Every press release is different, but, regardless of its content, I try to make each release I write conform to these 10 Press Release Commandments:
- Thou shalt be professional. No goofy fonts, rainbow paper or silly gimmicks. Even lighthearted press releases represent a communication between one professional and another.
- Thou shalt not be promotional. If you can’t get enough objective distance from your company to write a press release that’s not filled with hype and puffery, hire someone to write it for you.
- Thou shalt not be boring. Even the driest subject matter allows for some sparks of creativity. Journalists like knowing that there’s a human being communicating with them, not some corporate robot.
- Thou shalt be brief. Learn to cut out extraneous words. Keep your sentences short. Include only the points necessary to sell the story. The well-crafted one page press release is a thing of beauty.
- Thou shalt know thy recipient. A feature or specialty editor is a very different creature from a city desk editor. If you’re promoting the opening of a new winery, the food and wine editor may be interested in all the details about what kind of aging process and wine press you’re using. The city desk editor just wants to know when the grand opening is and what’s going to happen there.
- Thou shalt use the proper tense. When writing a hard news release — a contract signing, a stock split, a major announcement, etc.) use the past tense (Acme Industries has changed its name to AcmeCo, the company announced today…) When writing a soft news release – a trend story, a personal profile, etc. — use the present tense (Jane Smith is one of the best marathon runners over 40. She’s also blind. Thanks to new technology from AcmeCo, Jane is able to…).
- Thou shalt think visually. A press release is more than words — it’s a visual document that will first be assessed by how it looks. I’m referring to more than font size or letterhead. I’m talking about the actual layout of the words. Whether received by mail, fax or email, a journalist — often unconsciously — will make decisions about whether to read the release based on how the release is laid out. Big blocks of text and long paragraphs are daunting and uninviting. Short paragraphs and sentences make for a much more visually inviting look.
- Thou Shalt Tell a Story. How to arrange the facts of a hard news release is pretty much cut and dried. The old “who, what, when, where and how” lead and “inverted pyramid” concepts still hold. So let’s focus on a soft news release. The trend story, the feel-good company story, the “gee-whiz, I didn’t know anyone was doing that!” release. The difference between these releases and the hard news release is simply a mirror of the difference between a feature story in, say, the entertainment section of your newspaper and the breaking news report on page one. The hard news story is about cold, hard facts (A mudslide closed portions of Interstate 70 last night, causing massive delays). A feature article about the guy who spends all day looking at seismograph readouts trying to predict where the next mudslide will occur will be very different. It’s likely to be in present tense, it won’t load all the facts upfront and it will be designed to draw the reader deep into the text. It is, in short, all about storytelling. Here’s the formula I use for these kinds of releases. I call it the 3S approach — Situation/Surprise/Support.The first paragraph sets up the situation. The second paragraph reveals the surprise. The third paragraph supports the claim made in the second paragraph. One very typical 3S is discussing a common problem in the first paragraph (For centuries, people have accepted memory loss as an inevitable result of aging.) The “surprise” paragraph announces the solution to the problem (But one local man says he’s ready to prove the medical establishment wrong.) The ”support” paragraph then tells the story. (John Smith, an Anytown entrepreneur, says he’s found the key to retaining a strong memory function far into old age. His “Memory Maker” software is based on ancient Chinese texts that were used more than 2000 years ago to…) Another 3S — let’s revisit our mudslide watching friend. How would you start his story using this method? While John Smith’s colleagues at the National Atmospheric Center are watching the skies for signs of lightning and tornadoes, his attention is focused elsewhere. John Smith is listening to the mud. As the Chief Mudslide Analyst at the NAC, Smith spends his days glued to a seismograph, eyes and ears peeled for the telltale signs on an impending slide. Along with the 3S in action, I also followed the 7th Commandment. That really short second paragraph is a visual grabber, and will keep the journalist reading right into the meat of the release.
- Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness. This may seem an obvious point, but it always bears repeating. Tell the truth. Don’t inflate, don’t confabulate, don’t exaggerate. Don’t twist facts, don’t make up numbers, don’t make unsubstantiated claims. Any decent journalist will be able to see right through this. If you’re lucky, you’re release will just get tossed out. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be exposed. It’s a chance not at all worth taking. Make sure every release you write is honest and on the level.
- Thou Shalt Know Thy Limitations. Not everyone can write a press release. A good feature release, in particular, isn’t an easy thing to craft. If you just don’t feel like you have the chops to get the job done, hire a professional.
One last tip: right before you start writing your release, spend an hour or two reading your daily paper, paying special attention to stories similar in feel to yours.
Immerse yourself in how the pros do it and you’ll be in the right frame of mind to tackle the job!
When Writing Press Releases, It’s all About Style
Write a great lead. The lead paragraph in a press release should, theoretically, be able to stand alone as a news item. A standard news lead answers the FiveW’s — Who? What? Where? When? Why? Successfully answer those five questions in one paragraph and you’ve summarized everything beautifully.
Write in Third Person. Perhaps it’s a silly convention, but press releases really should be written as if they’re coming from an objective outsider to your company, not from within your business. Of course, the journalist knows better, but nonetheless, they expect releases to be written in the third person. In short, here’s the difference between first person and third person:
• First person: We’ve developed the Acme X100. It’s our most advanced model ever.
• Third person: Acme Industries has developed the X100, which a company spokesperson called its “most advanced ever”
Attribute all opinions. Never flatly state an opinion. If you want to state an opinion or, as in the above example, make a claim, always attribute it to a representative of the company (which very well may end up to be you!). Anything apart from entirely factual info (dates, store availability, product features, biographical information, etc.) should be attributed.
Again, the best way to get a feel for this is to read wire copy. Start sorting out the things a reporter feels comfortable including without attribution and things
for which he uses a named source.
Remove all “stoppers”. A “stopper” is something that will stop a journalist in her tracks and distract her attention. Once that happens, your release is toast.
The point of your press release: to present information in the least obtrusive way possible. Consider it this way: the journalist isn’t dumb — she knows full well that you’ve sent her the press release for purely commercial reasons, hoping to get publicity that will make you more money. She can live with that as long as [a] there’s something in it for her (a good story) and [b] she’s not reminded of your commercial desires too often. A “stopper” breaks the suspension of disbelief needed for this little dance to be successful. It’s the boom mike showing up in the frame of a movie — once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to convince yourself that you’re really experiencing something that happened during, say, the Middle Ages.
Here are some ‘stoppers” to avoid:
- Clunky language. Journalists keep their language pretty simple. Long words, compound sentences and lofty, pretentious phrases are no-no’s. Keep your sentences short. Don’t try to present more than one idea in a paragraph. Avoid words you wouldn’t use in everyday circumstances.
- Hype and puffery. The ultimate “stopper”. Confusing press release copy with advertising copy is a pervasive problem with businesspeople. Don’t call yourself the greatest, the hottest, the coolest, the most unique or anything of the sort. If you must make a claim of superiority for your product, service or company, attribute it. Acme President Joe Blow said the X100 “has the opportunity to revolutionize the industry” is much better than The revolutionary Acme X100 is the greatest industrial advance since the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
- Trademark Symbols. Including © or ™ or ® screams “hey, check me out! I’m a press release! I come from a business! The legal department made me include this stuff!”
The bottom line: write like a journalist, avoid the stoppers and answer the Five W’s and you’ll succeed!
Copyright 2008, Stoller & Bard Communications, Inc. all rights reserved. http://www.publicityinsider.com