How a press release is written and structured may matter even more now than in decades past. There are several reasons for this. Media outlets are expecting smaller staffs to publish more stories at a quicker pace. A well-written press release may be just what a reporter is looking for to be able to quickly turn around a story for their editor.
At the same time, email has made it easy to send out press releases en masse, flooding reporters’ inboxes. While press releases can be a great tool to generate media coverage, there is a lot of competition. It is important to write in a way that gets the journalist’s attention, but also tells the story in a clear style with all of the critical information.
Below are six tips for writing effective press releases.
1. Understand that a blog and a press release are entirely different
One common mistake for companies is believing that a press release and a blog are interchangeable. A press release is a more formal, third-person recitation of the facts where your goal is to get the reporter to write their own story using the facts you provided. In comparison, a blog is often a more casual article written in a first-person voice that often will be written with marketing objectives in mind.
In writing a blog, you’re essentially the reporter telling others what to do or how to think about a particular issue. In writing a press release, your goal is to get a reporter to understand that the information you are sharing is newsworthy enough to warrant them writing their own story about it. If you structure your press release like a blog, most reporters are going to delete it without reading it because it will read as too self-serving.
2. Follow a top-down structure
Think of your press release like a pyramid with the most important facts at the top. Like the top of a pyramid, you do not have a lot of space, so you need to be direct and concise with the information you pack in there. Put the details and “extra” facts in the base of your pyramid (paragraphs four or five of the press release).
Why is this so important? A reporter is only going to read the first paragraph before deciding if they want to finish reading the press release and move on to the next one. If you can’t simply highlight the key newsworthy element of your announcement in the first paragraph, it’s not worth their time to keep reading, especially when they have 100 other emails in their inbox to consider.
Here’s another reason why the top-down structure is so important. Assume your entire press release is five paragraphs. If a newspaper is going to run your press release word-for-word, they’re going to do it based on how much space they have available. If they remove the last paragraph of your press release, do the first four paragraphs still tell a complete story? What if they only run three paragraphs (or only two)? Always put the most important info at the top of a press release so that if the release is cut short, it still tells a complete story.
3. Get to the point
Remember that the idea of a press release is to get the reporter to write their own story, not for you to write it for them. Don’t write a long lead-in paragraph explaining an issue — that’s their job to set up the story for their audience. Your job is to explain how you’re the solution or relevant to the greater story. A one or two sentence lead-in may be okay, but if it takes you a paragraph before even mentioning the company’s name or what your announcement is, then you are not writing an effective press release that will create the results you want.
4. Draft meaningful quotes
The second or third paragraph of your press release should include a quote from a key source that contributes to how you want the story told. Including meaningful quotes allows you to add some subjectivity to the story and also helps reporters understand why your company or source is relevant to the story you are pitching.
Drafting the perfect quote can be a tricky task. A bad quote is usually so generic that it doesn’t benefit the story to include it. Most people, even successful CEOs, may not know how to draft a quote that contributes to the goals of a press release. Instead of asking your source to give you a quote to use, I highly recommend you write a proposed draft quote and include it directly into your press release — then go to the source with the full draft release and ask for edits or permission to use the quote.
The same goes for partners you may be referencing in the release such as a new customer or happy partner. You will want to draft a full quote for these partners that praises your company by name, describing why they like you so much, etc. If they approve the quote that you’ve drafted, you’ve now got a testimonial that can be used anywhere in the future, referencing the news article the quote appeared in or the press release which is posted on your website.
5. Include a boilerplate
Some call it a boilerplate, and others call it an “about us” section. The goal of the boilerplate is to help reporters understand more about your company if they are referencing your company in their story. A clear and well-written boilerplate will help reporters accurately describe your company in their coverage.
At the bottom of your press release you’ll want to include an “about” header followed by a short, consistent paragraph explaining what your company does, your company’s mission, where it’s headquartered and other relevant information. At the end of the paragraph, make sure to also add a hyperlinked URL to your company’s website.
6. Add formatting.
After you write the release, you need to go back and add the standard formatting for a press release. This includes:
- The Headline. Keep your headline short and direct, including your company’s name when possible. Try to target a length of 100 characters for the entire headline. The email subject line should be even shorter, as most email subject previews are only about 50 characters before cutting you off.
- The Dateline. At the start of your first paragraph, in all caps, include the name of the city and state where the company is located followed by the date the release is being distributed. Put both the location and date in the same parenthesis. A dateline helps reporters understand quickly how recent a story is and where the story originates.
- Add Links. Go back through your release and for the first mention of your company, the product, hyperlink the name to the appropriate website page. You don’t need to do it for every mention, just the first time and again in the boilerplate.
- The Break. After the “about us” section, or boilerplate, you’ll want to add a “break,” which is just a new line with either three pound signs (###) or “-30-” centered on the page. This will signal to the reporter that they have reached the end of the official press release. Underneath that line, you should include the contact information for the media contact. PR folks may say that they prefer using “###” or “-30-” — and it’s one of those silly industry debates — but for this article, all you need to know is that anything under the break line is not to run openly within a reporter’s story for the public to see. Trust me, you don’t want to accidentally have your personal cell phone listed at the bottom of a story seen by thousands. This is why media contact information is always included below the break.
Before I get a hate mail from other PR professionals, let me add the following. These suggestions are a bit down-and-dirty for writing an effective press release. If you know AP Style, yes, reporters prefer you follow it as it saves them time with rewriting your information. There are also a lot of other formatting nuances and styles that work.
Just as there are many ways to write a successful press release, there are a million more ways to do it wrong. Ultimately, you need a format that works for you but still conforms to what reporters expect so that they recognize you as a viable news source and media contact. Following these instructions listed above will help you generate more positive news coverage to meet your company goals.