Take Five: How to Jazz Up Your Press Release

Someone said to me recently that the biggest mistake papers ever made was to go on the Web.

They were arguing that if newspapers had just stayed in printed form then they wouldn’t be in the trouble they are now.

After working as a reporter and sub-editor/headline writer in a host of Irish newspapers, and The Salt Lake Tribune, one of the first U.S. papers to fully embrace the Web, I don’t think newspapers had a choice in the matter.

Whatever about that argument, there’s one thing involving newspapers that hasn’t really evolved that much at all.

And it’s an absolute head-scratcher to me.

I’m talking about the humble press release.

It’s the perfect opportunity to tailor your message for print and broadcast news outlets.

But far too often companies, or government entities, still send out press releases that are almost predetermined to fail in that intention.

And the fix isn’t that hard, because it’s all about the fundamentals of storytelling.

The best press releases are just like any other story.

They MUST engage the audience.

So how do we do that?

Here’s five top tips… with help from Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Cliffs Notes, Kevin from The Office (U.S.) and a former New York Times reporter.

1. Don’t bury the lead

What’s the most important information you’re trying to convey?

For example, supposing there’s a major European health conference being hosted in Dublin. Let’s say every EU member state health minister is in attendance.

And let’s imagine our own Irish health minister is giving the keynote speech, and they announce a major new initiative.

Too often, a press release announcing this will lead off with something like:

“Health ministers from across the EU gathered at a special conference in Dublin Castle today along with stakeholders from across the sector including representative bodies of healthcare workers, consultants and patients rights’ groups from 28 countries.

“Over 500 delegates are in attendance to discuss issues around better stakeholder engagement, improved ways to measure patient outcomes, and best practice project management across the EU.

“Minister for Health (insert name here) was guest of honour for the three-day event. In a keynote speech s/he told attendees that Ireland would spearhead the creation of a new EU patients’ charter to ensure all EU citizens get the best from their health service.”

So in that example, I’ve purposely buried the lead.

News is about what’s new.

And 500 people meeting in Dublin, or anywhere else for that matter, is not ‘new’.

But the health minister taking the initiative in an EU-wide programme to improve people’s lives IS new.

That’s because that initiative is something that will affect a huge amount of people. And it’s unlikely anything else will trump that on the first day of this conference.

2. Get to the point in your headline

If you’ve done the first step correctly, then this will be easy because your headline will be a much shorter version of the opening line in your press release.

It’s essentially the Cliffs Notes of your first sentence.

And it tells the journalists what exactly this story is about, even if it’s not the greatest story ever told.

For example: “Health minister proposes new EU patients’ rights charter”

3. Write shorter sentences

The first eyes on your press release will be those of journalists on the Newsdesk.

But they’re often too swamped monitoring all that day’s breaking news to read every press release.

So a lot of times it’s left to the sub-editors to make news stories out of them.

Neuroscience shows us that the brain switches off when something doesn’t grab our attention from the get-go… or appears too complicated.

That’s because it’s saving its brainpower for its No. 1 job… which is to keep you alive.

So anything that detracts from that better be worth our attention.

Because of that, the brain needs to know where you are going with your story… and it’s going to make a very fast judgment in that regard.

So do yourself, and those journalists, a favour by writing short sentences that get to the point quickly. 

4. Introduce your quotes… but don’t repeat yourself.

Your boss, and what they say, is obviously a key part of your press release.

But always give their quotes context by introducing what they’re about to say.

For instance, let’s say your company makes a suntan lotion that the Consumers Association has ranked No. 1 for all-over skin protection.

You might write something like this:

“SunProtect chief executive Doug Whitehall said the company had invested heavily in ensuring the end product would meet consumer needs. He said: “We’ve increased our R&D budget by 200 per cent over the past five years and hired four of Europe’s top clinicians in the process.”

What you want to avoid is:

“SunProtect chief executive Doug Whitehall said the company had invested heavily in ensuring the end product would meet consumer needs. He said: “We’ve invested heavily in our end product to ensure it meets consumer needs.”

5. Hire a journalist for your team

Rewriting press releases can be a chore. But if you know what you’re doing, you can often get quick results.

A friend recently asked me to rewrite a press release for them. It had all the information I needed, but just in the wrong order.

As journalists, we’re used to rejigging copy all the time. So I got to work.

When my friend sent out my rewritten version, the press release/story got picked up by a major website the next day. And a top-rated radio programme asked them to come into studio for a live interview.

They were very happy with the results and, for all we know, their press release could have been picked up elsewhere, too.

It’s second nature to most journalists, because we know what papers/broadcasters are looking for. And our skills transfer to the public and private sectors in areas such as writing, editing, speechwriting, content writing and compiling annual reports etc.

In fact, according to the Museum of Public Relations in New York City, the first ever press release was penned by a journalist, former New York Times reporter Ivy Lee, in 1906.

He represented the Pennsylvania Railroad when a train derailed off a bridge, the tragic accident killing 50 passengers in the process.

As the Museum of PR’s blog states: “Instead of hiding the facts from the public – as was common those days – Lee invited the press down to cover the accident first-hand. And in order to assure the press had accurate information, he wrote up a statement about the event—the forerunner to today’s ‘press release’.”

So there you have it. 

Use these tips and you’ll hugely increase your chances of getting your press release noticed.

Brian is an Irish journalist and screenwriter with an extensive career working for major employers on both sides of the Atlantic, including at RTE Radio and The Salt Lake Tribune. He later retrained to become an immersive content writer, digital storyteller and investor pitching coach with his consultancy StoriesforBiz.com[1].


  1. ^ StoriesforBiz.com (www.storiesforbiz.com)

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