By James Williams of PostcodeAnywhere is an ex-journalist and professional PR.
Having worked in both the private and public sectors for companies promoting postcards to computer programs, I always find it incredible how poorly put-together press releases can be. Writing is a craft, but it’s not difficult to nail the perfect press release – in fact, the golden rule is to keep it simple.
1. Keep it simple
Probably the biggest problem with most press releases is that they’re not simple enough. When cooking up a release, don’t serve up fiddly Michelin-starred monstrosities. We’re after egg and chips. So how are releases overcomplicated? They’ll nearly always have overlong sentences.
Even worse, they’ll probably be flooded with jargon or industry terms as well. Remember, there is no shame in presenting your story in easy-to-understand terms. Break down long, sprawling compound sentences into smaller, easier-to-digest ones. Replace industry jargon with language normal people will understand.
2 Keep it short
The main body of a press release should be no longer than one page – anything over that is just not necessary. News is a fleeting commodity and journalists are pressed for time. It can sometimes be a lot harder to keep content to one page, but after you’ve stripped out all the repetition and marketese you’ll probably be fine.
3 Take time over the headline
Your headline will almost certainly be rewritten by the sub-editors who work over your release, but it should still engage the interest of the reader. Make it informative and punchy, and don’t try too hard to be clever. For online releases it’s good practice for SEO (search engine optimisation) to put the company name in the headline too.
4 Take more time over the top line
The top line is just as important as the headline, but it’s often ignored. The first sentence of your release should be a simple, easy-to-understand summation of the story, including the “who, what, why, where and when.”
Details follow after. Think of the the “pub test”: if you were talking about the news to your friends, it would be the first thing you’d say to introduce the story.
5 Use the inverted pyramid technique
Although this sounds like dreaded marketing-or-management-speak, the “inverted pyramid” is a visual way of describing how a press release should be structured: with all the important stuff at the top and the less important, but nonetheless interesting, stuff at the bottom.
At the very end of a press release should a telephone number or web address for people to get more information. If you look at other press releases and news stories you’ll see they follow this pattern. Emulate them.
5 Don’t use “filler” quotes
There’s often conflict between the creatives and the management in an organisation. You’ll take time eliminating all the jargon only to find the quote from the marketing guys has bundled it all back in, with interest. Quotes are the beating heart of a press release.
It’s good practice for your press releases to mainly comprise quotes. It’s an excuse to present the story with a personal and punchy angle, as the release itself must appear neutral. Make sure your quotes are doing the spadework and telling the story rather than being bolt-on, jargon-filled puffery, or they’ll be ignored.
6 Give journalists more
Every release should have a standard “boilerplate” appended with your notes to editors on it. This should contain interview contacts and a backgrounder about your company. It should answer any questions a journalist might ask about your organisation and give them contact details so they can find out more if necessary.
If at all possible, have a good JPEG photo ready – but don’t email it out as this will irritate people. If you don’t have a media centre on your website, get one – then set up a photo database and add a link to it in your releases.
7 Proof it
You simply must check for any typing errors. Use a spell-checker, but be warned: they aren’t right 100% of the time on the grammar front. If your release is riddled with errors it makes you look sloppy and unprofessional. Proof it yourself and then get someone else to cast a fresh pair of eyes over it.
Although very few people can write a good press release, they aren’t rocket science: they simply follow a prescribed formula. Look at published news items and releases from well-established companies, then emulate the style.
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