With news media increasingly using press releases as a primary source of information, getting noticed by editorial decision makers has never been more important.
Presenting information in a form media can easily and quickly digest can only increase the chance of a release being used for an article.
Having read, written and used press releases as source material for many years, we have gleaned some great tips for writing press releases journalists will notice.
There are no guarantees a press release will reach its target audience in the form an author intended. But if you can engage the right journalist, half the battle is won.
1. Keep it simple
Journalists pride themselves on the ability to present often complex issues in the simplest terms, boiling down stories to their essential elements. A useful rule journalists follow is to have just one ‘idea’ per sentence. It makes copy much easier to digest. If you want to say more, start a new sentence.
2. Keep it brief
News stories are written in sentences of 20 to 25 words. Words are usually short, long words being harder to read quickly in narrow columns.
Mr Smith said that his purchase of a dictionary would help him to greatly increase his vocabulary and that that would make him a better writer of press releases. (27 words)
Mr Smith said he bought a dictionary to increase his vocabulary, which would help him to write better press releases. (20 words)
Sub-editors, whose job is to fit stories into set spaces, regularly cull words from copy. Taking out a plentiful scattering of thes and thats can often trim a wordy sentence while losing none of the sense.
3. Stay active
For a more urgent tone, write in the active voice, rather than the passive. It lends itself to more concise, shorter sentences. This is especially true for headlines, but should be case for the body of the release, too.
Active headline wins major PR award (Active) is preferable to Major PR award won by passive headline (Passive).
4. Mind your language
Journalists are taught to write for a person aged between 11 and 13. The theory goes that if they can understand an article, anyone older will too. That means using simple, everyday words, avoiding jargon and anything else that could make a reader reach for a dictionary.
While we’re on the subject of jargon, journalists and anyone who knows how to be a good editor will try anything to avoid using it. You should, too. If you don’t, editors will change it a word they think everyone will understand. So, if you need to include a technical word or phrase, add an explanation. Using any recognised news source as a guide and applying the Mind-your-language rule will help.
It’s unlikely your press release headline will appear as written in a newspaper or on a website. But as you’re trying to get a news decision maker’s attention, it’s worth knowing how professional headline writers do it.
- Tell the story in one, brief sentence; (NZ software company to supply China government);
- Keep the active voice (see earlier note);
- Disobey the usual rules of grammar. Yes, you read that right. Headline writers regularly drop auxiliary verbs, articles, even subjects and verbs. You’re not tied for space as newspaper sub-editors often are, so no need to truncate a headline without a good reason.
7. The pitch
Overt sales pitches of the Have-I-got-a-snazzy-new-product-for-you! variety invariably miss the mark with news desks. You need a ‘hook’ to hang a story on, so try to think of one that you’d want to read about yourself. Being topical and tying your release to an ongoing story are great ways to become part of the news cycle. It’s not easy to do, but without a hook, your release will likely to sink.
Journalists use a simple metaphor called the Inverted Pyramid to help them structure stories. Imagine a pyramid balanced on its tip, containing a news story.
The widest part of the pyramid – at the top – contains the most essential information. This is where, traditionally, a writer puts the Who?, What?, When?, Where? and How? questions that make the story compelling.
The middle section fleshes out that information, adding quotes, before the article concludes with background information.
9. First person
The only time you’ll see writing in the first person appear in the news media is for a commentary or think piece. Apart from a personal statement to be used in an ongoing news story, that’s the only time a press release should be written in that way. It comes back to writing in a style that’s most easily used by media.
10. Doing the numbers
And finally, a small point but one that illustrates the benefits of clarity in writing. Most news organisations spell numbers up to nine and use numerals for numbers 10 and over. So, ‘five plus seven equals 12’. Big numbers (1,000 and upwards) are much easier to digest quickly and accurately if broken up with commas.
Take the test: which is clearer of the following two numbers? 102,567 / 102567.