Advice for writing standout press releases (from a former journalist)
Press release writing is a key PR task that enables individuals and businesses to spread the word about their latest news.
Get your press releases right and they’ll be published far and wide by the media and further promoted on social. Get them wrong, and they’ll disappear into the ether, never to be seen or talked about ever again. Amen.
You see, there’s a real knack to writing press releases. I’m not just saying this because I’m a copywriter and PR professional, I’m saying it because it’s true. Over the years, I received and saw plenty of good examples of press releases when I worked as a journalist, press officer and PR account manager. I also saw lots of bad examples too.
While it’s not possible to write all of your press releases in exactly the same way, as no two stories are 100 per cent the same, there are best practice methods you can follow. Here are some of the techniques I use, which I’ve honed over the years during my time in journalism, PR and content marketing:
- USE A TEMPLATE
Before we focus on the writing side of things, there’s just one small, but crucial thing I wanted to flag that has the potential to really impact how your press releases perform, and that’s how they’re presented.
It’s important your press releases look professional, not like something that’s been half-heartedly knocked up in five minutes. Creating a standard press release template will not only make your releases look spot on and consistent, journalists will instantly know what they’re receiving too.
Don’t forget to:
- Include a high-resolution copy of your company logo
- Reference the words ‘news’ or ‘press release’
- Date your releases and give them an issue number
- Include key contact details, such as your website, email address and main telephone number
- Add a boiler plate at the very end (two to three sentences that nicely sum up your company)
- NAIL YOUR INTRO
It’s not uncommon for people to issue press releases that don’t get to the crux of the story until around the third or fourth paragraph, if at all.
This can be really annoying for busy journalists, who have limited time to wade through paragraphs of copy to get to the real news. This approach can result in your story being misinterpreted or, even worse, overlooked, put on the ‘spiked’ pile or deleted.
Your introduction (or first paragraph) needs to be clear and it needs to be strong. It also needs to compel people to read on.
It’s also not uncommon for releases to focus on the wrong angle either, i.e. be too inwardly-looking rather than highlighting how the news is of relevance/benefit to people who will ultimately read the story once it’s published. It may sound a bit harsh, but one of the questions you want to ask yourself as you’re typing away is, ‘will anybody outside my business actually care about this news?’
Don’t forget to:
- Get your company name in the first paragraph
- Make sure your first par isn’t more than a sentence long
- Always write with the target audience in mind – what is the hook that’s going to grab their attention? Is there anything ‘new’ in your story?
- USE THE FIVE WS
All journalists, whether they’re taught to write at university or journalism school, like I was, will have been trained to get the five Ws – What, Where, When, Why and Who, into their first three paragraphs. There’s also a sixth factor, How, that journalists always consider at the same time as the five Ws that you need to think about too.
One of the prime reasons for following this approach is to make sure their news stories hook the reader in and tell them everything they need to know, there and then, without having to scroll down for days on end to get the full story. Another reason, is to make sure the story survives in the world of print journalism, should subs suddenly need to chop it down from a lead story into a 100-word filler.
Don’t forget to:
- Make sure your releases include all, not some of the five Ws. So, if you’re writing a new product release – What’s the product? Who’s it aimed at? Why has it been launched? Where will it be available? When is it being launched? How long did it take to create?
- Be thorough – it’s possible to include more than one of each of the five Ws and Hows in your press releases
- INCLUDE A QUOTE
You don’t always have to include a quote in your press releases, but if you can, and there’s mileage to add them, then they’re definitely worth adding in.
Quotes are a great way to add colour and further detail to stories without repeating the information that’s already been shared.
But if adding a quote isn’t going to add insight and enhance your press release, don’t use one! There’s nothing worse than seeing a quote that repeats the rest of the information in the press release or worst still, states the obvious. I’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve seen new appointment release quotes that start with, ”I’m delighted or we’re delighted…” You’re not going to say you’re not pleased with a new appointment are you, otherwise you wouldn’t have taken the person on in the first place?!
Quotes take up valuable space (around one to two paragraphs), make sure you choose what they say wisely.
Don’t forget to:
- Write quotes that add to your releases, don’t just simply regurgitate sections of copy
- Attribute your quotes to a key spokesperson. (Include the person’s full name, job title and details of the company they’re from)
- Make them sound believable – would that person really say that and in that way?
- Incorporate a key message or two, where you can and where it’s natural. If you feel like you’re shoehorning them in, then leave them out
- Add your quotes in at around the fourth par (it’s what journalists are taught to do when they’re trained how to write)
- KEEP IT SHORT
As with most forms of writing, it’s important your releases are short and to the point. Not so short that they leave journalists wondering what the actual story is and having to ask you reams of questions to complete the information gaps, but of a length that’s detailed without going overboard.
Ideally, press releases should be no longer than one side of A4, which is around 300 to 400 words long. While it might sound like a lot of space, that’s around four to five paragraphs you’ve got to play with, which is plenty if you’ve nailed your angle, are clear about what the story is and include the five Ws.
Don’t forget to:
- Think about the structure, it’ll help you make sure your releases contain quality information, not waffle
- Keep your sentences short and to the point. Use Plain English, avoid lengthy jargon and, if you can say something in one word rather than three, then do it!
- Be strict with your word limit – sending journalists essay-style releases is one of the quickest ways to get them to tune out. Firstly, they’re too busy to read them and secondly, most of them really don’t want the hassle of having to trawl through pages of details to see if your story is of interest or not
- Limit your company background information. If there are some company details that you feel really must be included, then create a Notes to Editors section at the end of your releases and put it in there (again, keep this section short)
Some people find press release writing easier than others. Some people also enjoy it more than others. Whichever camp you fall into, I hope you find these best practice tips useful.
Got any questions about writing press releases or PR in general? For more information or to discuss your queries or PR requirements with me, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or complete the contact form.