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How Press Releases Work


Reporters rely on press releases for stories.
Reporters rely on press releases for stories.
Photographer: Joseph Dilag | Agency: Dreamstime

Welcome to the 24-hour news cycle, where daily newspapers, round-the-clock TV stations and thousands of news blogs compete to feed our voracious appetite for the latest, most engaging and most outrageous news.

Every day isn't a big news day, so journalists sometimes scramble to fill airtime and column space with fresh and timely stories. That's where press releases come in.

Concisely written and targeted, press releases draw media attention to newsworthy events. Mainly used by public relations specialists, press releases are written to gain free publicity and contain enough information required to write a compelling news story.

Examples of press releases include:

  • A company opens a local branch, bringing new jobs
  • A nonprofit organization sponsors a nationwide service project
  • An author publishes a new book on a hotly debated topic
  • University scientists announce study results
  • A theater group performs its new play
  • An automotive manufacturer announces a new model with high-tech features

Public relations (or PR) professionals write press releases to catch journalists' attention, which will hopefully result in a widely read or viewed story that enhances the client's image.

In this article, we're going to explain how to write an effective press release and then we'll go over the options for distributing a press release.

 

What is a Press Release?

PR professionals send reporters press releases to propose possible story ideas.
PR professionals send reporters press releases to propose possible story ideas.
Image courtesy of AstroZeneca

A press release is a short, compelling news story written by a public relations professional and sent to targeted members of the media. The goal of a press release is to pique the interest of a journalist or publication. The press release should contain all the essential information (who? what? where? when? how? and most importantly why?) for the journalist to easily produce his own story.

The Small Business Encyclopedia defines press releases -- also known as news releases -- as "brief, printed statements that outline the major facts of a news story in journalistic style" [source: Answers.com]. A press release should read like a news story, written in third-person, citing quotes and sources and containing standard press release information.

The standard press release begins with contact information, mostly likely the name, phone number and e-mail address of the person who wrote the release. Then comes the headline, arguably the most important four or five words in the whole press release. The headline will be what the journalist reads first. If it's not intriguing, newsworthy and unique, he'll read no further.

Below the headline often comes a brief, one-line summary of the press release [source: PR Leap Blog].  Like the headline, the summary should draw the reader in quickly and motivate them to learn more.

Since a press release is supposed to look and feel like a story in a newspaper, it's important to include a location and date stamp at the beginning of the first paragraph. Something like, "Palo Alto, CA - February 5, 2007." Like a standard news story, the first sentence, or lede, should summarize the main news of the press release in 25 words or less [source: Concept Marketing Group]. 

The rest of the body of the press release should answer all of the questions a journalist might have about the product, service or event that you're announcing. Although a press release is a public relations tool, it should not read as overly promotional [source: Concept Marketing Group].  If it sounds too much like a sales pitch, it will lose credibility in the eyes of the journalist.

Press releases typically end with a short description of the company or organization that's issuing the release, along with a call to action. The call to action could be to participate in the event being promoted, to take a test drive of the product, or simply to find out more by contacting the author of the press release [source: PR Leap Blog].

On the next page, we'll talk about how PR professionals make contacts.

Making Contacts

Writing press releases means developing a story idea that is fresh and will pique reporters interest. Learn the key elements that a release needs.
Writing press releases means developing a story idea that is fresh and will pique reporters interest. Learn the key elements that a release needs.
Image courtesy Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission

Writing an effective press release involves developing a story idea that's unique, timely and newsworthy. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, news is "any new information" or coverage of "current events," so a press release won't pique the interest of journalists unless it contains something truly original or is closely tied to current events.

Several factors can make a story newsworthy. Timeliness is the most important, or else the story wouldn't be "news." Also important are the prominence of the people or organization featured in the story, the physical proximity of the story to the intended audience and the "human-interest" angle. Human-interest stories are emotional in content and frequently feature kids, the elderly, animals and charitable institutions.

The next step is to find the specific journalists and media outlets that would be most interested in the story. Journalists typically work a "beat," covering a certain type of news like politics, cars or food. Determine the news area relevant to your idea and send press releases to the journalists who cover that beat. Even the best story idea will be ignored, if it's sent to the wrong person.

There are many ways to find the right journalist for your story, and the method you choose will depend on how many people you want to contact. For example, if the story isn't very time-sensitive and mostly of local interest, you could read the local papers and look for reporters who write about similar topics. If the reporter doesn't list his e-mail address, call the paper and ask for it.

If the story is of national or international interest and timeliness is key, then it makes sense to send the press release to as many pertinent media outlets and reporters as possible.

There are paid press release services that broadcast story ideas to hundreds of journalists at once. PR Newswire allows you to search the editorial calendars of participating publications to see who's writing about what and when. It also has a keyword-searchable database of more than 460,000 media contacts. For a fee, PR Newswire and similar services will upload your press release, edit it and e-mail it to as many media outlets as you want.

It's important to remember that journalists are human beings like the rest of us and are more likely to pay attention to a press release from a "friend" than from a complete stranger. That's why public relations professionals cultivate relationships with members of the media. If you're writing press releases, it's smart to contact journalists who cover your industry to determine what stories interest them.

Start Writing

Write your press release with your audience in mind.
Write your press release with your audience in mind.
Rob Goldman/Taxi/Getty Images

Now that you have your story idea and your list of media contacts, you're ready to start writing. First, you must come up with a killer headline. Since most press releases are now sent by e-mail, a poorly written subject line will earn an instant delete. Headlines must read like actual newspaper headlines, something informative and newsy, but creative and engaging enough to draw the reader in.

Press releases shouldn't be more than 300-400 words, and the reader should be able to understand the gist of the story in the first two sentences. Keep the tone and style appropriate for the content. If you're pitching a local TV news station, keep it conversational and the copy short so it can easily be adapted for reading on air. A press release for a newspaper should be meticulously spell-checked, follow Associated Press (AP) style and contain quotes and sources to back up claims.

Don't forget to include detailed contact information on the press release, including your name, telephone number, fax number, e-mail address and any relevant Web site links. Most of all, a successful press release doesn't just state the facts, but tells a compelling story that journalists will want to share with their readers and viewers.

Now let's look at the different options for distributing press releases, including e-mail and fax broadcasting.

Positive Press Releases

Reporters rely on press releases for story ideas and company background information.
Reporters rely on press releases for story ideas and company background information.
Tom Shaw/ALLSPORT/Getty Images

The goal of writing and issuing a press release is to garner positive press about your company or client. All press releases are inherently biased [source: WebWire]. So all press releases, even if written in the middle of a PR crisis, are "positive" press releases, since they aim to put a positive spin on even the worst news.

Good press releases walk a fine line between excessive self-promotion and dry facts. Press release writers need to channel their inner journalist. No exclamation points in headlines, no overblown adjectives, easy on the marketing slogans [source: WebWire]. Even a blatantly positive press release still needs to read like a news story.

For example, positive press releases can announce the opening of a new movie, introduction of a new product such as the iPhone, availability of a new hospital service or program.

The U.S. Department of State issues press releases to remind journalists of diplomatic successes in the Iraqi area. Titled "Five Iraqi Orchestras Unite for U.S. Embassy-Sponsored National Unity Performing and Visual Arts Academy," this press release focuses not on the war but how music unites members of the country's warring ethnic groups. [source:  U.S. Department of State].

One way to ensure that your press release reads like a news story is to take a balanced approach to your topic [source: WebWire]. Don't just talk about your specific company, event, product or announcement, but put it all in perspective. Include facts about the industry in general, recent buying trends and expert third-party reports.

Successful PR depends on relationships. A journalist is much more likely to consider a positive press release if the PR professional has invested significant time to build a relationship of mutual trust. One way for the PR professional to establish such a relationship is to always make himself available to the journalist as an honest source of information about the company or client. If the PR representative has helped the journalist in the past by commenting on a controversial issue -- or getting his client to comment -- the journalist is more likely to do the client the "favor" of running a purely positive story based on a press release.

More and more journalists are searching online press release resources like PRWeb and PRWire to get content related to their beat [source: About.com]. To capitalize on this phenomenon, make sure your press release contains keywords that will land your release at the top of the search results [source: Business Know-how].

On the next page, we'll talk about defensive press releases.

Defensive Press Releases

Talk radio personality Don Imus found himself issuing defensive press releases afer he made a racist comment.
Talk radio personality Don Imus found himself issuing defensive press releases afer he made a racist comment.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Press releases aren't only used for promoting positive events like product releases or expansion plans. They also can be a PR professional's sharpest weapon when defending a client against bad publicity during a crisis.

Defensive press releases are part of an overall crisis communication plan that's put into motion by PR professionals at the first sign of trouble. A PR crisis could be many things: an industrial accident, a product recall, a racist statement during a speech or allegations of criminal activities.

Defensive press releases use tactical language to put a good (or at least less negative) spin on bad news. For example, when Chrysler announced on Nov. 1, 2007, that 11,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs were being eliminated along with its decision to discontinue four models, its press release stated the company was making "market-related adjustments" and "volume-related manufacturing actions." It also turned the focus on the introduction of four new models, including two hybrids. [source: Chrysler Media Site].

In today's 24-hour news cycle, bad publicity comes fast and spreads even faster. A well-prepared PR professional will already have a crisis communication plan in place, including ready-made press releases for responding quickly to a variety of potential crises. These stock press releases can be customized to include important information about the current crisis aimed at diffusing the situation.

Sometimes defensive press releases are necessary simply to combat negative information in the press that has yet to become a crisis. In these situations, it's important to first take a step back and examine the real or potential damage done by the story to the client's reputation or credibility. In many cases, the negative article is an isolated incident that will blow over in a few days. The best move in these situations is to do nothing: lay low and let the news cycle move on [source: Entrepreneur.com].

In certain cases, issuing a defensive press release may only serve to draw more attention to a matter. For instance, a technology critic for a major newspaper writes a bad review of a new Apple product. If Apple issues a press release refuting the critic's review, it may escalate the situation leading to a war of words between Apple and the critic.

But if it's clear that other news outlets and blogs are picking up on the story, it's time to issue a defensive press release. There are a couple of options for the format and tone of the defensive press release. A PR professional can choose to stick with the standard format, which resembles a news story with a strict journalistic tone. In this type of defensive press release, it's important to put emotions and editorializing aside and lay out the facts in a convincing way. Third-party expert opinions should be used to support your argument [source: Entrepreneur.com].

Another option for a defensive press release is a "letter from the CEO" format [source: Entrepreneur.com]. Even though it may be written by a PR professional, this letter comes across as a more personal and genuine response to a crisis situation. This type of press release may be more useful to send to clients and customers, rather than the press. It shows a client's constituents that someone in the company is taking charge and working on solutions [source: Entrepreneur.com].

On the next page, we'll talk about how PR professionals distribute press releases.

Distributing Press Releases

Press releases can lead to an interview.
Press releases can lead to an interview.
Photographer: Nikola Hristovski | Agency: Dreamstime

The two most common ways to distribute press releases are via e-mail or fax. Unfortunately, both methods are heavily abused by spammers, who send out untargeted press releases and solicitations to journalists at a rate of hundreds per week.

The best way to ensure that a press release is actually read by a media contact is to capitalize on an existing relationship. If the journalist knows that you've spent the time to research his tastes, or has received newsworthy stories from you in the past, he's much more likely to pay attention in the future.

Still, some situations call for the ability to send many targeted press releases at once. E-mail makes this easy. Paste your press release in the body of an e-mail (some filters automatically delete messages with attachments), address it to all the journalists you want to contact and press send.

Advances in fax technology have also made it easy to "broadcast" a faxed press release to many recipients without faxing each one individually or spending the money to pay for all the long-distance phone calls. This is accomplished by desktop fax, a technology that enables users to send and receive faxes from their e-mail accounts. For a company to use desktop fax, it has either to buy special fax servers or subscribe to a third-party hosting service.

Like regular e-mail, it's possible to send desktop faxes to many recipients at once. Simply add all of the fax numbers as separate e-mail addresses.

Web-based fax broadcasting services work similar to desktop fax but with a few extra features. Using a Web interface, you can schedule press releases to release on a certain day and time and even include a preset number of redials. Web-based fax broadcasting services also allow you to upload contact lists from spreadsheets or existing e-mail groups. Some also include reporting services to see which faxes went through.

For lots more information about press releases and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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