Have some news? Write a press release

By Greg Bennett

I will tell you up front that most press releases—even well-written ones—usually die in an editor’s recycling bin. Editors receive dozens of press releases every day, most of which are promptly tossed away.

Despite that dour introduction, I believe the press or “media” release can still be an easy, zero cost way to boost your visibility, or get an important message out. I believe there is still much value in positive publicity from traditional media, including newspapers, radio and television.

The good news is that releases are usually given at least a cursory read in the search for a few diamonds among the rocks. Your release can easily be that diamond. And my years of gleefully flinging heaps of press releases away have given me some valuable insights I can share with you about why some get published and why many don’t.

Things are changing in the media world. Once, press releases were never published without being completely rewritten or developed into a story. Today, if your release is written well and holds together as a story, it might not be changed at all.

The fact is that in these days of newsroom cutbacks, more contributed content is needed for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television news outlets, trade publications and online news sources. Whether it’s a page editor who needs content to quickly fill a news hole, a web editor who needs timely content to post, or an assignment editor looking for something they can send their reporters out on, your news can help fill that need.

There’s no guarantee your press release won’t end up in the trash, but I have some suggestions that will improve your chances of being published.

Write about an interesting topic or find a unique angle to tell your story

First, ask yourself if anyone else will care. The topic has to be interesting to someone other than you and relevant for the market (don’t send your release about a new roofing product to a fishing magazine). You also need a noteworthy angle to successfully sell a press release to an editor—meaning it has to have some news or feature value.

For example, unless there’s something unique or really interesting about it, your press release about a new product or a sales event will likely be dropped in the trash or passed over to the sales department for follow-up. Remember, media outlets are businesses and (except for publicly funded entities like the CBC) depend on ad revenue to survive.

But if your hardware store is giving away free hammers to all local military personnel as a thank you for their service, I think people would want to read about it.

I believe the best press releases focus on people. And, if someone in your organization has done something interesting or noteworthy, it may be a good topic for a press release. For example, if one of your employees found a bag with $10,000 in it in the parking lot and returned the money to its owner, there’s probably an interesting story in there.

Let’s go back to the example of the hardware store. If you’re donating materials for a new homeless shelter or to help a hurricane-ravaged part of the world, that’s something you should consider writing about. Try to find an interesting angle. If you can, talk about not just what you’re doing, but why. For example, maybe you have a compelling reason why you want to help hurricane victims in particular.

Write an engaging lead

Your first paragraph should succinctly explain what your news release is about. It should be written in a way that grabs a reader and be written in journalistic style. Read a few newspapers and consider how the leads in stories are generally written.

Write a headline that draws attention

Tell the editor right away why your release is interesting. “Local store makes donations” isn’t very interesting. “From Yellowknife to South Carolina: Local store donates building materials after Hurricane Lisa”is.

Don’t oversell it though; avoid hyperbole. Keep it simple.

Include the important facts

If your release is a straight news story—18 snow blowers stolen from hardware store—it’s easier just to stick with the facts. Give us the most important facts first. But even if your story isn’t hard news, numbers and facts can still help. Be specific, and make sure your numbers are right. Tell us you if are sending 10,000 2x4 spruce studs and 1,000 ½-inch sheets of plywood to help reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Lisa. Tell us four trucks will drive 3,000 kilometres to bring the supplies to the area.

Be brief: Put the boring details in a fact sheet page

Don’t gum up your interesting story with too many details about your business or organization. Save those for a note at the bottom and prepare those details like a fact sheet so a reporter can insert them where they want. “Greg Bennett’s Hardware store opened in 1979. Located at 47th Street, it has 30 full-time and 14 part-time employees. The store supports two local hockey teams, the Hardware Pirates and the Lumberjacks.

Develop good quotes

The worst quotes repeat what has already been said or are written in a way no one would actually talk. The best quotes add insight to your story or highlight an important viewpoint. Don’t write “The reason I’m personally dismayed by the devastation left by Hurricane Lisa was due to my experience during Hurricane Kevin in 1999.” Do write: “I lived through Hurricane Kevin in 1999, so I have a good idea about what those people are going through.”

Don’t forget photos

A photo can help you tell a story. It might be actually worth a thousand words. It might also offer an important perspective into something like how big a pile of 10,000 2x4s is. Editors also like pictures of people. A picture of people doing something (like loading 2x4s into a truck for delivery), is even better. A helpful hint: send photos in a large enough file size that they’re printable, but not so large that they crash an editor’s email inbox.

Be prepared to answer questions

Don’t expect to be grilled in an interrogation room with a spotlight in your eyes, but if you send a press release out, you may receive a phone call from a reporter. Be knowledgeable about your topic and be prepared to answer any basic questions not covered by your release. Be mindful of any potential problem areas, and be prepared to answer those questions too.

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And, after all that, if your press release doesn’t get picked up, don’t despair. There are many reasons why it might not have been used. Don’t be afraid to try again the next time you think you have an interesting story. Remember, media outlets want to cover interesting stories in their communities. And, if you think your release might have been overlooked unintentionally, consider calling the editor or reporter personally to make your case.