In the last few decades, the media landscape has changed dramatically, meaning the public relations workflow we relied on for years is no longer a recipe for success.
The press release has had to adapt in many ways in its journey from a simple paper version to today’s social media release, which is socially shareable and visible to search engines.
In order to write a great press release, public relations practitioners need to understand which practices from the past are still very much applicable today, as well as relevant new aspects that deal with the release’s digital success.
We interviewed seven PR professionals and collected their best tips on how to write a press release.
1. Have a newsworthy story and pitch it to the right outlet
Having a relevant news story or official announcement is the starting point of any press release. In order to get your key messaging spread through a media outlet, the reporter, or editor, must feel your story is indeed relevant and newsworthy and a good idea to cover. This means the broader topic has to be in line with the editorial soul of the publication and the interests of the audience it serves.
Sally Stewart, author of Media Training 101: A Guide to Meeting the Press, explains that a press release is only successful “if it makes the phone ring or the email ding. Press releases should be a catalyst for further action, not the final result.”
Sally emphasizes the importance of newsworthiness of a press release:
“Make sure you have real news to release. All of us who work in Communications probably have faced a situation in which a higher-up orders a press release to placate a partner or flatter a donor or a million other reasons that have nothing to do with having real news to share. It can be difficult to advise against a news release, especially if a higher-up sees it as a solution to a problem, but if you put out too many press releases of little news value, you will hurt your organization’s reputation in the long run. Journalists will become frustrated by getting too many releases that aren’t relevant to their work and after a while, they will click every release you send right into the trash without reading a word.”
“A press release is successful if it makes the phone ring or the email ding. Press releases should be a catalyst for further action, not the final result.”
Author of Media Training 101: A Guide to Meeting the Press
This also means that what could be a newsworthy story for one outlet, might not have the same value to another. In essence, a newsworthy story also depends on the perception of the outlet you pitch it to. Do not just ‘spray and pray.’
Kerry Ludlam, Associate Director of Public Relations at the Shepherd Center, is clear about how she approaches pitching a newsworthy story:
“Before I pitch any of our announcements or story ideas to a reporter and/or publication, I do some research to make sure I am hitting the right target. I’ll read their latest articles or watch some recent clips to make sure that what I am pitching is in line with other things the reporter or publication has covered previously. For example, if our announcement is related to research or health, I am going to make sure I pitch a reporter or publication that typically covers health topics rather than pitching a reporter who only covers sports or entertainment. Reporters will appreciate that you have taken the time to get to know their beats and interests. Hopefully, they’ll reward your diligence with positive coverage".
2. Compel and inspire
A newsworthy story that is presented in a stale manner will probably not get the attention of an editor. If you consider the number of press releases that journalists receive each day, it is easy to conclude that they too need to be inspired. So besides your story being relevant and newsworthy, presenting it in a visually compelling manner and written with an article-like feel to it may convince an editor of the story’s merit.
A good headline and eye-catching email subject line is also key. For Sally Stewart, the headline is the most important part of a well-written press release:
“If you don’t catch the reader’s attention with the headline, they will just click right past your release. My team members know that if I spend an hour editing a news release, probably half that time is spent making the headline as compelling and clickable as it can be".
Besides making your key message inspiring, it is vital for PR professionals to understand how press releases can fit into the big shift of news towards social media in recent years. Many journalists both consume and distribute scoops on their Twitter feed, so reaching them via social media has become more important than ever.
Jeff Calaway runs Checkup Newsroom, a brand journalism site on children's health. His mission is to share expertise from the Cook Children's Health Care System in Fort Worth, Texas, that informs, educates, and stimulates thought on parenting. As Jeff explains, social media plays a vital role in distributing their stories:
“As a pediatric hospital, we have a unique voice. We use our physicians, health care providers and employees as the experts and to get involved in that day’s conversation. We use our social channels to push those stories out. Kim Brown, our media specialist, does a great job of tweeting those stories out and those tweets often garner the attention of the media. I think that’s because they trust us our news judgment too and know Kim. I can’t remember the last time we’ve sent out a press release. We reach the media through our newsroom or through the relationships that Kim’s developed with our media".
3. Personalize your quotes
Adding quotes to your press release can help an editor bring a piece to life. A quote gives the impression an article is the result of an interview, which provides a sparkle and spontaneity to a message. When you include quotes that are short and personal, you are making it easy for a reporter to convert your message into a piece of earned media. Again, efficiency plays an underlying motivator as reporters have deadlines too.
David Blumberg, Senior Director of Public Relations at TransUnion, explains that quotes provide incredible nuance in a story and ensure the key message, when presented from a personal perspective, can become even more powerful.
“A quote should be informative, yet succinct. Two to three sentences at the very most. If you have to take a breath while reading any part of a press release, you can be sure you’ll lose most readers. I advise you get to the point, reinforce the message you want the reader to remember and make it compelling, but not absurd. Descriptions like one-of-a-kind, unique, etc. no longer cut it. Instead, explain why the new product, announcement or research is important enough to warrant a press release”.
“Descriptions like one-of-a-kind, unique, etc. no longer cut it. Instead, explain why the new product, announcement or research is important enough to warrant a press release.”
Senior Director of Public Relations at TransUnion
4. Adding rich content
A story can be told in numerous ways. But a picture says more than a thousand words. A digital press release should allow you to add images, videos, infographics and other types of supportive and downloadable content. Providing easy access and use of digital elements will enhance your story’s attractiveness as it will help an editor better understand your key message and provide informative background collateral to the publication’s audience. Also, with digital press releases, you must think about driving traffic to your owned and managed web properties where this content resides. Driving traffic and measuring conversion have become key metrics in modern-day PR.
For Lauren Keane, Assistant Vice President of Communications at Southern New Hampshire University, providing raw media content with press releases is of particular importance:
“In today’s busy and ever-changing newsrooms, PR professionals really need to think of ways to be helpful to reporters and not create more work for them. By hiring a stringer and providing raw video clips, photos, and interviews that media outlets could package in their own way is a really important element that we try to incorporate in our press releases. This has helped us drive more coverage and reporters appreciate it; it looks like they were there to cover the stories themselves".
“In today’s busy and ever-changing newsrooms, PR professionals really need to think of ways to be helpful to reporters and not create more work for them.”
Assistant Vice President of Communications at Southern New Hampshire University
Katie Smith, Senior Director of Public Relations at Audubon Nature Institute provides a similar account of the effectiveness of adding rich content to press releases. As Katie explains:
“Working in marketing at a zoo and aquarium offers endless opportunities for great digital content - who doesn’t love cute animal videos? Being able to easily provide high-quality video and images to journalists and influencers has increased our earned media coverage by nearly 50% in 2017”.
5. Public relations is still a people’s business
No matter the amount of digitalization, getting noticed by reporters helps when there is a personal relationship with the editor. With PR professionals outnumbering journalists in most western countries by a factor 4, building a relationship based on trust and mutual benefit is becoming more key than ever.
Dana Stelsel, Corporate Communications Manager at Wabash National, is aware of the fact that sending a press release is not a ‘spray and pray’ exercise, but a process of carefully selecting recipients and personalizing your pitch:
“The key to success in PR is knowing your audience. PR professionals practice this daily when crafting communications for our brands, but sometimes we forget to apply this rule to ourselves. Knowing who we’re pitching is as equally important as knowing our audience.
I like to maintain relationships with journalists and influencers with regular communication using social media and email. I follow them on social media to see what they’re talking about, and I exchange ideas and engage with them on both industry topics and other topics that align with my personal interests. I want to connect with them as a person, not as a representative of Wabash National. When the opportunity arises where I can tell a story or share information in a way that meets a need for them, we have a foundation of trust and respect that makes that pitch easier to deliver.
In-person touchpoints occur less often, so I make sure to reach out to my key trade partners when I’m attending trade shows or other industry events so we can have some face time".
“I like to maintain relationships with journalists and influencers with regular communication using social media and email. I follow them on social media to see what they’re talking about, and I exchange ideas and engage with them on both industry topics and other topics that align with my personal interests.”
Corporate Communications Manager at Wabash National
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