Writing press releases

  • Personalised Typewriter by Jonathan Boyd (GSM&J, 2009)

A top UK journalist who writes for glossy magazines and broadsheets, as well as drafting press releases for major international companies, shares her insights into creating news releases for the media that will deliver your e message and get your points across clearly and succinctly.

Why write press releases?

The point of a press release is to issue journalists with new, interesting and noteworthy information that they might consider running as a story. It therefore needs to be attention-grabbing, contain thoughts, ideas or information they have not read before and strike the right balance between offering enough information to pique a journalist’s interest but not so much that they are put off reading through it all. It is a fine balance, and writing a good press release is a real art.

When should you send a press release?

It depends who your contacts are. So-called ‘short lead’ media can be anything from those working on daily publications like newspapers and blogs to journalists writing for ‘long lead’ publications that publish every month. In general, as a guide:

Daily publications
If your story is ‘time sensitive’ (it has to run within a certain time frame, for example the opening of an exhibition or launch of a new project) you should contact them no more than a week in advance.

Weekly publications
These can work anything from one to eight weeks ahead of their on-sale date, so the best thing is to try and ascertain their production schedule by calling the paper or magazine itself. You do not need to speak to a section editor though (you may risk annoying them if they feel bombarded with generic calls like this), so an editor’s PA would be a more appropriate person to go for.

Monthly publications
These are worked on a slightly arcane three months ahead of publication date, and story ideas will often be decided even earlier than that, so with monthlies there are not really any rules except the earlier the better.

How do journalists feel about receiving press releases?

For most journalists, press releases are a double-edged sword. You need them to do your job properly – how else are you going to keep up-to-date with everything that is going on? – but you can also get inundated with them. In the health and beauty department of a busy glossy monthly magazine, the number of press releases sent in each week totals around 800. That is a mixture of hard copies sent through the post and emailed press releases.

This is an almost unmanageable number of press releases to keep on top of, and so many get no more than a cursory glance. However, there is an argument to say that many of them do not deserve more than a cursory glance because they do not qualify as real press releases - for example, those that are no more than a ‘reminder’ about someone’s work. Try and restrict your mail-outs to when you have a ‘real’ story: something you have not talked about before.

How do journalists review press releases?

The average journalist probably makes a decision about whether to read to the end of a press release within about five seconds of first looking at it. Imagine yourself receiving junk mail through the post – it is the same decision-making process:

  • Is this targeted for me?
  • Has this person understood what I am looking for?
  • Is this person offering something I cannot get from anyone else?
  • Can I instantly get a sense of what this person’s work is about and what their point of difference is?
  • Is all the information I need on there if I want to follow it up further, including up to date contact details such as email and telephone?
  • Is it nicely presented, with no spelling mistakes or typos (this is an instant route into the recycling bin for most journalists)
  • Does it fit on one page, and if not is that strictly necessary (most journalists agree that a page is generally enough for top-line information, and then they can ask for further information if they want to follow up)
  • Is the information clearly presented? Many people make the mistake of thinking humour will help their press release stand out. Most journalists would rather have the facts presented clearly than have to read through some ‘hilarious’ attempts at humour before you eventually get to the point
  • If there is work for sale, do you need/want to include prices? Sometimes it is helpful to give an idea of this, as some publications may have an upper limit for prices of work they will include
  • Is it being oversold or promising too much? Many writers of press releases fall into the trap that thinking hyperbole is always a good thing in trying to sell someone a story, but to oversell your work is as bad as underselling it – which is why it is always good to stick to clear facts and be as objective as you can be (when you are writing press releases about your own work, one helpful method is to include quotes that other people have said about you, or footnotes including prizes you have won/accolades you have been given in the past. They are a fast way for journalists to build up a picture about you)
  • If you are including a picture, does it accurately represent your work? Is it easy to discern what is being depicted? If you are emailing your press releases, will this image open in all browsers?

What information must you never forget?

You must never forget to include:

  • Your contact details – especially telephone and email, and make sure they are up-to-date. You would be amazed how many people change numbers and do not update their press releases
  • The date the press release was issued and, if appropriate, the date the event/launch/exhibition is happening. If a journalist is going through a mountain of releases on their desk that have been there for weeks, it will be important for them to know if they have missed the story

What makes a brilliant press release?

The best press releases are on one page, dated, have a good (not necessarily catchy or humorous but simply attention-grabbing) clear headline that gives you a ‘snapshot’ of what the release is about, have the text broken into short-ish (4-5 lines) paragraphs of concise, easily digestible text and finish with contact details and any footnotes to editors to give slightly more context – for example, if it is about an artist, it may say that they were nominated for a particular prize or graduated from a particular school.

And finally…

To reiterate an earlier point, journalists need press releases. Do not feel daunted by sending them in, and do not feel you are asking a favour of the journalist by wanting them to read your release. If it is clear, concise, targeted to the right publication and offering something genuinely new and different, it is like manna from heaven to a journalist, and you’ll soon be receiving calls asking for more information.

Good luck!