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How to write a press release that really works

January 2, 2017 - 12:40pm -- richard

Writing press releases was the sole domain of Public Relations [PR] professionals, Corporate Communications departments and Government Press Officers for decades, but  modern Press Release Distribution systems let anyone do it. Write yours like a pro...

Press release distribution has become much more accessible than it used to be, but the prerequisite of newsworthiness coupled with the key formula for writing and sending a successful release is still much the same as it always was.

Despite that, the first question when preparing a press release is no longer necessarily 'Why should this be a press release?' as much as 'What do I want this press release to achieve?'

That's because press releases aren't just for getting messages to journalists or for complying with financial disclosure anymore: they can just as easily be used to bypass the mainstream media and reach audiences themselves.

A quick look at Google News and the 'stories' that include the admission '[press release]' in their intro text testify to this, daily.

Press releases can also be used to boost a website's keywords in Search Engine Results via Search Engine Optimisation (something Google has recently warned against doing where releases are replicated across multiple third-party sites to create back links).

Press releases can also be used to build brand recognition for a company, product or individual... This is a great way to develop trust and familiarity with journalists when offering valuable information or expertise (such as a property developer issuing a monthly housing sales index, or a law firm offering a partner's expert legal commentary on developing news stories).

The same, but different...

Writing the press release itself - whether you're announcing major company news for Bloomberg's stock ticker, a specialised product you want covered by trade press, or an e-book you've self-published and want to tell book review bloggers about - all follow the same broad principles of journalistic news story production (even though your 'story' is going to be subjective, rather than objective).

This approach primarily involves applying a pyramid-like structure to drafting your press release, with new and important information at the top and more mundane content, like the company's background and historic events, towards the bottom.

Applying this process to a fictional corporate press release about a big company taking over a smaller firm, the press release's headline might look like this: "Bigco Buys Littleco For $20m".

The aim is to identify the players and give the journalist recipient a sense of scale, so they know whether it's worth them looking into it further while they consider whether to report it or not. It should be eminently succinct and concise.

Bear in mind that your headline is a one-shot-deal... It must gain a professional journalist's interest as they flick across a plethora of emails in their inbox, or glance at a wire terminal in a busy newsroom - all competing for their attention. 

Nielsen claimed that BBC headlines have the following characteristics:

  • Short, typically 5 words or less
  • Information-rich
  • Starts with keywords
  • Understandable, even out of context
  • Predictable/matches reader expectations

The max number of characters a headline can extend to be before it starts to get cut off in search results is generally 58.

It should tell them everything they need to know in an instant, so they want to look down to the next line and learn more. In a news story this introductory line is called a 'standfirst'. It takes much the same form in a press release.

One key difference, however, is the inclusion of the press release's city and country of origin, followed by the date it is being issued: for the reader's quick reference as well as the issuing press release wire's name.

It might look like this: '[PRESSWIRE] Los Angeles, USA - 04.12.2013 --'.

The introductory line will elaborate on the information in the headline and provide further essential detail: 'Bigco, the world's leading social network data provider, has announced today that it has completed the purchase of Palo Alto-based Smallco, to form the world's biggest social media data collection company.'

This headline and introductory sentence are almost certainly all the journalist will be able to see of your press release when it arrives in their inbox or newswire feed... until or unless they opt to open it up.

They may be able to see more of its content in a preview pane, but don't count on it.

From looking at this headline and intro, we know that any journalist working in the relevant fields of 'Advertising', 'Business - General', 'Company News', 'Financial Analysts - Internet', 'Information Processing', 'Internet - Business', 'Internet - Consumer', 'Marketing' and 'Technology' should be interested in opening it up, so they can take a look at its body.

Get your body into shape

The body of the press release will spell out everything that's newsworthy about the announcement and give recipients everything they need to write it up as a story and submit it to their editors. Keeping to an approximate word count of around 400 words is good practice in keeping it as concise as you can.

However, sometimes this cannot be practicably worked to, such as when issuing a corporate statement or financial results, which require an extended-word count.

The press release's body text will give all of the important facts and figures about any parties mentioned, including the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the story, as much as it suits the issuing company to give out such information.

The writer should anticipate what journalists will want to know and ask about their announcement, and either provide that information within the release, or explain why the information is not being provided at this time.

Big, obvious omissions that make the release look like it's got a hole in it can light up your switchboard, with journalists demanding answers. Or mean that your story is left to die, owing to the fact the journalists can't get the information they desire, in time to file it.

It is also a good idea to include at least one quotation, preferably from the issuing party's CEO or most relevant individual to the story; again, to provide journalists with something they will only have to call you up for later if you neglect to include it.

Contrarily, you may find that journalists will approach you for a unique quote regardless, because they don't want to use the same one as everyone else. In this case the one you've provided in the first instance will be useful for them in assessing which direction your quoted spokesperson is going in, regarding the announcement.

Respect the architect

It goes without saying that the entire press release should be 100% grammatically correct, without any hint of a typo or spelling mistake, as well as being completely accurate and error-free.

It should resemble something you'd expect to find as an example of perfect writing in an advanced-language textbook, because if there are any errors in this department, not only will wordsmith journalists baulk at it, search engines will mark you down for it too, unnecessarily impacting its position in search results.

For these reasons, you should get a colleague to check your release after you've written the final draft, before it is sent for distribution.

If the press release is being provided in a language that isn't the writer's mother-tongue, then the press release should be double-checked by someone whose first language it is, or who is professionally proficient in that language.

Furthermore, if the press release contains technical writing, it should be checked by someone with expertise in the relevant subject area and who works in that language. Another essential consideration is including accompanying imagery or video.

After spending time crafting the contents of the press release so you've practically done the journalists' job for them in presenting the whole story, you could still get a raft of responses from picture desks asking for high-resolution logos for either of the two companies mentioned in our example article, or a picture of the issuing company's headquarters ... or an image of someone using its best-known product, as well as a headshot of the individual you supplied a quotation from.

Pictures in press releases should be provided both as smaller, web-friendly jpeg images at 72dpi as well as print-quality jpegs at 300dpi.

If there's a video to offer with the release, then embed it - and if there's a broadcast-quality version available for download, then mention it is available via a given download link, or by asking the Media Contact whose details will be provided at the foot of the release.

Stick around and network

Press releases should conclude with a 'Notes to Editors' section, giving a brief outline of the company or product and providing a very concise wrap of its origins and history, as well as any awards or notable features, such as rapid growth or its origins or the number of countries it operates in and number of staff it employs, etc. that might be of interest to a reader.

Lastly, it should give a media contact for a press representative who journalists can talk to regarding the release, should they require any further information or materials.

Bear in mind, this person will need to be fully briefed to respond to journalists who may quote them or use any information they give in a call or by email, in their write-up. It is also advisable to state when this person will be available (especially for global releases across different time zones) - e.g. 'Note: this contact is reachable via email at any time, or by phone during GMT business hours.'

An out-of-hours emergency phone number can also be provided here, if required. On the last line of the press release, write 'ENDS' - so it's definitive that the whole message has been seen by the recipient, and there's no further information that might have been cropped or lost as it was being forwarded between news desks, etc.

All of these factors must be considered carefully when putting your press release together, if it is to succeed in doing its job.

In addition, it is highly recommended - in the event you are issuing the release on behalf of a third-party - that you get written approval in an email from the company or individual you are about to issue it on behalf of, acknowledging that the final version of the release you have sent them is authorised for distribution.

All that's left now is to choose a reliable press release distributor to send your press release out through, so it reaches as many of the most relevant journalists as possible - and even better still, tracks the emails it sends, so they can provide you with a Tracking Report.

A Tracking Report is an invaluable new service that identifies which journalists looked at your press release and provides you with their contact details, so you can follow up with them directly and develop relationships with them to secure coverage both on this release, and in future.

They also deliver essential analytics on pick-up that you can then use to compare the success of one press release with another, going forward, honing and adapting your future releases to increasingly gain the media exposure you or your clients require.

Press Release Template

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Richard Powell is the Public Relations Director of the Press Release Distribution and Media Contacts Database company, Presswire, since 2001.