"We sent out a press release, but no one covered us." A common enough lament, so what are some steps to fix it?
I am going to ignore something really important: A press release is part of an overall communications strategy and not just a one-off activity. But given the focus of this newsletter, I spoke to Sheri Singer of Singer Communications about what a strong press release looks like today, and here's what she had to say.
Press Releases, Then & Now
Press releases date back to the 1880s when members of Congress would drop by Newspaper Row (14th St. and Penn. Ave., not far from The Washington Post headquarters today) to update journalists on their policy agendas in an attempt to manage the news.
Not much has changed in terms of why you would write a press release--they remain a way to proactively promote your agenda, whether that's a policy issue, activity, or event. What has changed is the way the release is distributed because of technology and the Internet.
Everyone thinks they can write a release. After all, we all read newspapers and watch online or network newscasts, so how hard can it be?
In reality, anyone can write a release. But writing a release and writing one that grabs the attention of a journalist are often two different things.
Determine whether you need an advisory or release
Advisories and releases are both effective ways to reach reporters. Deciding which to write depends on what you are trying to accomplish:
- An advisory is one page and includes copy in the following sections: what, who (speakers, notable guests), where (place), when (date, time), and contact (name, email, phone of a person the press can call). Generally, advisories are appropriate to use for an event such as a charity walk, a gala, meeting, or conference.
- A release is written in prose (rather than in sections), includes quotes from spokespersons, and is typically two pages.
Use an updated format
In the past, releases were mailed to reporters and used a standard double-spaced format that allowed them to edit the release in between the lines. Today, releases are sent via email, so it is no longer necessary to double-space. To maintain a similar look and feel, you might use 1.5 spaces between the lines, but you can also single-space the release.
Historically, at the end of the release's first page, "- more -" indicated a second page. Since email allows the full release to appear on the reporter's computer screen, there is no reason to use the antiquated "more." It is helpful if the full release can appear on one computer screen, eliminating the need for the reporter to scroll down.
At the end of your release, type the symbols # # # or 30. These symbols indicate the end of your copy. Reporters use these symbols, so they are easily recognizable to your audience.
Under the # # #, a brief (300-word maximum) "boilerplate" definition of the organization may follow. She used her own company as an example:
About Singer Communications
Founded in 2002, Singer Communications provides public relations, marketing and communications services to nonprofits, government agencies and corporations.
Before sending the release out to the media, send it to yourself. That way, you can make any adjustments to correct spacing, size of type, headline, typos, etc.
Send the release to the right journalists
You can write the most newsworthy release possible, but it won't matter if it isn't sent to the right journalists. Make sure you spend time to create a targeted media list--it takes longer than you might think. Be innovative in whom you target for your lists. For example, a story on healthcare costs may be targeted not only to healthcare reporters, but also business and economic journalists. Media lists usually include top-tier press (AP, New York Times), metropolitan newspapers (Washington Post), industry or trade press (Florida Medical Society newsletter), local press (Alexandria Gazette), broadcast (WTOP radio, WJLA-TV, TBD cable), online publications (Huffington Post), bloggers, etc.
Create lists by conducting online research and developing a list of reporters who have written on your topic before. Use a media database (available by subscription) or a print/online media directory (such as Gebbie's All-In-One Media Directory, News Media Yellow Book--Leadership Directories, or Bacon's Internet Media Directory) for their emails. Many media outlets now routinely make their reporters' email addresses available, as well.
Distribute the release
Email is the most common way to distribute a press release. Media database services, such as Cision or Vocus, allow you to create targeted media lists and send out an email blast. One caveat of these services is that they are expensive. If your organization can't afford a media database service, use a list serve or individual emails. Just don't send an email to a reporter that shows the names/emails of the 20 or so other reporters you are sending it to.
Other new ways to help push out your release include posting it to your website and using social media to link back to the site. For example, use Twitter to give your followers a bit of a tease, including the link back to the release. Add a message to your organization's Facebook page linking back to the release on your website.
Encourage reporters to open your release
The most critical element in encouraging a reporter to read your release is the subject line.
According to an editor at the Washington Post, journalists may receive up to 200 emails an hour and they make the decision whether to open them or not based on the subject line. A great subject line needs to consider the reporter, what they cover, and what makes the story newsworthy. Most importantly, it needs to be concise. Think about writing your subject line as if it were a newspaper headline. In addition, the more you target the subject to the journalist and the local market, the more relevant it is. For example, "Albany Business Owner Wins National Award" sent to a business reporter at the Albany Times-Union would most likely get the reporter's attention.
The second most important factor is the release headline, which should contain your most important facts. The lead, or the first paragraph of the release, needs to be written like the first paragraph of a news story and contain information about why the topic is newsworthy as well as the who, what, why, and when.
Never send attachments
Most newsrooms have strong spam filters on their computer systems that do not permit journalists to open attachments. In fact, your email may wind up in "junk" email or not being received at all if you send an attachment. Instead, cut and paste the text of the release into the email. If you have photographs to accompany the story, let reporters know in your email that photos are available upon request.
Sheri's Final Advice
Using these suggestions, you can write an updated, newsworthy release that will grab the attention of journalists. As another reminder, press releases are only one tool in the PR toolbox. A robust, ongoing PR campaign needs to include a variety of elements such as messages, media lists, relationship building, op-eds, outreach to reporters (calls and email exchanges), interview management, media training, social media, etc. Your PR strategic plan needs to be tied to all your organization's efforts to be successful in telling your organization's story.
You can go to Sheri Singer's website or contact her for more information.