How to write a press release

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Fiona Mackrell

How do you go about writing a professional, attention grabbing media release and what makes it news?
How to write a press release

Even if your advertising or marketing budget extends to more than photocopied posters pinned up in windows chances are you’re going to need the help of the media. But you’ve first got to get their attention and writing a professional, attention grabbing media release is your best way to get noticed.

The In Box

Most media releases these days are emailed so they have a kind of dual etiquette. There’s the formatting of the email, which by convention is more casual and then there’s the formatting of the media release, which is usually attached as a word document or pdf that follows more formal conventions, similar to a letter.

Sometimes the information is only in the body of the email, which can work just fine if you can format it well, but if not you may be better able to control how your media release will look to the end user if it is an attachment, and thereby ensure it appears more professional.

The Subject Line

For starters all media inboxes are clogged with media releases every day so the subject line of your email is critical. Most editors will have worked out it’s a media release just by who you are but you can add Media Release if you’re attaching a formal media release, Interview Opportunity if you are offering someone to talk on a topic or event, or Media Alert if you are creating a photo opportunity or media event. But the main thing the subject line needs to say in as few words as possible is what the media release is about.

The Email

The body copy of the email can be thought of as a covering letter, particularly if you know the editor or journalist. It then gives you a chance to explain what the story is about and offer any particular ideas or angles you think will be of interest- very briefly. But more often you won’t be sure who will be monitoring a media inbox so the body copy should, like the media release that’s to follow, have a date, a great catchy heading, a more detailed sub-heading and two or three paragraphs that encapsulate what the media release is about.

It’s not a good idea to just attach your media release and leave the body copy empty or just say, media release attached. If they don’t know what it’s about they may not bother opening it.

The guts of it – the Media Release

Imagine how the information you provide will appear in the media. The purpose of a press release is to entice the media to include your information in the stories and news of their publication because people are likely to attach more weight and to read news stories and articles than an advertisement. So don’t make your press release sound like an ‘ad’. It needs to read like ‘news’.

What makes a media release news worthy?

‘News’ is often in the eye of the beholder and what’s interesting and new can vary. Consider the follow criteria when judging if a story might be newsworthy: relevance – an audience whether broad or specialised finds the issue or the topic important and interesting; timeliness – the information is about something that is about to happen or has happened very recently – ie. it’s ‘new’ prominence –people are already aware of the issue, the organisation or the people involved, such as a celebrity or a politician and they’re interested in what they have to say or are doing; controversy –there’s more than one side to tell, there’s conflict or argument around the issue or event and irregularity –it’s unusual, quirky, the first or perhaps the last time this has happened.

Not every news story will cover all these criteria but your media release needs to show it ticks as many of these boxes as it can. If it doesn’t you need to sit down and think of an angle or a ‘highlight’ that might be developed to make it more appealing and newsworthy to an audience.

The Opening paragraph

Your opening paragraph needs to frame the story you’re trying to tell: it may be the only part an editor or journalist reads before deciding whether to consider the rest of your press release. It has to not only catch their interest – it has to catch their imagination, they need to see there’s a story to be told.

But that doesn’t mean being cheesy, using overblown adjectives or making exaggerated claims. The only excuse is if that’s the tone of the publication you’re aiming for. Nor should you be coy or mysterious. Try to get to the nub of your story and answer as many potential questions, the what, where, when, why, how and who as quickly as possible.

Each paragraph that follows then builds on the opening, adding more detail and elaborating on what it’s about, who’s involved, where it’s happening and when, why it’s important and how it came about.

Quotes

Direct quotes are critical to providing a sense of immediacy and authority to a news story. Always try to include informative and interesting quotes that encapsulate significant points you are trying to convey. Quotes can also provide emotion and humour.

Stats and Facts

It’s also important to backup what you’re saying with statistics or facts that can provide a sense of objectivity. Don’t just say: it’s was really popular, say 2,054 people attended selling out the venue over all three performances.

The Format

The Media Release provides more room to expand on the information you want to provide but it should still be brief, one to two A4 pages. Use a letterhead format with prominent logo and address information. Also use the words ‘Media Release’ at the top and tell editors the date and that the information is ‘For Immediate Release’. If it’s not, let them know it’s ‘Embargoed’ and give a time and date when they can use it.

Most media releases will have the word ‘Ends’ or ### or a line that denotes where the ‘public’ component of the media release finishes. Under this you can provide contact information if journalists have additional questions or want more information as well as relevant background information and details of your organisations purpose or sponsors and short biographies of the people, places or works mentioned in the release.

The Headline and the spell check

Although it’s the first thing a reader sees, it’s often the last thing that gets written. Great headlines need crafting and considerable thought. A headline has to do so many things: grabs the reader’s attention, give them an insight to what the story will be about and most importantly makes them want to know more.

And finally don’t forget to carefully check your spelling, particularly of names, punctuation and formatting.

Other Attachments

Whenever possible include a choice of images and resolutions, don’t wait to be asked. If the images require a credit or have any copyright restrictions however be sure that it is clear how they can be used. It’s also a really good idea to include links to video available on the web, both for the media to get a sense of the story and for them to link to should they wish to run it.

Pressing Send

Different publications have different lead times: some have several deadlines throughout the day, others daily, still others weekly. Some publications, particularly magazines go to print weeks before they appear on the newsstands.

If you send your press release too early it may get lost or they may forget about it as other stories come in; too late and they won’t be able to use it. You need to think about the organisation you’re sending it to and how much time they need.

Keep an eye on the publications you send your media release too, they are unlikely to let you know if they’ve used your material unless they needed something extra. And if nothing happens – try again, with a different angle, tone or approach. Sometimes it might have been lost among other events, or it just wasn’t quite right but the more your name pops up in the inbox the more whoever is at the other end is likely to read what you send.

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out www.fionamackrell.com