Press Release Writing for Dummies

Attention PR people. In-house flacks, agency suck-ups, freelancers — all of you — listen up.

It has come to my attention that the vast majority of you couldn’t write a decent press release if your life — never mind your company’s/client’s — depended on it. I don’t know if this is because you lack training, skill or the IQ to create one of the simplest forms of marketing communications out there. Whatever the reason, your press releases suck. And they suck badly.

Fortunately for you, I am in a good mood today, so I’m going to show you how to write a proper press release.

First off, let’s review the nature and purpose of the press release.

A press release is a document prepared by an internal member, representative or contracted 3rd party of an organization/individual to disclose the details of a newsworthy event concerning that organization/individual. Press releases are generally intended for distribution to media outlets (newspaper, TV, Radio, Internet, etc.) who will, in turn, (hopefully) provide broader distribution to the public.

Make note of a couple of important points here:

  1. Press releases are for newsworthy events.
    Newsworthy means an item in which someone (and preferably lots of someones) outside of the organization will take an interest. Chucking out worthless, boring and mundane press releases does not help you, your client or your business. It does not build “mindshare”, get “face time” or anything else. It just irritates the media people you want to re-distribute your news. If you can’t tell the difference between “newsworthy” and “irrelevant”, before you waste your time whacking out a release, contact someone outside the organization and ask them if they think your event is interesting. If they say “no”, make some polite noises, hem and haw, or do anything but respond with a strong and definitive “yes”, don’t write it.
  2. Your audience for a press release is the media, not the general public.
    In order for your news to get out you have to convince some writer, editor, commentator, or other media gatekeeper that your event is even worth re-broadcasting. If they don’t like it, the public will never see it. (Worse yet, irritate a media weenie and you could end up with a nice hit piece on you instead.) As such, your press release should be designed and prepared for the media, not the general public.

With these things in mind, let’s go through press release writing do’s and don’ts.

DO: Write a headline that is succinct and accurately describes the content of the press release. Media folk (even the editors at Plastic Injection Monthly) get a lot of press releases. If they can’t figure out what your release is about from the headline, it goes straight into the trash.

DON’T: Write long headlines or subheads that go one forever. A long subhead is a sure sign that the rest of the release is probably crap.

DO: Follow standard journalistic style and use the first paragraph of the release to summerize the whole story. The first thing every journalism student learns is the Inverted Pyramid style of writing. This style stuffs all the information of the story into the lead paragraph because that’s the only paragraph most people will read.

DON’T: Write subjective and empty lead sentences such as “XYZ Corp, the world leader in announced today…” First off, the most important item in your story should be the lede. The fact that XYZ Corp made an announcement isn’t the most important thing. It’s what XYC Corp announced that’s the news. Next off, only companies that aren’t “world leaders”, “pioneers”, “leading corporations”, etc., etc. make stupid and subjective claims like that. The real leaders don’t have to say it, and you will never see that sort of statement in an honest new story.

DO: Follow your lead paragraph with real details regarding your event. (Remember “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when”. “How” and “why” are rarely relevant in a press release since those tend to be subjective and therefore ignored.)

DON’T: Stick in worthless filler quotes like ” ‘we’re very proud of this product because it keeps our company at the forefront,’ said XYZ Corp president Bob Robertson.” Other than inflating some empty suit of an exec’s ego, these do nothing to enhance your press release. In fact, since every media person knows that press release quotes are completely contrived (execs never actually say any of these things) sugar coatings, consider skipping quotes altogether.

DO: Write short sentences and paragraphs. Long strings of punctuation and verbage aren’t just hard to follow logically, they’re also hard to read in the narrow column formats of newspapers and fuzzy screen fonts online. Most media folks are taught to write short, quick and to the point. Do the same in your press release and they’re more likely to read it.

DON’T: Write a press release more than two pages long. Nobody likes to read long stories and writers/editors/interns on deadlines aren’t going to take the time to plow through the whole thing anyway. Just stick to the facts and keep your release simple. If people have additional questions, they’ll call you.

DO: Pick up a copy of the AP Style Guide. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about formatting your release for the media.

DON’T: Use fancy typefaces or formatting in your releases if you distribute them via electronically. Chances are others aren’t going to have your fonts, monitor or printer setup, so that release that you spent so much time making look perfect on your computer will end up looking like distorted garbage on other computers. As boring as it may be, Courier is a standard font on all systems (even terminals), and it’s designed for readability. No matter what system your viewer is using, courier will always look fine.

Ultimately what this all gets down to is preparing your press release to be as close to a finished product as it can be. Writers, editors and other media folk are much less likely to ignore or chop up your press release if it’s written and formatted to be published as is. Because (and let’s face it) we’re all a little lazy. If you have a release that doesn’t have to be heavily edited for length or re-written to get rid of the subjective B.S., it’s much more likely to be published. Even better, because so many wire releases are now directly posted to various news and information sites, your well-crafted press release is more likely to carry the news authority you want it to.

Now that you know the basics you have no reason to write that crap you call PR anymore.

So don’t do it. Please.

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