Public Relations Primer Part 1: How to Write a Darn Good Press Release

If you work in marketing communications for a small to medium-sized organization, chances are good that you don’t have a dedicated public relations department. That means any PR efforts naturally fall within your area of responsibility. The good news is that you can learn to handle it like a pro.

Basic public relations consists of two primary components:

  1. Press release writing
  2. Media relations/distribution/placement

While you’ll want to take your target publications into consideration during the writing, media relations is more than a story unto itself, so for now, we’ll focus solely on writing the press release — and writing it well.

Have a real story to tell.

The worst thing you can do is issue a press release just because you (or your boss) think you should, when you have nothing newsworthy to say. Wait until you have real news to share. Otherwise, you may end up with a reputation for putting out press releases that say nothing and, like the boy who cried wolf, risk being ignored when you finally do have something real to tell.

In my first job out of college (marketing coordinator for a small Atlanta architectural firm) I was dying to put my bachelor of arts in journalism/public relations to good use by writing and distributing my first press release. I wanted more than anything to see our company name in the Atlanta Business Chronicle. The reality, though, was that there was nothing particularly newsworthy about a relatively unheard-of architectural firm designing yet another suburban strip shopping center (retail design having been our bread and butter in those days).

My opportunity came, however, when Nissan Motor Company (yes, the one headquartered in Japan) prepared to launch its Infiniti luxury vehicle division and hired our firm to design the Infiniti dealership facility prototype that would be built all over the US. Now, that was news. I thought so, and the editor of the Atlanta Business Chronicle apparently agreed, assigning a staff reporter to interview my boss and write a nice, big article with photos.

When the article was published, one of the owners of our company said, “Look, that reporter lifted whole sentences and paragraphs out of your press release and used them in his article, like he wrote them himself. Doesn’t that make you mad?”

I said, “No, it doesn’t make me mad. It makes me happy. It means I did my job right by making his job easier.”

Which leads to my next point…

Write it like a news story.

Who doesn’t love it when someone makes their job easier? Therefore, your goal when writing a press release is to write something a newspaper or magazine could simply publish as is if they chose to do so. Depending on the subject, they may well do so.

For example, when I was public relations director for a local government-owned, community-access television station, we regularly held a free, four-week television production class to teach citizens how to operate the cameras and other studio equipment required to create television programs. Every time we ran a class, I issued a brief, no-frills press release, which explained the purpose of the class, the dates and times, and how to register, and distributed it to local media. A bright and happy moment of my career came when one of the TV station’s advisory board members told me he had dinner with an editor of one of the two major Pittsburgh daily newspapers and she told him she loved my press releases, because she could publish them exactly as submitted — no rewriting or editing required.

So, how do you learn how to write a news story if you’ve never taken a journalism class?

Read articles in the publications you’d like to see your story in.

Mimic that style in your press release. Note that most newspapers try to publish content that can be understood by someone at a fifth-grade reading level, so a press release isn’t the place to show off an extensive vocabulary. If you’re targeting trade journals, it’s especially important to read them to get a good feel for what industry terminology and jargon their readers understand versus what might need to be explained.

Read the press releases all the giant corporations have on their websites.

These are the companies that can afford full-time PR departments and outside agencies, so one can assume they know what they’re doing. Check out the newsrooms of IBMMicrosoftAdobe, or any other big organization you admire, and model your press releases after theirs.

Learn Associated Press (AP) style, which most newspapers and magazines follow.

You may want to invest in a printed copy or online subscription to the AP Stylebook. It’s important to note here that in your marketing communications, you’ll always want to adhere to your own established corporate style with regard to whether or not you use the series comma (also known as the Oxford comma) and other such matters, but in your press releases, stick to AP style, which means no series comma.

Follow the inverted pyramid form of writing, covering the most important points first.

Newspapers have always used this, because it enables them to start cutting paragraphs from the bottom of the story up to make it fit in the available space without any rewriting. Unlike a standard high school essay, a formal concluding paragraph, in which you restate your main point, is unnecessary and inappropriate for a press release. When you’ve said all you need to say, simply end it, and signal the end to the editor by including three hash marks (###).

Use the third-person narrative voice. No “we,” “our,” or “us” when talking about your organization.

The exception to this is in any direct quotations you include in your story. For instance, if you’re writing about an acquisition, it’s perfectly okay to quote the president of your company as saying, “The acquisition of ABC Manufacturing allows us to offer a more complete line of widgets to our customers in Nebraska.”

Avoid fluff and puff.

Vague and unsubstantiated claims of superiority don’t even belong in marketing collateral, let alone a press release. I recently ran across a sample press release on the Internet that purported to be a model for those needing to write one. Not only did this sample violate the third-person rule above by starting out with, “We are proud to announce…,” but it also went on to use words like “fantastic” and “unparalleled success” — in the narrative, not even in quotes — when describing the company’s business track record. This is NOT something any newspaper or magazine editor wants to see, so don’t do it.

Format your press release properly.

Don’t use fancy, colored fonts or try to get creative with layout and design. You can’t go wrong by following the clean, simple format that’s expected by editors and used by all the big organizations. Note that if you open any Adobe press release, they give you the option to view or download a PDF of it — handy for use as your own formatting model.

Bearing in mind the inverted pyramid format described above, the first paragraph of your press release, known as the lead (sometimes also spelled “lede”) is by far the most important, because it’s where you hook your audience — the editor (and their readers). Look for more details on how to craft a great lead for your press release in the next installment of this PR Primer series.

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