Richard Nixon and 8 Steps To Writing Better Press Releases
Sometimes your message needs to be shouted from the mountain top. A press release can be considered a well-ordered shout. This post will give a brief outline of how a winery or wine-related company should structure and write a press release.
1. WHY WRITE A PRESS RELEASE?
Write a press release because you have a message that is likely to be of interest to a particular group and by this group hearing your message your company benefits. That group is either the wine trade or consumers. Sometimes it's both, but not that often. For example: "Former President Nixon Joins Wark Communications' Board of Directors". This would be of interest to the wine trade because it indicates that wine public relations firms can attract heavyweight political types to their ranks. It will be of interest to consumers because it will indicate that people can rise from the dead.
Consider this headline: "Joe's Mobile Bottling Company Adds 100 New Mobile Bottling Trucks". It's unlikely that consumers would have any interest in Joe's success and capital investments. Members of the wine industry will however be interested to know that Joe is doing so well, has expanded capabilities and that he thinks the market for mobile bottling lines is about to explode.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: BEFORE WRITING YOUR RELEASE, ASK YOURSELF WHO WILL BE INTERESTED IN THIS INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR COMPANY, WHO IS LIKELY TO USE THIS INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR COMPANY AND THE AUDIENCE YOU WANT TO REACH IS LIKELY TO NEED THIS INFORMATION. THIS WILL GUIDE YOU IN HOW YOU WRITE THE PRESS RELEASE AND WHAT KIND OF INFORMATION THE RELEASE WILL INCLUDE.
2. FIGURE OUT THE WHO, WHAT WHERE, WHEN AND WHY OF THE INFORMATION AND MESSAGE IN YOUR RELEASE
This sounds like journalism 101, and it is. However, if you can't succinctly summarize these five elements of the message that you want to send to an audience via the press release, then stop, push the keyboard away from you, get up, find a quiet place and figure out the succinct answers to these questions. If you don't do this first, you'll end up with an essay that is likely to be rambling, incoherent, useless and have the important information buried. Worse yet, you'll probably write something that doesn't get read by those you want to read it and you'll produce something that has the unfortunate effect of reflecting poorly on you and your company.
The primary problem I see with most press releases is that they are too long because they ramble without a laser like focus on the message that is trying to be delivered.
BEFORE YOU ANNOUNCE ANYTHING VIA A PRESS RELEASE THAT WILL BE OUT IN THE OPEN FOR ALL TO READ, IT IS CRITICAL THAT YOU BOIL DOWN YOUR MESSAGE TO ITS MOST BASIC COMPONENTS. THIS WILL MAKE IT EASIER TO WRITE, EASIER TO READ AND MAKE IT MORE LIKELY THAT THE INFORMATION IN THE RELEASE WILL BE MEMORABLE AND USEFUL TO THE AUDIENCE FOR WHICH IT IS INTENDED.
3. PUT THE "WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN AND WHY" IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH
When I write a press release I always assume the readers will never get past the first paragraph and into the body of the release. And I bet I'm correct about this 75-80 percent of the time. This is why it is critical that every important piece of information appear in the first paragraph. This doesn't mean the entire release should be one paragraph or that the first paragraph should be long. It means the first paragraph must convey the only that information you want the audience to walk away with after failing to read anything after the first paragraph. For example, here is a "lead paragraph" on the Richard Nixon announcement noted above:
Wark Communications Chairman Tom Wark announced today that former President Richard Nixon has joined the public relations firm's board of directors. The formerly dead former president will advise Wark Communications on strategies for avoiding permanent death and play a key role in managing the firm's new "Wine Cooler Promotions Department".
IF YOUR PRESS RELEASE DOES NOT PROVIDE READERS WITH EVERYTHING YOU WANT THEM TO KNOW IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH, YOU ARE LIKELY TO BE UNSUCCESSFUL IN DELIVERING THE MESSAGE YOU WANT TO DELIVER.
4. KEEP YOUR RELEASE AS SHORT AND SUCCINCT AS POSSIBLE.
The body of your press release, that which follows the lead paragraph and that which few people are likely to read, should be just long enough to properly expand on the facts you laid out in your lead. Over the next four or five paragraphs you can fill in the pertinent details of your announcement that are needed to give context to the facts you put in your lead. If you are announcing a new hire, this is where you briefly note where they worked prior to joining your company. If you are announcing a new product, this is where you explain how it will help its users. If you brought on a new client, this is where you note their prominence. This is where you allow your CEO or principle to make a statement about the news or information in their own words and around quotation marks.
THE KEY IS NOT TO RAMBLE, NOT TO REPEAT YOURSELF IN SO MANY WORDS AND NOT TO INCLUDE INFORMATION THAT ISN'T PERTINENT TO YOUR PRIMARY MESSAGE. A GOOD RULE OF THUMB IS TO KEEP YOUR ENTIRE RELEASE TO 400 WORDS OR LESS.
5. USE SUB-HEADLINES
Long, unbroken blocks of copy are not friendly. In fact, they tend dissuade the reader from continuing on. Break up your press release with subheads. A subhead is a headline that might appear over the third or fourth paragraph that announces to the reader in few works what is coming below the subhead. You may want to include at least two sub-heads in your release.
The benefit of the subhead is at least 2-fold: Because it is bolded and usually centered over a paragraph, it leads the reader's eye down the page. Secondly, it gives you a better chance at delivering a more complete message since readers are likely to scan these subheads even if they don't read the body of the release.
BY INCLUDING SUB-HEADS IN YOUR PRESS RELEASE YOU ARE MUCH MORE LIKELY TO DELIVER A MORE COMPLETE MESSAGE TO YOUR AUDIENCE. PLUS, IT'S A NICE THINGS TO DO BECAUSE IT HELPS THE READER MOVE THROUGH YOUR INFORMATION FASTER. IT'S NICE TO BE NICE TO YOUR READERS.
6. WRITE A COMPELLING AND INFORMATIVE HEADLINE LAST
You'll notice that as you write and type your release, your own understanding of the message you want to deliver gets fleshed out even more than it was before you started writing. It's for this reason that your main headline, the message that everyone will see whether they read anything else, should be written when you are done with the body of the release.
Because your headline is so important in getting your audience to dig down further into your release, spend time on coming up with a short, memorable and evocative headline. These nine or ten words, at most, should tell the reader (or scanner of headlines) what your message is and it should stop them because it's interesting. Take for example the Richard Nixon release. A proper headline might read: "Formerly Dead President Nixon To Help Guide Wine PR Firm." This headline works because it delivers the main message (Nixon Joins PR Firm Board), it gets in the name of the firm sending the release (Wark Communications) and it's provocative enough to get someone's attention (A dead person lives again).
SPEND TIME CRAFTING A SHORT BUT COMPELLING AND PROVOCATIVE HEADLINE THAT HAS THE PRIMAR
Y PURPOSE OF DELIVERING YOUR MESSAGE AND GETTING THE READER TO DIG DOWN DEEPER INTO THE RELEASE.
7. MAKE SURE YOUR PRESS RELEASE HAS ALL THE EXPECTED ELEMENTS
There are very basic elements of a press release that must be properly included. They are:
-The date of the release and geographic location from which the issuer is releasing the information (these two pieces of information are usually placed at the beginning of the lead paragraph, often inside parenthesis. Together, they are referred to as the "Dateline".)
-A symbol noting where the "public" part of the release ends and the "for the media only" part of the release begins (Referred to at times as "hashmarks" this symbol is usually written this way: ### or -30-. This marks indicates to the media person to which the release was sent that everything following the mark is for his information only. What usually follows is company contact information for the media's use and perhaps information or access is available for the media.)
-An "About" section giving background on the issuer of the release (This is often referred to as "boilerplate". It is a short paragraph that gives basic background information on the company issuing the press release. For example, "Wark Communication is a wine-oriented public and media relations firm located in Sonoma, California. The company was founded by Tom Wark in 1994."
-Contact information for the media (This is information that is for the media only and should include a name of a person who the media can call to get further information, their telephone number and their email address.
THIS INFORMATION SHOULD BE INCLUDED IN EVERY PRESS RELEASE NOT ONLY BECAUSE IT IS USEFUL BUT BECAUSE IT IS EXPECTED.
8. EDIT, EDIT, EDIT, EDIT
Once you believe you are finished writing your release, go back and begin reading it over with the intent of removing at least 50 words. You will be surprise how many words can be removed and how much more reader-friendly it will become once you do. In addition, this practice editing for brevity has the benefit of making you a better write and it reminds you that a press release should read more like a news article than an essay.
When you've done this, then read your press release from BOTTOM to top. This will help you focus on spelling mistake. Once you've done this, then read again from TOP to bottom, looking for grammar mistakes. Finally, give the release to a new set of eyes and ask them specifically to read it for grammar and spelling mistakes.
EDITING YOUR PRESS RELEASE IS CRUCIAL. IT IS THE STEP THAT WILL MAKE YOUR MESSAGE MORE EASILY DIGESTED BY THE READER. FURTHERMORE, A PRESS RELEASE WITH MISTAKES AND TYPOS WILL PROBABLY STOP THE READER IN MID SENTENCE AND FORCE THEM TO QUESTION YOUR PROFESSIONALISM.
Nice summation. I can’t be reminded about these basic points enough. My brain gravitates toward “mission creep.”
As someone who studies the craft of writing and who gets bombarded with press releases, let me reiterate your point about editing your press release. I’ll let a typo or two slide (except in the subject line), but any more than that and my finger is on the delete key. Or, worse, I’m tweeting about the moronic press release and spreading the word about the incompetence.
Lots of people care less about this sort of thing, but you won’t alienate them by sending out a typo-free press release, whereas you will alienate someone like me.
If you want to improve your grammar, by the way, I recommend the Grammar Girl podcast as a starting point.
Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.
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