I spent my formative professional writing years, in my 20s, sweating in a newspaper newsroom in death throes at the northernmost tip of Appalachia. But it was very much still functioning – enough to provide experience worth its weight in gold. One of those experiences (however mundane) was processing press releases.
The task fell often to cub reporters. It followed me into becoming City Editor a few years later. Out of necessity. With such a small staff, someone had to tackle the onslaught of press releases via email and even a relic fax machine from the Pleistocene. To boot, many of the remaining reporters – some of them dinosaurs themselves – struggled to do an editing job justifiable for print.
Or even care.
So I processed press releases. Oh, I processed the hell out of them. Rewrote them. Thousands of them. Hours a day, the bulk of my 70-hour work weeks – on top of leading the newsroom, covering every story of importance and editing reporter copy.
It was astonishing how many PR flacks had ZERO IDEA how to craft an effective press release. Many whiffed at their primary goal: influencing earned media. (Of note: for every press release I processed for print, at least 30 others ended up in the trash bin – lifeless, useless, a failure in public relations.)
Don’t Know How to Write a Press Release? Listen Up!
The journalists you must woo have some of the most stressful jobs in the world. (I was hospitalized with heart problems at 27.) They’re pressed for time. Your press release must register as newsworthy to an overworked, overly caffeinated editor – or his coffee-making intern.
The value of a press release arriving ready to publish can’t be overstated. But besides being well-written and of OBVIOUS value to news consumers, they must carry their own weight in delivering:
- News value
- Call to action
Essentially, the who, what, where, when and how of whatever you’re promoting, wrapped neatly in a succinct package, that ultimately addresses the most important question: “Why should the news consumer care?” News producers won’t answer that for you. (They’ll most likely just throw it away and move on to the next.)
First, the Hallmarks of a Garbage Press Release
Of course, our aim is for your PR team to steer clear of these pitfalls to write mindful press releases. It’s vital to know what NOT to do:
Beware Excessive Fluff
Too often, verbosity creeps into the picture. Writers inflate their language, adding adjectives and redundancy at every turn. The path to effective storytelling lies in simplicity.
The Length Predicament
In that light, brevity is key. A standard press release generally clocks in at around 350 words (preferably fewer).
Attention spans shrivel at the sight of a lengthy article. If your press release doesn’t seize the reader’s interest within the first line or two, it’s time to re-evaluate.
Mind Your Language: Spelling & Grammar
A single misspelled word or syntax error can tarnish an otherwise solid press release. Write like an editor. Errors like “its/it’s” or “there/their/they’re,” among other grammatical blunders, undermine your organization’s credibility. Impeccable writing validates your commitment to your cause, whether you’re announcing a nonprofit fundraising campaign or addressing industry trends as a thought leader.
An error slipping through the cracks, quite often, is just as much the fault of the public relations team for first letting it happen. While a strong news editor might devote time, consider how many would give only a cursory effort and send for publication, broadcast or whatever.
The Blueprint to Writing a Stellar Press Release
Writing a press release doesn’t have to be time consuming or complicated. Let’s navigate these waters with precision.
Concise & Captivating Headline
A headline should be a beacon of clarity and newsworthiness. While creativity has its merits, the headline must grab attention with immediate value. Sometimes, it’s best to write the headline once the release is fully drafted to encapsulate the core news.
Wrong: “Local Nonprofit Announces Fundraising Drive.”
Right: “Fundraiser Slated to Address Suicide Prevention.”
See? The first example says next to nothing. Which nonprofit? To benefit what? The second establishes value in 6 words.
The opening paragraph, often called the lead or lede, is the linchpin. It captures attention and encapsulates the nuts and bolts. Think of it as conveying the essence of your story in just 30 seconds. (Because readers and listeners are virtually assured to tune out much beyond that.)
Example: “The GeorgeStrong Foundation has joined local high school football officials in calling for tougher concussion protocols. The Foundation will host a webinar Saturday evening for coaches and athletes to discuss safety with renowned neurologist Jack Smith.”
Nuts and bolts. The value’s all there, with the most important call to action: “Join us.”
Quotes That Resonate
Incorporate potent quotes for context and clarity. While not everyone in your organization needs to be quoted, the influential voice(s) should be heard.
For those who’ve made it past your lead elements, quotes give life to the explanation of why it’s important and what to expect.
Example: “Our local hospital saw 27 concussions from high school football players last year,” said GeorgeStrong President Bill Williams. “Our goal, in partnering with neurologists and other experts is to show coaches and players how to spot signs of a concussion – and how better equipment and common sense can prevent career- and life-threatening head injuries.”
Important: Quotes SHOULD NOT echo previous statements.
Less is More
A press release should be informative without needless padding. Get your message across succinctly and stop when the point is made.
The Critical Review
Thoroughly review your press release. Enlist a fresh pair of eyes, if possible. A second (or third or fourth) set of eyes not only spots errors, but also ensures the release aligns flawlessly with the intended message. Your goal is precision and compelling content. Ensure you achieve both. (Then review it once more.)
If you aren’t the expert in a subject area, GO FIND THAT EXPERT! Whether it takes 30 seconds to double check a fact or 30 minutes in her office to explain a process, take time to ensure it’s right.
Walk away. Time permitting, revisit your press release after a few hours or even a day for a fresh perspective. Clearing your head may unveil areas for refinement or streamlining, while also catching elusive typos.
Crafting a Noteworthy Press Release: A Holistic Approach
As you write your press release, put yourself in the editor’s shoes. Does it effectively narrate your organization’s story? Does it explain why anyone should care? Just as importantly, does it require minimal editing for publishing or broadcast.
With these insights, you’re poised to write a press release that commands attention and builds rapport with your target audience(s). Remember, seeking help from a perceptive public relations consultant is a strategic move, not a sign of defeat.
President and Founder, Grand River Agency
With over 17 years of diverse experience in print journalism, digital media marketing, and nonprofit administration, Kelsey Boudin founded Grand River Agency (formerly Southern Tier Communications Strategies) in 2020. The agency specializes in offering contract-based strategic communications, content marketing, grant proposals, website design, and public relations services to small businesses and nonprofits. Kelsey’s career spans roles as an editor, content creator, and grant writer, reflecting his expertise in leading successful digital marketing campaigns, securing funding, and executing various projects.