A well-written, properly formatted press release is a great tool for making your target audiences aware of important developments in your business. If it’s professional and written in proper news style, you gain credibility with the media as well as media coverage.
The press release is a news story packaged in a particular way according to customs that were established in the early years of print publishing. Following the format shows that you are a trained professional who is sensitive to the needs of the person receiving it, in the way that knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner demonstrates to the hostess she made the right decision inviting you to her table. No one likes to be thought of as a barbarian, or a cretin, or someone who didn’t go to the trouble to learn how to do it the right way.
Writing a simple news story was one of the first skills we honed in journalism school. It took loads of practice to get it right. There were so many details and rules to learn and many rules of grammar particular to the news industry. Failure to comply with these rules resulted in a failing grade. The best press release writers are former journalists, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn.
Construction of the news story is paramount. Press releases are usually about five paragraphs, tops. The first, of course, is the lead paragraph, using 45 words or less. Paragraph two elaborates a bit more on the lead paragraph, giving a bit more detail. Paragraph three is usually a quote from a source who is an authority on the matter or who may be considered the official spokesperson. Paragraph four, typically, explains to the reader what actions he/she needs to take, an explanation of what’s going to happen next, or where the reader can go to find more details.
In the lead paragraph, include who, what, when, where, why and how. By reading this paragraph, the reader gets all of the information they need to know what the story is about. If they want more details and insight, they will read more.
The order of the words you use in the lead paragraph are often a dead giveaway of whether you’ve been trained as a journalist. “Five were killed Tuesday and three others injured when a passenger van collided with a loaded semi truck on the Walt Whitman Bridge, said police.” Time follows verb. For some reason, in journalism class, many of our writing assignments were about auto accidents and remembering to use the word, “alleged” in crime stories. Thankfully, in business, we don’t need to use the word “alleged” much unless you’ve been naughty.
You can also spot a non-trained press release writer by the way they attribute quotes. The right way is, “We are very pleased that Jane has joined our company,” said John Smith, president and CEO. A non-professional will write, “John Smith commented as follows: ‘We are very pleased that Jane has joined our company.’” Also, a non-professional will not have used the AP Stylebook to ensure that job titles and other non-proper nouns are not capitalized. I still mess up, so the AP Stylebook is next to me for reference at all times.
In the upper left corner of your press release are the words, “For Immediate Release.” This tells the media outlet that they can use the information immediately. In some rare cases, people will put “For Release on [Date],” meaning the news in the press release shouldn’t be published until that date. You might do this if you have a big product launch coming up, and you’d like the media outlet not to print your announcement until the day your product hits the market.
Beneath “For Immediate Release,” include contact information of the person to call or email should the media outlet have questions or a need for additional information. Make sure this contact person is available 24/7 to take media calls. I always give them my cell phone number. I have heard many horror stories from my journalist friends who weren’t able to reach the person who was listed as the contact on the press release. For example, one journalist got lost on the way to covering an event and wasn’t able to reach the contact person. Once you’ve gone A.W.O.L. on a reporter who’s been assigned to cover your story, you will never recover that relationship.
There have been times when a client will insist that he/she be listed as the media contact person on a press release. More than once, they haven’t been around when the journalist needed them. These days, if the client asks to be listed as the contact, I make them double-dog swear that they’ll have their cell phone turned on and next to their side at all times after the press release has been sent out.
If you are the designated media contact and you’ve been assigned the role of “liaison” between the press and the official spokespersons in your organization, then you must arrange to have 24/7 access to all of the people who are qualified to respond to media inquiries. You must have all of their cell phone numbers and email addresses, and then make them double-dog swear that they’ll be available to you within a moment’s notice if a reporter needs to speak with them. The turnaround time for responding to a journalist’s call for information is about 10 seconds. Don’t make them wait. They’re on deadline, but even more important, if you don’t help, there are plenty of competitors who will. Worse, the spurned reporter may put you on his “damn you to hell” list, also affectionately known as the “black list.”
The headline is centered at the top of the release, after the contact information. Keep it as brief as you can. Back in the old days, in print journalism, our headlines had to fit within the column width. The aim of the headline is to tell the entire story in as few characters as possible, as we’ve learned to do with our Twitter posts.
Before your lead paragraph starts, you must include the “dateline.” This orients the reader by telling her where and when the story originated. Example: PHILADELPHIA (August 10, 2016)—Lead paragraph starts here. In the body of the press release, use the AP Style for state abbreviations. Delaware’s is Del. California is Calif. Pennsylvania’s is Pa.
At the end of your press release, you will add a boilerplate paragraph. The boilerplate always says the same thing. (Fun fact—The term “boilerplate” originated in the printing industry early 1900s.) It’s a summary of the entity that is sending the press release, or, a one-paragraph description of your company and its products or services. Typically, the boilerplate contains the same information that’s in the first paragraph of your company overview, one of the documents in your press kit. The last sentence in the boilerplate says, “For additional information, visit [website address] or call [phone number].”
These symbols appear at the bottom of the press release, centered on the page. It means, “The End.” —# # #