A press release is the raw material from which a story is written up, usually by a journalist. Whether it’s about a community fundraiser, the launch of a health service or the opening of a produce market, it’s the press release’s job to provide facts and stimulate interest.
Press release writing should be clear and concise, with no digression from the heart of the matter.
The six big questions
A press release must answer the who, what, why, where, when and how of the story.
1. Who are the people or organisations involved?
Journalists are more excited by CEOs and executive directors than Karen from Accounting, so try to get the most senior manager you can into the press release.
This can be harder than you think. Managers may try to bow out because of shyness or nerves; however, it’s your job to get them on the record.
At least two quotations (i.e. in inverted commas) from each main protagonist in the press release should be included for journalists to cut and paste into a story if necessary (more on that later).
2. What is it that’s actually happened?
Too many press releases say something like “The new Commonwealth Games arena that began construction six months ago is set to open in seven months’ time.”
Okay, but why not wait until a month before the arena opening to start building up the interest? Or until something happens, like the local MP visits the site, or there’s a strike? A press release is about new information, it’s not a running commentary.
3. Why does this need a press release?
If there is a strike at your Commonwealth Games arena, it could have ramifications for planned sporting events, for your MP’s political career, or for the construction company that won the government tender. Don’t put out a press release unless you know why your organisation wants it out there.
4. Where is this happening?
If you announce that a new community bank is opening in Auburn, journalists may take note. If you mention that Auburn is a Sydney suburb with a high Muslim population and the new bank is opening branches only in Muslim-friendly suburbs, then you will have a journalist’s complete attention.
Location can be important, so make sure you highlight it if it makes your story more appealing.
5. When is it happening?
The timing of an event can have a significance that may not be obvious if you don’t supply it in the media release. If a company establishes trade relations with China in the same month China is expected to announce a boost to its exports, then this should be in the press release.
6. How did this happen?
Your announcement could be the result of six months of secret negotiations with a major supplier. Or it may be because you have received a donation that enables you to start a project.
So what’s the angle?
Any one of these six elements could be the angle or main point of the story. The angle is the hook that draws the journalist in, and it should be put at the top of the story. This is because when journalists start cutting your press release down, they do it from the bottom up.
If you leave it until the last paragraph to say that your new store will be opened by the Dalai Lama, then you have just written a bad press release.
The emergence of churnalism
Faced with turning over more information than ever before and with fewer journalists to do so, a phenomenon known as “churnalism” has emerged in news organisations.
Stories are churned out to feed news and social media sites, and so a ready-made story is preferable to one that takes time to analyse, conduct interviews for and write up.
In some cases, a busy journalist will literally cut and paste a story from a press release. This means the closer your press release approximates to an actual news story, the more chance you have that it will be taken up and published.
You will soon learn which news outlets prefer this ‘one stop shop’ approach by the number of your stories appearing on their sites.
Now for the layout of a press release
Press releases are usually no more than an A4 page long, although there are exceptions where many stakeholders are involved. It should have the name of the organisation issuing it at the top and the date it is being issued. If the information can be used and published immediately, it should clearly state “For Immediate Release” just above the headline.
If the information is embargoed, which means journalists are asked not to publish it before a certain date, it should state something like “Embargoed until 12 a.m. Tuesday, January 24, 2017.”
You should supply a headline that states simply in one sentence what the release is about, for example “Construction of Commonwealth Games Gymnastics Arena Begins.”
At the end of the press release, write ENDS then “For further information and interview opportunities, contact” followed by your details.
Press release writing is difficult, more so than a news story, because you are not just reporting facts, you are trying to persuade a journalist to help you promote your agenda.
Don’t be afraid to write a number of drafts, and maybe get in touch with a professional writer for guidance if you are lost for inspiration.