News release revisited

11 Jun

I've been asked for some advice from a student on how she can improve her news release writing skills. (Obviously my twelve-week module on PR Writing at the start of the previous academic year had faded from memory).

I know that the traditional press release is discredited and that we should be willing to experiment with new forms. I prefer the term news release because this describes its essential ingredient. I also feel that the discipline of writing a 'story in a sentence' is useful even if the document gets discarded, and that a grounding in news values is important for PR students.

Here are my tips on news release writing:

  • Ask yourself 'what's the story?'. Make sure that the story is focused on a matter of public interest or customer benefit – not just on the client's desire for publicity. No story, no news release. Does it meet the following test: 'is it new, or is it surprising?'

  • To help you think about news, it describes an event so you should be able to answer the question 'what happened?' News is conventionally written in the past tense (eg 'launched', 'announced').

  • Now write the story in a sentence using short words and dropping the adjectives (the descriptive words that can easily lead to hype such as 'revolutionary'). For style tips read the first sentence of any story in a newspaper – especially the tabloids.

  • The rest of the document should elaborate on this sentence using the inverted pyramid principle (most important facts first, followed by next most important and so on).

  • Always include a quotation: this is the next most important component as it should express a real opinion from a real person. Check and discuss this quotation with them and never resort to a statement starting with 'we're delighted…' That's not new, not surprising and won't be used, though it's opposite might gain you some attention. 'We're ashamed of our new product and apologise for introducing it…'

  • Put the company puff in the notes or use a hyperlink. Don't clutter the news paragraph with a lengthy description of the client.

  • The client will want to change much of the above, assuming the news release to be a form of placed adverisement. You have to earn your salary by advising them that without news there's no chance of publicity and that the news release is the start, not the end, of a process.

  • Images are usually helpful, but don't automatically send large file attachments. Plain text is best (and a phone call first is usually better).

2 Responses to “News release revisited”

  1. Dave Reynolds 12/06/2009 at 7:31 am #

    Dear Sir,
    While I agree that the news angle is important, I believe that primary focus should be given to a simple comment, “What’s in it for me?”
    Writers need to focus their attention on outlets that will reach their intended audience. In other words, don’t write a piece for the geriatric generation and send it to teens. Research your topic and your media outlets first, then write your message in a way that means something to the readers.
    When print was king, “What’s in it for me?” meant, “what is in it for me, the reader of this publication?” If it took 300 or 500 words, no problem. Now, though, the on-line media rules the world and comments need to be much more succinct.
    People reading anything must be told–like a fist between the eyes–why they should spend a few seconds or more reading what follows. If the topic does not interest them, they will skip it and move on.
    Instead of sending blanket emails and hoping a few will find targets, send them selectively to people and organizations that can actually use the information you send. This results in more action for your client.
    >>Dave Reynolds

  2. Heather Yaxley 12/06/2009 at 9:30 am #

    I’m with Dave on the personalised press release. I’ve advocated this for years, against much resistance from PR practitioners who tell me how busy they are. The scattergun approach is wasteful and probably lazy. It irritates the media and doesn’t help you build the relationships and understanding that lead to better coverage.
    Also, the press/news release increasingly goes through so many layers to get approval in organisations, that I’m a fan of discussion with journalists to look at news and feature opportunities which are then followed up by the paperwork.
    I don’t really understand why it seems so hard for students and practitioners to write a release though. We’ve tried all sorts of exercises, walking through baby steps, critiquing good and bad examples, reviewing what the media cover, playing the editorial role to spot the news, etc etc. But still more often than not, releases in assignment fail to make the grade.
    From the regular media criticisms (and those we see through the wires/distribution companies), that seems to be common to practice too.
    What is it that PR practitioners don’t get here? We can’t say it is because they’ve not worked as journalists, because the releases the ex-hacks produce rarely seem better.

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