About 80% of news which appears in British newspapers comes from press releases. And yet 95% of press releases received by journalists go straight into the bin (or get hit with the delete button). So what is a press release, and how do you make sure you are in the 5% that becomes part of the 80%?
What it is
A press release is a short piece of text which is ‘released’ to the press (and radio and TV, but it’s still called a press release) with a view to them using all or part of it, either as the trigger for an article, or as the majority text in an article. By releasing it, you release copyright, so that a journalist could simply put it into the newspaper with their own name on it (and, yes, this actually does happen).
The nuts and bolts
The format of a press release is highly standardised — not the fonts and so on, but what it contains, and the order it contains it in.
Always start with the words PRESS RELEASE at the top. A couple of lines below, put the date, usually with the words ‘Immediate Release’. If you are issuing something early to be released in the future, you can write ‘Embargo’ on it, with the date and time of the embargo, but you should do this very seldom, and only when there is a really strong reason to do it.
Next, the title of the story. There are two opinions about this. The majority view is that the title should be a descriptive title which tells the journalist what’s going on. This saves them time, and the sub-editor will change the title anyway. The minority view is that if you can come up with a really catchy title, this tends to push your press release harder. My view? Stick to the descriptive title unless you’ve got something really good. More on that in a moment.
The first sentence is very, very important to get right. It must be a factual Who, What, When, Where, How, written in the way a newspaper article would write it. For example, “On 2nd May (when) twelve volunteers (who) from Chepstow (where) will hold a 24 hour (how) Morris Dance (what). You can put the Why in the first sentence if it fits easily, otherwise you need to put it in the second sentence. Read a few newspaper news articles and you will see how elegantly journalists get all these details in, with a minimum of fuss and verbiage. The rest of the first paragraph gives factual background needed to understand the first sentence. It’s not an opportunity to introduce another story. It should finish with any factual details, such as contact details or an address, which you absolutely want the public to have.
What happens after the first paragraph is a bit more up to you, as far as the text of the release is concerned. Usually, put a quotation from someone who is relevant and interesting in next. If you’ve named anyone in the first paragraph, the quotation should be from them. It needs to sound like they said it, rather than like it was written by a committee. Make sure you include their name and title in relation to the story, eg, “John Smith, Morris team organiser, said:”. If you have other quotations, for example from sponsors, authority figures, then include those next. Only ever include a quotation which the person has themselves approved. Don’t include quotes that say more or less the same thing as each other.
After the quotations you can include more background information if it’s necessary, especially data and evidence which gives credibility, or lists and other factual material which is necessary to stop the story being misinterpreted.
Keep the entire release to about 450 words. At the end, put a new line and –, and then the word “ENDS”.
Immediately following that, put “For further media information, please contact (name of contact person) on (phone number which will be answered outside office hours). This is absolutely vital — without contact details, the journalist has no way of getting more information, or checking the facts, which means they have no particular reason to believe any of it is true.
A lot of organisations like to put “Notes for Editors” underneath this, of which the first is usually a brief explanation of what your organisation is. Notes for Editors is less important than it used to be. If your organisation is huge, such as the government, the NHS, etc, then putting in “The NHS is the National Health Service for Great Britain, offering universal access to healthcare free at the point of delivery from the cradle to the grave” is not adding anything, and it makes you look rather pompous. Equally, if your organisation is something no-one has ever heard of, then the explanation should be in the first paragraph, not the notes for editors. If you do include such text, usually called a ‘boilerplate’, then you can include other important details in the second and subsequent notes.
A sample press release (all made up)
1 October 2011 — Immediate Release
Vertigo man to wing-walk for charity
Adrian Smith, a 47-year old from Bidford on Avon, is to walk along the wings of a light aircraft over Stratford on Avon on 12 October to raise awareness for Vertigo Relief. Vertigo, or ‘fear of heights’, is a condition which affects 72% of the population, with effects which range from mild worries on tight-ropes, to falling down in the street when above sea-level. Smith, who recently completed the Vertigo Relief ‘Free from Vertigo’ programme, was a sufferer for 36 years.
“I can’t believe it’s going to be me up there on Saturday”, said Adrian Smith today. “Six months ago I couldn’t look out of an upstairs window without getting queasy. It’ll be the adventure of a life-time, and no mistake.”
Doctor Julian Hopkins-Hopkins of the Vertigo Trust said today: “Adrian has made remarkable progress, and we wish him well.”
Vertigo Relief’s website www.vertigorelief.org.uk contains a wealth of tips on combatting vertigo.
For further media information, please contact Joan Smith, on 0777 777 7777 (24 hour).
Notes for Editors
1 Vertigo Relief is the national charity for Vertigo Sufferers. The Vertigo Trust is an independent think tank specialising in finding a cure for vertigo.
The way to write
Anything which isn’t a quotation should be written in terse, factual prose. There should be nothing which is a matter of opinion in the factual bits. Use the quotes to put opinion forward. Likewise, avoid describing anything in glowing terms, eg “a brilliant exhibition…”, “the elegantly sumptuous meal…”. These are fine in a quote, but a journalist can’t keep them in the text of the article because they are opinions, not facts. If you want to demonstrate the qualities of something, use objective evidence, such as “rated 9/10 by Elegant Kitchens Magazine”, though don’t include irrelevant facts which make the text undigestible.
Use short sentences — most newspapers dislike sentences that go over three lines in a newspaper column, which is not a lot of words — and use ordinary language, not technical jargon. Don’t be evasive, ever.
Only use plain text to format the release, and, if you’re sending it by email, put all the text in the body of an email, never in an attachment. PA news, among others, automatically strips out attachments. Don’t bother including your logo.
How to get coverage
Get the email addresses of the news desks for newspapers, radio stations and TV that you want to reach. If you don’t have a list, check their websites, or ring them up and ask for the newsdesk. They will give you the email address without argument. Some journalists (usually national journalists) like to be the only one to receive the press release, but, seriously, you are much better off putting all the email addresses in the BCC field of the email, so that they don’t get a long list of names at the top of the email. You can put your own email address in the ‘To’ field.
If your story is interesting, they will then ring you, or just run it without ringing you. It’s very rare that you get anything you wouldn’t otherwise have got by ringing up and ‘selling in’ the story. If you have sent out a number of press releases and none of them have been used, then it’s worth ringing up and explaining this, and asking what you need to do differently. The most likely reasons are either that you are out of their area, or that you have the wrong email address.
The majority of newspaper reading in the UK is regional and local papers, and people tend to believe them more than national papers. Local papers, especially local dailies, are always desperate for news and will print any story that is newsworthy and decently written. National papers get far more press releases, and have comparatively far fewer pages. A national journalist may get 300 press releases in a day. Generally speaking, unless your story is national in scope, or very newsworthy, generally in the sense of being controversial, you won’t get anywhere with the national papers. This is all about your story — even a small organisation can get national coverage with the right story, whereas huge multi-nationals churn out endless releases which never get national news coverage. The key is a newsworthy story, rather than a prominent organisation.
Photos and video
Basically, most local papers will welcome a really well shot PR photograph. These days a six mega-pixel image sent as a JPEG is fairly standard, though I personally continue to send eight megabyte images (a lot less than six megapixel), which JPEG down to about 420k, and no-one ever complains. Don’t send pictures to a radio or TV station.
At the moment, no-one really wants to see video in press releases. The BBC don’t accept video from third-parties anyway, and other channels want broadcast quality, which you can’t email. However, if you have an absolutely superb piece of footage on YouTube, a newspaper may well be interested in your link, provided that you state that you own the copyright and are releasing it for their use, because most papers now use video on their websites. If you have ownership of a key piece of news footage, for example a bomb going off, or a riot where there were no news crews present, then get straight on the phone to a national TV station, don’t wait around to send a press release.
If you have an idea which is strong enough, you can get worldwide coverage just by sending a single email. A few years ago we ran an event at our local church called “What would Jesus say to Britney Spears”. At the time Jesus and Britney Spears were the two most searched for terms on the web. We emailed the press release, with this in the title, to PA News, which aggregates news for most newspapers, and got a call from E! Magazine in the USA the next day. They did a 40 minute interview with us, and we then tracked the coverage right round the globe, reaching as far as the Hindustan Times. In terms of functional benefit it didn’t actually do a lot for us, because it was a local event, but it does show how powerful a really interesting headline can be.
Refining the art
If you are going to be working with the press on a regular basis, there are a lot of things to do to improve your press releases. The first one is to keep cuttings of all the articles that appear following your stories, and to check how they have improved your text. Also keep an eye on other similar stories. Are they getting more coverage than you? If so, why is this?
Reading the papers, listening to the radio and watching the TV you want to reach is crucial. If you send a press release styled for the Financial Times to the Daily Star, it will have to be rewritten before it can be used, and vice versa. This is not a problem for the journalists, but it means that they have to put a bit more effort in. With national papers this isn’t so much of a problem, as they will be evaluating your release on the newsworthiness, not on how long it will take them to rewrite it, but for a local paper with ten minutes left before deadline time and three possible stories to fill the last space, something they don’t have to rework will go straight in ahead of something that needs a rewrite.