season?  If so, call it out.  If not, try to find another angle.  If you can’t answer the “Who Cares?/Why Now?” questions it is better not to do the release at all.

AP Style
Releases should follow AP style guidelines, which go beyond inverted pyramid format and address punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations and the like.  This can be hard for writers used to advertising copy (which frequently ignores grammatical rules) but it will greatly improve your chances for media pick-up. By writing your news the way a media outlet would, you make it easier for that outlet to use your news.  In fact, with today’s short-staffed newsrooms, well-written AP style releases stand a better chance of getting picked than ever before — possibly even used verbatim.

Know your target
Sending irrelevant information to a journalist is a surefire way to get on his or her spam list.  Be sure to send releases and pitches only to media contacts that write about your topic!  Not sure who covers what?  Do a search for past stories.  You’ll quickly find out which writers should be on your target list.  Then, take it a step further and tailor your release specifically to them, or send it with personalized pitch note.

Lose the jargon
Every industry has its jargon. Unless your release is going to a trade publication, that jargon may be lost on the editor or reporter who receives it.  Though you can assume a certain level of understanding with some industry jargon, such as basic computer lingo, avoid using it as much as you can — it will only bog down your central point.

Keep it concise
Simply put: avoid using too many words. Releases should be kept to the point; the longer they are, the less likely they are to be read in their entirety.  Plus, background information can easily be linked to. Many journalists now prefer to be pitched on Twitter, which limits messages to 140 characters. That should tell you something.

Don’t send it as an attachment
Two words: spam filter. ‘Nuff said.

Subject lines are the new headlines
In the age of e-mail, subject lines are the new headlines.  If you don’t hook the journalist here, they’ll delete your release, unread. Your subject line should get the point across in six words or less. The headline can elaborate on that point, but not too much. Keep it under 10 words.  Use a subhead if you need it rather than an overly long headline.

Remember, the media provides the public with necessary and entertaining information – all of which is run through a filter designed to discard the irrelevant. Editors, reporters and program directors all get literally hundreds press releases and pitches daily, and covering every one is impossible.  Just reading them all is impossible.

On the flip side, journalists depend on receiving news from outside sources.  If you can break through the “Who Cares/Why Now?” filter and provide solid, insider knowledge of macro trends, breaking news, a cool event or “the next big thing,” you might become a trusted source they’ll turn to repeatedly.  If you waste their time with a poorly executed, poorly targeted release, they’ll blacklist you onto their junk mail — and probably won’t read anything from you again, even if it fits perfectly.  You’ve shot yourself in the foot.

So, write a good, smart, tight release — and keep all your toes intact.