This is the second in the multi-part Public Relations Primer series. Read Part 1, How to Write a Darn Good Press Release.

Whether you spell it “lead” or “lede,” the opening paragraph of your press release is the most important, because it’s where you hook the interest of an editor and your target readers. Bear in mind that your goal is to write your press release like a news story, so you’ll want to write your lead like the lead of a news story.

The summary lead

The vast majority of all press releases use the summary-type lead. This type of lead answers the most relevant of the five W’s and the H:

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why
  6. How

For example, let’s say that your company has received some kind of award, a perfect excuse to issue a press release, and you want to tell the world. In such a case, your lead might sound something like this:

ANYTOWN, N.Y., Dec. 1, 2014 – The Anytown City Council recognized Acme Manufacturing today as its “Number One Corporate Good Citizen” for the third year in a row, citing job creation, employee benefits and corporate philanthropy as the top reasons for this honor.

This lead tells who (Anytown City Council and Acme Manufacturing), what (Number One Corporate Good Citizen award), when (today) and why (job creation, employee benefits, and corporate philanthropy). It doesn’t tell where or how, which might simply be irrelevant. On the other hand, if there were some sort of formal recognition ceremony involved with our fictitious award, you could tell where and how a little later in the story when you mention that.

A word about datelines

You’ll note that the example lead above starts with what is known as a “dateline.” If you’ve done your homework and studied the press releases on the websites of large organizations you admire, as suggested in Part 1 of this Public Relations Primer series, you’ll have noticed that all press releases start with a dateline that includes:

  1. Your city name in all capital letters
  2. The Associated Press (AP) Style abbreviation for your state (as opposed to the US Postal Service state abbreviations), unless your city is one of the 30 on the AP list that doesn’t require state identification, such as New York, Dallas, or Pittsburgh
  3. The date you are releasing your press release

For more information on cities that stand alone and AP Style state abbreviations, check out this handy online reference resource from Purdue University.

When not to use a summary lead

At least 90 percent of the time, the summary lead is the right lead for a press release. That being said, sometimes it’s not.

To explain, let me take you back to Mr. Robertson’s News Reporting class. As a journalism major at the university I attended, you were expected to take News Reporting your sophomore year. But Mr. Robertson and his class had a tough reputation, and News Reporting, while required, wasn’t a prerequisite for other classes.

So I procrastinated. In fact, I’d already taken Feature Writing and every other journalism/PR/English class I wanted or needed and completed my internship before finally taking News Reporting my senior year.

Besides Mr. Robertson’s being rather harsh, another reason for his class’s unpopularity was that you had to attend all kinds of evening events, write your story, and turn it in by 8 a.m. the next day (and not a minute late or you got a zero), just as if you were a real reporter.

One day he assigned us to cover an event about domestic abuse, sponsored by a local women’s shelter. The presentation opened with a recorded call to a domestic-abuse hotline. It was absolutely riveting, and I knew it was the lead for the story.

Still, it was risky. Mr. Robertson had pounded the summary lead into our heads over and over. This wasn’t Feature Writing. He might hold me up as an object of ridicule if I didn’t write a summary lead.

In the end, I used the hot-line call dialogue as my lead and submitted my story, casting caution to the wind.

At the next class, Mr. Robertson strode into the room, slapped our stories down on his desk, and shouted, “What is WRONG with you people?”

In response to our blank stares, he announced that the summary lead was NOT the proper lead for the domestic-abuse story. How was it possible for only ONE person in the entire class to get the lead right?

When he named that person — me — I had to defend my sophomore classmates. He’d never even mentioned another kind of lead, let alone taught us how to write one, I said, and if I hadn’t already taken Feature Writing and had my internship, I wouldn’t have written that lead, either. Instead of admitting I was right, he asked why he’d never heard of me, why I wasn’t writing for our college newspaper, and why I was hiding my light under a bushel.

Gee, I wonder why everyone hated his class.

The point of this story (or anecdote) is that on occasion, the anecdotal lead is the right lead for a news story or press release — particularly when there’s a compelling emotional element that will engage the reader and draw them in.

There’s no real emotional appeal to most business news, so you generally won’t use an anecdotal lead in press releases about new products, awards, or acquisitions. However, if your company is involved in any kind of charitable activity, that presents a better opportunity for the more creative style of lead.

For example, JP Enterprises organizes activities to support the Washington City Mission, and we recently collected winter coats for residents of the organization’s homeless shelter. If you were writing a press release about this, which would be more compelling — “JP Enterprises collected 20 winter coats for homeless residents of the Washington City Mission,” or an anecdotal lead about a little homeless girl who had no warm coat to wear to school.

Pretty obvious, isn’t it? If your gut tells you your press release needs an anecdotal lead, go for it, and don’t worry about whether the Mr. Robertsons of the world will approve or not. If you do it right, they will.

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