Writing a Great Press Release, Part I

For an assignment in my news writing class in college, we were asked to attend a local “happening” and write a basic news story on it. Simple enough…but I couldn’t leave it at that. Somehow I managed to convince the professor to let me write a press release instead of a hard news story. Ever since, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the lowly press release. Spurned by big newsrooms, welcomed by small weeklies with two-person staffs, the press release can be an effective tool for getting your message out.

A press release is not an advertisement or a way to drive people to your website. It is, however, a way to inform the media about the aspects of your product, service or company that may be newsworthy. News editor consider something to be newsworthy if it’s new, timely, controversial, unique, humorous, interesting or different.

First off, know this: news editors could care less about helping you promote your product or service. That’s left to the folks in the advertising sales department, and the two groups are like oil and water. From an editor’s perspective, advertising sales is a necessary evil. Of course, without paid ads, there would be no magazine or newspaper.

What editors do care about is news. That’s why your press release can’t focus on business as usual. Put yourself in the editor’s shoes—what can you share with them that their readers want to know? What is new at your company? What interesting stories can you tell? Do you have an employee who is an Iraq war vet? What does your business do that no one else does? What has your business helped a client do well? What is time sensitive that needs to get published now?

News editors are literally bombarded with press releases from all over the country, and even the world. What separates your message from the rest of the pack? Even if your release is about the latest trend in communication devices, an offering of affordable health insurance, or a personal injury lawyer who can get you money for your injury, you still have to have a “hook.” Ninety-nine percent of press release content is focused on what the writer wants to say and not focused on what the customer—the news editor—wants to read. News people call PR folks “flaks,” a derogatory term that refers to the annoying anti-aircraft fire that World War II bombers had to fly through on the way to the target. Is your story “flak” material, or news?

Every company should keep a supply of story ideas on hand that will make for great press releases (and great newspaper articles) when business is slow or when there’s a slow news day. If you build a reputation as a great source of legitimate news stories, you’ll have editors and reporters calling you for ideas. Remember, small newspapers and magazines are always desperate for content and short on people to generate it. As a result, sometimes they will often publish your entire press release verbatim!

Now that you know what to put in a press release, we’ll focus on how to structure and write in it part II.

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