Organizations of any size must promote what they do. Whether they want to highlight the launch of a new product, celebrate winning an award, or talk about employees who have raised money for charity, issuing a press release is a key way to gain exposure.
While it can often feel unnatural to "blow your own trumpet," the right kind of media attention can raise your organization's profile and reputation, and even help it attract new business.
If you work for a large organization, you might have a communications, press or public relations department to write press releases and manage media enquiries. If you don't, it's important to know what to put in a press release, plan how to make it attract the media's interest, and understand how to respond to enquiries.
You may also need to know how to issue one quickly in a crisis or emergency, or to counter bad publicity about your organization.
Deciding Whether to Issue a Press Release
At its simplest, a press release is a structured announcement about something that's about to happen, is happening, or has happened in your organization.
Before you start writing one, you need think through four important questions.
1. Is it Newsworthy?
It may sound obvious, but the definition of "news" is that what you're writing about should be current and of interest to people outside your organization. So, you need to decide what is newsworthy about your story, or if it is newsworthy at all.
Press releases are read by journalists, who use them as the basis for their articles. They are probably not experts in your industry, so take a step back and think, "What are we doing here that's special and likely to interest people who read this blog or newspaper, or watch or listen to this news program?"
Imagine you've walked into a room and you have five seconds to make your "announcement" to a complete stranger, who knows nothing about what you do. What would you say?
2. What do Journalists Look for?
How do newspaper and magazine journalists decide what to print? What do they look for, and how can you make your press release stand out from the many they receive every day?
Broadly, they look for the following four things:
Human interest. Think of a human-interest angle that you can use to "hook" journalists into your press release. If you're announcing a new product or initiative, for example, focus on the effect or benefit it has. Will it save people money, help cure a disease, or provide the answer to a common problem?
Simplicity. Keep your press release simple, clear and accessible, so that journalists who are not experts in your industry will interpret your message correctly. That means keeping sentences and paragraphs short and your language simple, as well as explaining what your story is really about.
A press release should ideally be about just one topic. It should have a clear structure and narrative that readers can follow easily.
Images. As well as thinking about the words for your press release, consider ways that you might illustrate it. For instance, you could attach an image of your new product in action, supply a good-quality video clip, or offer to set up a photo opportunity for journalists who want to take their own pictures.
Ease of use. If you can make the process of turning your release into a story as easy as possible for the media, they are more likely to use it.
Make sure your release is easy to read and follow, has a clear message or story, includes contact details, and offers "extras" such as further interviews, photo shoots or video packages.
3. Who's my Audience?
When you know your audience, you also know how best to write and present your press release so that you get your message across.
Your announcement could be of interest to mainstream national or local newspapers, general news websites, TV and radio stations, business-to-business or specialist publications and websites. It might also interest people within your organization.
So think about your target audience and consider tailoring different versions of your press release to appeal directly to different end users.
Identify what publications cover your industry, and then look at whether there are writers who cover your sector. Does your press release fit in with what they tend to write about?
Build up a database of key names and details, and keep the list updated, so you know who to contact with information in the future.
4. When Does it Need to be Released?
You need to consider whether your release can be published immediately by the media, or if there's a time constraint. If you're responding to a crisis or emergency, for example, you will want it to be published as quickly as possible.
Many press releases are sent out under an "embargo": a date or time that the information in them must not be published before. They are also often sent out a few days before a specific event, such as a public meeting, to give the media time to arrange to cover it.
You also need to be aware of media deadlines, so that you can send your press release out at the most appropriate time.
How to Write a Press Release
Follow these steps for writing and structuring your press release.
1. The Embargo
This will normally go at the top of the release. If the content is not time-sensitive, you should simply put, "For immediate release" followed by the date. If you need to release it for a specific time or date, write, ‘"Embargoed: time, day, date, and year."
If today is Monday, January 26, 2015, and you want your press release to go out first thing tomorrow, you could write:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, January 27, 2015
But if you want your press release to go out the day after, you might put:
Embargoed until 00.01 Wednesday, January 28, 2015
2. The Headline
Most journalists receive a large number of emails every day, so your headline needs to grab their attention. It's worth spending time crafting it, because it will lead them either to read your press release or throw it away.
Keep your headline short, use active verbs, and accurately sum up what the whole story is about.
3. The First Paragraph
Your opening paragraph should summarize what is at the heart of your story. The seven key questions journalists want answered are:
Your opening paragraph should answer at least one of these questions, ideally more, and should contain enough information so that it can be published by itself if necessary.
4. The Main "Body" of the Release
Keep your sentences short and your language simple and accessible – avoid industry jargon or acronyms wherever possible. Limit each paragraph to one point only, and structure them around the seven key questions, answering each question in turn in one or two sentences.
Remember, even when you're promoting a product or your organization, you don't want the press release to sound like an advertisement! What you're "selling" is a story.
You might also want to include some relevant quotes in the press release. These should be short and to the point. If you have permission, it can be a good idea to include a quote from an expert or a senior colleague to add credibility to your release.
5. Add Your "Boilerplate" at the End
The boilerplate is essentially the "About Us" section of your press release. It includes the name and contact details of whoever is going to be dealing with follow-up enquiries, a "Notes for editors" section (where you describe what your company does, where it operates, when it was founded, and give details of the extras you can offer), and links to any further information that's available online.
When sending out your press release, don't attach it to an email. Busy journalists are unlikely to spend time opening or downloading attachments, and their firewalls may strip them out anyway. Paste the press release into the email, and use your headline as the subject line.
Responding to Enquiries About Press Releases
Once you've sent your press release, you need to be prepared for the media's response.
There are a range of techniques you can use for dealing with the media, but the key one is to make sure that the main point of contact is fully briefed, is prepared for the questions he or she might be asked, and is available.
You should also think of this process as being about proactively helping and directing the media, rather than just passively reacting or responding to them. Remember, you are, or should be, the one in control of the message.
Writing an Emergency or Crisis Press Release
There are a number of useful techniques you can use to manage andcommunicate in a crisis.
If you need to respond quickly to a negative situation at your organization, using social media such as Twitter® is a useful way to do this. But the principles are the same whether you send a Tweet or a press release:
Don't ignore what's going on in the hope that it will go away. If you don't react quickly enough, you might find that the media speculates about what might be happening. If you don't comment, someone else will!
Respond even if you don't yet know the answer. A holding response such as, "This is a situation we are taking very seriously and are investigating as a matter of urgency," will help. But do recognize that this can only be temporary.
A simple one- or two-paragraph response will often be enough, at least at first. The headline can be as simple as, "In response to…" followed by a quote or comment.
Make sure your message is consistent. The media will pick up on any inconsistencies in your response very quickly. It's vital that you nominate someone to "lead" on answering the media's questions, and that he or she fields all requests. You should also communicate internally to reassure people. Give them guidance about what message is going out to the media, and whether they need to do anything as a result.
If it's clear you've made a mistake, put your hands up. A quick, serious and measured, "Sorry, we made a mistake" can go a long way to taking the sting out of a crisis, although how you do this will depend on the severity of what's happened. You will then need to follow up quickly on how you're going to put things right.
Press releases can help your organization raise its profile and reputation, and even attract new business.
You need to think carefully about what your story or message really is. Then keep it simple, accessible, concise, and – ideally – short. Consider using images and other resources, such as video to illustrate it. Make sure whoever is the contact for follow-up enquiries is fully briefed and available to respond.