Marketers and public relations professionals can find plenty of advice on how to write a press release, but rarely is that advice directly from the journalists that press releases attempt to engage.
It turns out, journalists have a lot to say about press releases. It also turns out that marketers have a lot to learn.
Although I only recently joined an inbound marketing agency, I'm a 25-year veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Contra Costa Times, among others. For decades I started my mornings weeding through the press releases in my inbox, one finger hovering over the "delete" key and ready to strike.
Wondering whether things have gotten better lately, I reached out to several journalist friends.
"Most of what I get is garbage," said Mary Pols, a longtime Portland Press-Herald/Sunday Telegram reporter who has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.
Follow these top 9 recommendations to stand out
As I spoke with my journalist friends, various tips and suggestions came up more than once. Use those tips to help your press release stand out from the ineffective and soon-to-be-deleted competition in your target journalist's inbox.
1. The journalist's point of view is the only one that matters
Reporters don't care what you think the story should be. They want to quickly peruse the pertinent information and determine whether they think it's a story.
"I see press releases with irrelevant facts I would never write about," said Greg Couch, who writes for Bleacher Report and is a correspondent for The Guardian. "I realize they're excited about this information, but I'm not excited about it. They would be more effective if they didn't think about what their boss wants to read in the newspaper or online, and instead thought about what the website or newspaper wants. It's usually two different things. How is it relevant to the rest of the world and not just your boss?"
Retired Las Vegas-based newspaper, magazine, and online editor Phil Hagen said he deleted 90 percent of the press releases he received without even opening them. "The other 10 percent I opened thinking, 'what's in it for me?' The answer for 95 percent of those was 'nothing.'"
The key to writing a better press release is to put yourself in the scuffed, down-at-the heel shoes of a reporter or editor.
Most news organizations these days are woefully understaffed. It's safe to assume your recipients are behind schedule, their deadlines are looming, and they have volunteered to work the concession stand at their child's after-school track meet. In other words, they're swamped, personally and professionally.
Give journalists what they're looking for: an easily executed story idea their editors will love.
"Write an attention-grabbing couple of graphs and then use bullet points in a very real, non-BS way," Pols said. "That way, the reporter has more of an opportunity to see their version of the story instead of someone else's version."
2. The subject line is critical
Those 6-10 words can be the difference between your release being read... or being deleted. Avoid emojis and all caps. Don't try to be funny. Use a key stat if possible. And, above all, clearly communicate the essence of what you're promoting.
3. Make sure your press release is noteworthy
In the case of press releases, less is more. If you don't have anything newsworthy to announce, wait until you do.
"If I'm getting a bunch of meaningless stuff from one organization, and all of a sudden something comes along that's significant, I might miss it because I threw it away thinking it was meaningless too," said former longtime MSNBC deputy editor Danny DeFreitas, who is now a senior digital consultant.
4. Make sure your press release is relevant
Find out which reporter covers your industry or has written similar stories in the past. Include a note, saying something like this: "I enjoyed your story on XYZ Company's latest launch and thought this also might be of interest. Please call if you have any questions."
For example, is your new product a perfect Mother's Day gift? Could the technology you're pitching have prevented the fire that was recently in the news? Dig deeper to find the bigger story.
Hagen recently volunteered to write a press release to publicize a local charity event supporting cancer research. Knowing a popular columnist had also been affected by cancer, Hagen wrote him a personal note; and, sure enough, the columnist mentioned the event in his next column.
5. Make sure your release is engaging
Easier said than done, granted. But this point kept coming up in my conversations.
"I would read the first paragraph, and if it was boring I wouldn't go on," Defreitas said. "The ones that kept me engaged always displayed some writing flair. The first paragraph has to have creativity to it. It needs to tease me or grab me."
"My eyes glaze over when I read almost all of them," Pols agreed. "It's a stylistic thing. I would start by writing a sexier lead than they do."
6. Oversell at your own risk
A reporter reads a press release about the opening of the state's first organic seaweed farm. Since he covers sustainability topics, he pitches the idea to his editor, who likes it and budgets it for Sunday's edition.
A week before deadline, the reporter begins researching the story, only to discover it's actually the state's fifth organic seaweed farm; the press release claim was based on a technicality. Now the reporter has to explain to his editor that the story is bogus, then scramble to find a replacement.
You just made him look bad. It's safe to assume he will ignore your releases from now on.
7. Don't make assumptions
Take the time to ensure you're sending your release to the right person, and use the proper title to address her. For example, don't send a release to the "News Coordinator" if that person refers to herself as "Managing Editor." And don't assume the recipient will forward your release to the right person.
Pols said more than one-third of the press releases she receives assume she's based in Portland, Oregon, not Portland, Maine.
"Maybe [the press release] sounds interesting," she said. "I research it and find it's in Oregon, and I'm disgusted that I wasted my time because they couldn't differentiate between two cities on opposite ends of the continent."
8. Speak their language
Write your release using the same journalistic rules as your recipients. That means accuracy, brevity, proper punctuation, the five Ws, and the inverted pyramid. Avoid buzzwords, branded terms, clichés, and jargon. (This PR Daily article outlines the AP style guidelines you should follow.)
According to DeFreitas, nothing torpedoes credibility like spelling and grammar mistakes. "That's Journalism 101," he said. "It's a huge turnoff, especially for an editor or manager. That's the last person you want to turn off."
9. Be a go-between
Reporters and editors don't like quoting press releases; they consider that "lazy" reporting. They want to ask their own questions.
So instead of providing a sterile quote scrubbed by the PR department, let them know your CEO or another executive is available to be interviewed.
"They should always offer the possibility of getting someone on the phone to talk about it," Couch said. "I'm not going to quote a press release or PR people. That's not what I do."
Ultimately, focus on the bigger picture
Your dream of an above-the-fold story under a headline with a type size usually reserved for world wars is not going to happen. If your product or company gets a mention at all, consider it a substantial victory.
After all, being part of the conversation is the goal, right? And there's plenty of opportunity for that, particularly if you're willing to look beyond the press release and instead set your sights on building relationships with journalists.
Little-known fact: Reporters are always looking for secondary sources for stories. Let them know your CEO or senior exec can help shed light on industry trends, emerging hot topics, or anything else the reporter might need.
That's not only a great way to raise brand awareness and position your company as an industry leader but also the best way I know to gain the trust of the journalists you're trying to engage. Help them out by sending them what they're looking for, and they'll be more receptive to future announcements and story ideas.
Hopefully, just maybe, they'll finally be able to give their "delete" button a rest.
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