Writing a Press Release

What is a press release?

A press or news release is simply a statement prepared for distributing information to the media. It could, for instance, contain details of an event you are organising, a new appointment or an award, or perhaps an invitation to attend a photocall.

A well-written release may be the key to getting your story published. Getting published is like an receiving an endorsement of your work, your message and you. It gives you credibility and raises your profile. And remember, sending out a press release is far cheaper than paying for an advert.

The purpose of a press release is to give journalists information, preferably typewritten, that’s useful, accurate and interesting. Useful, accurate and interesting, it’s that easy.

It’s an informal arrangement between you and the newsrooms you approach. You simply offer an interesting news item. Written in third person, your press release seeks to demonstrate to a journalist the newsworthiness of what you want to say.

Press releases are often sent alone, by email, fax or post. They can also be part of a full press kit with photographs, or may be accompanied by a covering letter.

How is a press release used?

The media have a powerful voice, shaping the lives and opinions of millions of people. Which type of publication (newspaper, local radio, TV, magazine) you approach, will influence your chances of getting published.
Local newspapers and radio stations are hungry for good news stories and are likely to welcome your initiative. Regional television companies will be looking for the strongest stories with the most outstanding pictures. Trade and other specialist magazines may be good targets because their circulations are relatively small and their articles are more focussed.

Before you start writing, take time to study these media and try to spot the stories that have come from a press release. You will also notice that newspapers and magazines vary from each other in style and content. Write your press release with their needs and readers in mind.

It’s much harder to get your release published in national newspapers and consumer publications. They have high circulation figures and a wider range of interests. Remember too that your press release will be one of a staggering* number of releases a newsroom receives each day. If it stands out as interesting, relevant and newsworthy, you will have a better chance of publication.

*Now there’s an overused word.

What to consider before you write a press release

Be sure you are doing this for the right reasons. Why do you want to issue a press release?

  • To publicise a future event, anniversary or milestone
  • To advertise an open day, seminar or conference
  • To announce a new appointment
  • To put the record straight or protest
  • To update your target audience on a matter
  • To build awareness of your organisation
  • To announce a new appointment
  • To publicise a new discovery or scientific breakthrough
  • To appeal for donations
  • To call for volunteers

Is the information newsworthy?

What do you want to say? Think carefully what your main message is. Can you explain it in a simple and clear way? Highlight the most interesting part of the story or event you want to publicise.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this something that people need or want to know?
  • What is unique about this story?
  • Is it a first, is it the only event held like it in your region?
  • Can you explain it in a simple and clear way?
  • Will it affect many people?
  • In short, is it newsworthy?

In my article on News Values, you can discover how journalists decide which stories to publish. Before you approach a journalist, or even begin to write, remind yourself what is newsworthy.

Not everything is news.

Tone and structure of your press release

  • Be interesting – news is about an exciting or unusual event. Always place the most interesting fact in your opening paragraph. Newsdesks are inundated with press releases. Make sure yours catches the editor’s eye or it may go straight into the bin.
  • Be scrupulously accurate with all facts – make sure your release is grammatically correct, your sources are quoted accurately and it doesn’t contain any errors or spelling mistakes. Take special care to ensure the correct spelling of names – both of people and organisations.
  • Be factual – present only information that is true, correct and doesn’t embellish anything that is to be communicated.
  • Be succinct – keep it precise and punchy. Avoid unnecessary fancy language, such as ‘state of the art’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘revolutionary’.
  • Be objective – almost impossible to do, but refrain from using over-hyped quotes which may be seen as being too biased.
  • Be timely – your press release may not be topical, but you may be able to incorporate your story with a more recent news event.
  • Be original – it may be your 27th annual event, but it needs to sound fresh and exciting to attract.

Who do you think will be interested?

Know your target audience. Which newspapers, journals, radio stations or television companies will best disseminate your message? Be clear who your readers or listeners are, which publications they are likely to read, which broadcasters they listen to.

The readers of a niche magazine or website will be very different to those that read the local newspaper. Write different versions of your release for the different audiences you are targeting.  Consider what knowledge they have about your company and product, and the type of language they will understand. The language used to describe production processes, for instance, might be relevant for a specialist engineering audience, but not for the general public.

Having established the best news outlets, take a look at each of them and analyse the style of articles and, where appropriate, the pictures they use. The closer you can match their style, the more likely your article will be used.

What you should include

  • Identify the document – simply put the words ‘PRESS RELEASE’ at the top, in caps, centred and bold type.
    Say who you are and where you come from – for instance, Orchard County Primary School, Ambridge. Place your organisation’s name prominently in the opening section
  • Date of release – mark clearly the time and date when you want your release to be published.
    A catchy Headline that tells the story and grabs attention – keep it short and simple using no more than ten words, in bold type. Convey the key point raised in your first paragraph in a light-hearted manner.
  • The body of your text – that’s your news, the story itself which should, as a general rule, be no more than two A4 pages.
  • Notes for editor – provide additional background information. You may want to end the press release with an appendix that provides brief background material on your organisation.
  • Your contact details

You may want some of the information embargoed, in other words, held back from publication until a later time or date. For instance, if you’re going to make an important announcement at a public meeting, you might want to tell journalists about it in advance to grab their interest and to give them time to prepare their stories. But remember if your announcement is reported in advance, this might reduce its impact.

You can embargo your whole press release or just a part of it and you can specify the precise time when you want the story to be made public. Editors are not duty bound to observe an embargo, but in practice some local papers do.

Include the words ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ if you want your story to be reported straight away.

What to avoid

Resist the temptation to use gimmicks. Avoid so called “hype flags” in your press releases. Exclamation marks,  hyperbole, describing your product or service as AMAZING, or the use of upper case characters to create emphasis — all challenge the credibility of your news announcement.

Use pronouns sparingly and thoughtfully. Steer clear of them unless they appear within a quotation from a spokesperson from your company or organization. .  Direct address, such as “you,” “I,” “we,” works well in conversation and advertising, but cosying up has no place in a news report.  Keep the tone objective and factual.

Getting the facts straight

Journalists are taught that there are six basic questions that must be answered for a story to be complete – the five Ws and one H, who, what, when, where why and how. So you need to bear this in mind when you start writing your press release.

If you are writing a about an event you want to publicise, say what it is, and where and when it is taking place. You also need to explain who you are and why you have organised the event.

When you have written your press release, check that you have answered the questions:

  • Who – are the key players? Who does your news affect and who does it benefit?
  • What – is it about? What is new?
  • When – will it happen?
  • Where – will it happen?
  • How – will it take place?
  • Why – is it happening? Why is this important?

Rudyard Kipling’s knew this when he wrote the following poem in his Just So Stories in 1902.. These six honest serving men pose the questions you need to answer. Arrange them in the right order. Then start describing the facts of your story clearly in the body of your text.

I keep six honest serving men They taught me all I knew; Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

And finally there’s one other check question you should ask yourself before you send out your release:
Why should an editor want to publish it? And why should anyone want to read it? Journalists refer to a broadly agreed set of criteria or news values which enable them to spot a newsworthy story.

Facts and figures

Journalists love facts and figures, particularly if they’re relevant to their particular area. Wherever possible, use crucial facts, such as how many people are taking part, to substantiate your story.

Use quotes

Quotes from people involved in your event or campaign will really help liven up your release, but make sure they are concise and relevant to the story. They add colour and an authoritative voice to your release.

A good quote will support rather than simply repeat text of your release.

There’s a good chance it will be included in a published article, so do check their accuracy with the person quoted. Never be tempted to make up a quote and attribute it to someone without their permission.

Contact details

Make sure you provide your name, phone numbers (mobile as well), email and website address.
Check your text for mistakes. Most people need a second pair of eyes but, if you’re on your own, try reading your words out aloud. You’ll be surprised how many errors you’ve failed to spot first time round.

Send out your press release several days in advance, but not too early. It may get lost in the pile.
And do make yourself available once your press release reaches its destination. If you are in a meeting, leave a recorded message on your mobile phone saying when you will be able to return calls and provide further information.

Should I send photos with my press release?

If you have pictures to use with your press release, supply them. Not only are the press looking for original stories, they are also on the alert for good pictures.

From the moment you decide to approach the media, ask yourself how intriguing and eye-catching your story will be. Will the action make a good photo? Will you convey your message in a compelling way? Can you take a picture in advance of the occasion? With a little thought and help you can easily improve your news photos.

Although it is not essential, you could include photos of people, or your colleagues with your release. A good crowd may help. This will remind the press that your project is alive, not just words on a piece of paper. It might also encourage photographers and television crews to come to your event, especially if there are obvious visual draws.

Choose your background wisely. Pictures that have large logos in the background can be a huge turn off. Avoid head-and-shoulders shots.  Try to think more creatively.

Always include a caption with photographs. If people are included, state “Left to right…” then list the people in the shot and any further detail that’s relevant, such as “where” and “when”.

If you are planning a spectacular event, decide if you want to stage a photocall.  Local newspapers are working with tight budgets. but they may be prepared to send out a professional press photographer if the opportunity warrants it.

A good picture is worth a thousand words. A bad picture is worse than no picture at all.