How to write a press release

Capturing the attention of journalists is no mean feat, particularly in our unshockable internet age. But getting time-pressed journalists to sit up and take notice is a lot to do with how you present your story (and if it’s newsworthy, of course). And whether you want to make waves in the world or merely catch some extra interest for your company, without a (sea)worthy press release you’ll be well and truly sunk.

Fortunately, if you follow these guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to making the news (and getting you or your colleagues ready for a close-up).

Pack a punchy headline

Your heading needs to be snappy and intriguing, to catch the eye of time-poor journalists. Just don’t be misleading.

You might draw readers in with a line like, ‘People from Mars land in Scotland’, but they’ll probably be rather dismissive when they find the article is about a confectionery company’s pitch to build a factory in Glasgow.

Note, however, that the publication itself will almost certainly not use your headline, for two reasons. First, it will have sub-editors who will write a headline to fit the space available on the page. Second, they won’t want to risk using the same headline as everyone else.

So what’s the story?

The first line is the most important, and by the end of it the reader should know the thrust of the story – and be raring to read on. It needs to be obvious from the very first line why your release is newsworthy. So pick an angle that might spark some interest. An angle-less press release will sound wishy-washy and unfocused.

Be brutal: look at your opening paragraph and ask yourself ‘so what?’ – because that’s what journalists will do. Pinpointing why people should care about the story is the key to finding a successful angle.

And lead with the facts: don’t imagine that busy journalists will wade through piles of context and background to dig out the hidden story (save that for the ‘notes for editors’ at the end; see below). The same goes for your sentences: put the primary clause first. So write:

Budding young thespians will soon have their very own theatre, thanks to a celebrity-backed fundraising event held on Brighton beach by local charity LIFE

rather than

Thanks to a celebrity-backed fundraising event held on Brighton beach by local charity LIFE, budding young thespians will soon have their very own theatre.

What’s new?

News: the clue’s in the name. For it to be news, it needs to be new – at the very least, a new spin on an older story. Get the word ‘today’ or ‘now’ into the first line if you possibly can. And avoid using specific dates – these put an immediate expiration date on your writing (you can put any historical facts into ‘notes for editors’).

Use the present tense as much as you can – it puts you right in the middle of the action. Or show you’ve got insight (and possibly a man on the inside) by using the future tense.

Of course, sometimes you’ll be writing about a past event – in which case use the present perfect tense (‘have’ + past participle), which implies something more current that may even still be going on. For example:

Brighton celebrities have helped raise £20,000 by taking part in a trampolining marathon in full evening dress, to fund drama projects for local underprivileged children

versus

Brighton celebrities recently helped raise £20,000 by taking part in a trampolining marathon in full evening dress, to fund drama projects for local underprivileged children.

Structure for success

There is a formula for structuring news stories – one followed by newspapers the world over. It’s based on the way most people actually read news articles: often stopping after the second paragraph. Naturally, you’ll hope that your press release will be voraciously torn through from end to end, but just in case it isn’t, your reader needs to know what’s happened pretty early on.

So, you ask, WHAT’s the formula? Well, yes:

What’s happened

How it happened

Amplify

Tie up loose ends

Build your press release around this structure and you will guide the reader seamlessly through your take on the event, and – hopefully – right to the end. Limit your story to one side of A4 (generous font size and line spacing) to make this even more of a sure thing.

Can I quote you?

Quotes will enliven your writing, so don’t waste them. Make the most of having a genuine voice in the piece by picking something that brings out the human interest side.

Avoid anything that sounds clichéd and try to dig out something with some emotion behind it. ‘It was a wonderful evening,’ is pretty uninspired. Contrast this with: ‘It was both wonderful and hilarious. Now I can tell my kids not only that they’ll get to perform on a real stage, but also that I saw Zoe Ball bouncing in her ball gown.’

If the press release is from your company, try to include a quote from a third party, as well as from your company representative. It will give the story more kudos and objectivity in journalists’ eyes.

Signing off

Use the word ‘Ends’ (centred) to indicate the end of your press release, then add the subhead ‘Media enquiries’ to indicate who journalists should contact for more information or to set up an interview with someone. The contact details may be those of your PR agency (if you have one) or of a company representative.

Notes for editors

Most press releases include ‘notes for editors’ (put these on page two – maximum half a page – with your main story ending on page one). This is the place to put information about your company and any relevant background information about the event you’re hoping to get coverage for. Again this needs to be fairly short with numbered points:

1. The Local Initiative for Future Entertainers (LIFE) charity was founded in Brighton in 2000. Its aims include cutting delinquency among young people by encouraging them into local drama projects.

2. The organisation’s most high-profile campaign to date was its 2004 ‘Get a LIFE, get on stage’ programme, which had support from Cate Blanchett and Richard Attenborough.

3. Zoe Ball is a Brighton-based television and radio personality best known for her work on the children’s TV show Live & Kicking in the 1990s. She is married to DJ Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim).

And finally

Double-check you haven’t put anything in that could result in a newspaper putting a creative – and quite possibly unwanted – spin on your story. And proofread thoroughly. Journalists have an in-built intolerance of poor English.

Emphasis offers an in-company Writing for the media course, which explores how to write press releases, feature articles and news. Call us on +44 (0)1273 732 888 or email us to find out more.

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