Author: Ellen Gunning. Ellen is director of Irish Academy Training which provides training courses, nationwide, in communications, business, leadership, marketing and social media.
Probably the most useful tool in the armory of any PR person is the ability to write press releases – so let’s make that the first tool that you master!
A press release is written and sent to a journalist (or uploaded to an online media site) for publication. It is written in a specific journalistic style and, it must be news. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering but it cannot be a rehash of something that happened a week ago – that is commentary!
When it reaches the journalist’s desk, their job is to select pieces of information and news that are of interest to their readers. Every newspaper, radio station, magazine and blog has a different set of readers. If they didn’t, there would be no need to have more than one newspaper in the country! So, your story must be targeted to the journalist’s readers. If you take, as an example, the launch of a new hair restorer for men. The Irish Times might cover the story from a business perspective – did the development of the product need investment, how big is the market etc. The Irish Independent might be more inclined to run with a people-centered story – who was the person who had the original idea, how many people in Ireland are bald? The Irish Star, on the other hand, might run with a headline along the lines of “Bald guys get hairy!” and might only give it two paragraphs. Each is telling the same story. If you are issuing a release, your job is to make sure that it is written in the style of the newspaper that you are sending it to.
So – what is news?
It might have been newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (no one is quite sure) who said, back in the 1930s, that “news is something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want published. Everything else is propaganda”. I don’t agree – but the point is an interesting one. Newspapers are not there to push propaganda on their readers. They are not there to provide free advertising and they are under no obligation to cover your press release. Their job is to report things that are newsworthy.
If you are running a business, then absolutely everything that you do is of interest to you – as it should be. But, if you are writing a release for a newspaper (online or offline) you need to be sure that you are telling the story in a way that readers will find interesting. So, how do you do that?
5Ws and H
Every press release is written to answer six questions known as the 5Ws and H. These are – who, where, what, when, why and how. If your story involves a celebrity, then the ‘who’ is very important and should feature prominently. If your launch happened on an exotic deserted island in the Caribbean, then the ‘where’ might be a better lead. ‘What’ must always be clearly explained – whether it is a new company, product or recruitment drive. The ‘when’ tells the journalist just how fresh the news is. You should always include a reference to the date in your text. The product was launched yesterday (x February 2017). The ‘why’ and ‘how’ are often the most interesting elements in a launch story but they are the most difficult questions to answer in a crisis – how was this allowed to happen? Why did nobody notice this leak earlier? Etc.
Your story should also be written in an inverted pyramid style. Let me briefly explain that one. An inverted pyramid has the fattest/widest part on top, and it filters down (a bit like a funnel) to the narrowest part at the end. The most important information in a news story goes in at the top – at the start. Newspapers cut from the bottom up, so it is assumed that the information further down the page is of less importance.
KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid
A press release should always use short words and short sentences. Originally, if the words were too long, they were broken by hyphenation (hyst-eria) which made it difficult to read. Long sentences looked like entire paragraphs when placed in narrow columns.
There is a second and much more important reason however. The rule that editors work to is that, unless you are reading a specialist section, news in a newspaper should be capable of being read and understood by a seven year old. You are not writing a press release to impress people with your command of the English language. If journalists have to amend your copy, they will simply use someone else’s. There are hundreds of press releases landing on their desks each day. So, Keep it Simple Stupid – the object of the exercise is to be published.
Timing is vital. Find out the deadline for receipt of releases. It would be a shame to spend all that time crafting a really good press release only to miss the publication deadline.
Is it worth the trouble? Absolutely. What has it cost you – a little time, effort and energy? What is the return? Coverage in a respected newspaper, journal, magazine or blog which brings your story to their readers. Magic!