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Write a Great Press Release

Brian Austin
Brian Austin Focus

Submitting a press release with the goal of getting free publicity is a fragile business. There are many potential "stop points". Like all great achievements, however, success usually comes to those who are prepared to commit to excellence. When creating and submitting a press release, essentially, that means paying attention to the details.

The objective of this in-depth "real world" article is threefold: to help you:

  • Develop excellence in creating and submitting press releases.
  • Minimize the number of "stop points" and
  • Maximize your chances of publication.

A sobering idea is the suggestion that people are not equal and never have been. For example, some folks commit to work just a little harder to learn how to accomplish a task better.

Yet human nature means that most of us won't do what the few who win usually do. Perhaps that's why most press releases are written in the self-obsessed, self-seeking advertising style usually almost guaranteed to fail. Don't let that be your press release. 

Often, the vast majority of press releases that are not accepted for publication, look for ways to blatantly publicize the company or organization, the latest product, service, idea or development, rather than to properly evaluate how to actually achieve the goal of free publicity through providing news.

Since the writers of such press releases haven't sufficiently understood what news agencies are asking for, the vast bulk of press releases quickly end up in a trash bin.

Why the Mistakes of the Many Can Actually Help You

You're here, reading this article, that puts you in the smart minority. If most press releases were written using guidelines such as those provided in this article, then the goal of getting your press release noticed would be infinitely harder. Therefore, take a moment to celebrate human imperfections, for they make your task of gaining press release publicity much easier through less competition.

Editors of course understand that through your press release, you're seeking to publicize something, providing you follow their preferred news delivery approach they're seeking.

If you consider the points outlined in this article, you stand a high chance of getting your press release inserted into a publication. Moreover, once a press release gets used in one or more key publications, your press release is more likely to be syndicated to other news sources, potentially providing even more publicity.

Consider the following ideas when crafting a press release for publication.

Your primary aim is to ...

... compel the first editorial person who reads your press release to:

  • Stop whatever they're doing - at least for a few seconds.
  • Read your headline.
  • Carefully read the first paragraph to determine whether what they're reading could offer the kind of news that may interest readers of their publication (remember, their agenda is to serve their readers, not promote your press release. However, a press release that is written in a considered style can also be of interest to a wide range of readers).
  • Peruse the remainder of your press release and scan its structure.
  • Decide if your press release is news.
  • Place your press release in a "2nd follow-up" group for further examination. Usually, the only other practical alternative is the wastepaper bin - where the vast majority of press releases end up.

Your Primary Goals

  • You don't want your press release introduced to the wastepaper bin.
  • You do want your press release to be included in the "2nd follow-up" group of perhaps 10 - 20 other press releases.
  • You do want your press release to gain the attention of a editor who makes the decision whether to use your press release in their publication.

Use the Journalistic "Inverted pyramid" Style of Presentation

  • Present your most important piece of information first.
  • Followed by the next most important point you want to make.
  • And so on.

Use the 6 Ws, And More, To Provide Important Answers To Key Questions

Throughout your press release, answer the essential questions that help the editor decide how to use your press release. Supply useful, actionable information relating to what you're announcing:

  • Who is the product or service for?
  • Who created the product or service?
  • What is the product or service?
  • What else is required to use the product or service?
  • What big problem does the product or service solve in a new or different way?
  • Where can the product or service be used?
  • Where are the suppliers based?
  • Why was the product or service created?
  • Why is the product or service better than other similar contributions?
  • How can you use the product or service?
  • How can you access the product or service?
  • When will the product or service be available?

Write in the Third Person

  • Write your press release as if someone outside of your organization has performed the actual writing.
  • How? Use words like "they", "them", "those". However, even better, whenever possible or appropriate, choose specific names like "SoftRight Services" (third person).
  • Take extra care with your use of some kinds of words like "I", "we" (first person) or "he", "she", "him" or "her" (second person). Why: usually too vague. Instead, use names, specific labels. 
  • For example, you wouldn't want to write: "After months of testing, research and development, we released v3.1 of XYZ". Why: "we" is too non-specific. Help search engines better define and understand your press release by writing more accurately.
  • Instead, an acceptable approach would be to write something like: "After months of testing, research and development, SoftRight Services released v3.1 of XYZ."
  • When including a quotation from a person, include whatever the provider says. However ...
  • If you paraphrase a quote, get agreement from the quoter before using, to ensure that they still agree with your summary.

Write About Your Latest News in a Sober, Balanced, Unbiased Manner

  • Keep your press release newsworthy, after all, although you want publicity; your press release really is about news - your news.
  • Stay neutral with the words you choose to insert in your press release.
  • Allow no hype or puffy content. How? Avoid advertising-type words whenever possible.
  • Avoid the use of "stop" and "hype" sounding words and phrases such as: "hot", "hottest", "greatest", "best", "superior", "fantastic", "superb", "cool", "coolest", and so on. Why: such words are personal opinions; someone else may disagree. Such overblown words weaken your persuasion argument, and are almost guaranteed to prevent your press release from being chosen. Instead, opt for accurate, powerful words that allow your reader to make up their own minds.
  • Avoid creative writing, unless you're promoting your latest pageturner. Keep your style simple, direct, informative. If you're not promoting your book, your editor wants news, not fiction.

Keep the Press Release Focus Tight

Make sure that everything you include in your press release is related to the central topic.

Choose Familiar, Simple Words

  • Use common words that make sense to by most people.
  • Avoid abstract, vague words, phrases and jargon.
  • Clarify any unfamiliar words, phrases, and especially acronyms that readers may not instantly understand.
  • Carefully select each and every word.
  • Make every word count.
  • Use as few words as possible to make your point.

If Possible, Resist the Urge to Include Trademark or Copyright Symbols

  • Why? Some journalists may see these symbols as less about news and more about hype.
  • Also, if your product, service or idea is already trademarked and / or copyrighted, why do you need to restate those facts in your press release?
  • However, before omitting trademark or copyright symbols, there may be legal constraints or requirements. While different countries react differently to copyright and trademark law, the "global melting pot" that is the Internet may change how you approach legal issues. Therefore, do discuss implications with a suitably qualified, suitably experienced legal advisers.

Communicate Using Simple Sentences

  • Keep sentences short in length, easy to understand, with clear explanations, made up of memorable content.

Craft Unambiguous, Precise Paragraphs

  • Apart from the first paragraph, aim to ensure that each paragraph deals with one thought or idea.

The Press Release Headline

By far the most important component of your press release, understand that the main headline must grab the attention of three key groups:

  • The first person who may scan your press release - perhaps a junior editor, trainee journalist or sub-editor.
  • A news editor who makes the decision for publication, and ...
  • Your target reader for the press release.

The First Paragraph

  • After the main headline, the first paragraph is the second most influential component of your press release.
  • Ideally, the first paragraph should contain sufficient key information to stand on its own as a summary of the entire press release.
  • Your press release main headline should feed almost seamlessly into the first paragraph.
  • Place the most important point or message in your first paragraph.
  • Write your first paragraph in such a way as to maintain the reader's attention.
  • Ensure that the end of your first paragraph sufficiently urges your reader to continue reading.

Following Paragraphs and Paragraph Sequencing

  • Following the inverted pyramid style of writing, in the second paragraph, insert the next most important point after your first paragraph.
  • Then add your remaining information in order of importance in the following paragraphs.
  • Make sure the topic of a paragraph flows naturally to the next paragraph.

Use Bullet Points if Required

  • Bullets can help break up longer sentences or paragraphs.
  • Show multiple facts more clearly.
  • Make a press release more "scannable".
  • Indentation can also help make information easier to read.
  • Can help ensure that a press release easier to understand.

Include Quotations

  • Ideally, include one or more quotations from people outside of your organization.
  • List brief details of each provider. Name and job title for each quote provides credibility so is essential.
  • The more prominent the person providing the quote, the better.
  • Avoid stating weak opinions.
  • If you decide to include an opinion from someone inside of your organization, make a strong, emphatic claim.
  • Ensure that any opinions are backed up with factual information whenever possible.

Consider Length of Coverage

  • Keep your writing concise. Why? Newsrooms are often incredibly busy and fraught workplaces. That's why brevity in your writing is a must - and is often rewarded with the most valuable commodity: full or high quality attention of someone who can really make a difference to the outcome of your press release.
  • While editors are unlikely to thank you for going to the extra effort of being concise, some might expect that from you as a minimum requirement. However, conciseness coupled with an interesting, engaging headline, just might deliver enough incentive to encourage an editor to pause long enough to read your first few paragraphs, maybe even more.
  • If your writing is suitable, sufficiently interesting and newsworthy, that might be all you need to get the result you want.
  • Your finished press release should fill up to one standard US Letter / A4 page or equivalent.
  • Certainly don't go beyond 2 standard US Letter / A4 pages. Why: editors know that the longer your press release is, the greater chance less of it gets read or scanned. Plus of course, editors too are probably already overworked: shorter is better.

Use the Correct Press Release Format

  • Appreciate that different countries have established formats for accepting press releases. For example: the UK and USA have slightly different approaches.
  • Learn about the differences and the rules of presenting a press release; don't try to change them. Use the correct format for the country to which you're submitting a press release for publication. If you submit a press release in UK format destined for the US exposure, you risk irritating a US editor; likewise, if you submit a press release in US format to a UK editor. Therefore, I recommend that you take the trouble to submit your press release in the correct format. After all, success with your press release can return to you far more publicity than you could ever pay for using conventional advertisements.
  • Present your press release in the wrong format will almost guarantee that all your efforts are wasted. Why: some editors may make presentation format a condition of follow-up.
  • If you're asked to deliver a press release in hard copy format to another person who may want to edit the document - such as an editor or sub-editor - you can deliver your press release with vertical lines at double spacing or one and a half line spacing. Why? to allow enough space to make edits directly on the page before publication.
  • Insert a standard Indicator to show when your press release text is finished. Why? Since a press release could spread over more than a single page, when you indicate the end of a press release, you clearly show to the editor or sub-editor that no additional pages or information are to follow. Different symbols may be used to specify the end of press release text. In the USA, a PR author may insert three hashes "###" after the main body text. For a press release destined for the UK market however, you can insert "-ends-" at the end of your press release text.

Consider Overall Presentation

  • Although a press release is essentially a fact-based document, do remember, look and feel can still influence decision-making process.
  • Try to ensure that your press release comes across as uncluttered.
  • Determine how to use the white space surrounding your paragraphs to help frame your document.
  • If the publication like your low-key style, a follow-up interview may get offered later.

A Final Note

If you're repeatedly successful at writing and presenting effective press releases, remember, you'll then have not one, but two potential additional product / service options:

  • Writing press releases, and ...
  • How to write effective press releases that win.