PR Advice from Journalists: Dos and Don’t on Press Releases.

PR Advice from Journalists: Dos and Don’t on Press Releases.

Robert Wynne
February 4th 2016

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There’s a symbiotic relationship between publicists and journalists. Reporters need stories and news to fill space or airtime, and PR professionals want to get their products or clients or ideas into that space.

That said, PR professionals are advocates, they want to advance their agenda. The journalists they are trying to work with are not under any obligation to help them. Their obligations are to their audience and their editors. Sometimes the relationship is friendly, sometimes it’s adversarial. Sometimes you are calling them to present an idea, other times they are calling you regarding a crisis. It’s a back-and-forth exchange that can evolve at any time. 

Usually, publicists reach out to journalists to promote something new (a book, a product, a newly appointed CEO) or to insert themselves into a trend. As I explained in a recent Forbes column, there’s only two ways to make the news: create a story, or follow a story. If PR pros understand what is news, and they become familiar with what the reporter actually covers, along with the specifics of the outlet, they can greatly increase their chances of success.   

Nothing beats talking directly to journalists to find out what they really need. Even better, once you meet a journalist in person, you make a much stronger connection. When hundreds of pitches and press releases flood their mailbox each day, which ones have the greatest chance of being opened? The emails from trusted sources and people they know.

It’s not always possible to meet reporters in person. If you can, great. If not, here are some tips to make your information more useful. The information comes from a Forbes column titled, “What Journalists Really Think of Your Press Release,” that offers suggestions from reporters and editors.

In short: Write a great headline, avoid useless acronyms, keep the bragging to a minimum and most importantly, start with the most important story angle.

Now let’s hear what the experts say: 

What annoys you about press releases?

I am deeply annoyed by press releases that assume I am a man because I work at a science and technology magazine. And a shocking number of press releases perpetuate other gender stereotypes. There is a press release in my spam box right now that says “Rein in Your Girly Thoughts.”
Jennifer Bogo, Executive Editor, Popular Science

Press releases are an efficient way to get news out to reporters, but often the language used is very dense and tedious to get through. I sometimes read an entire press release and can’t pull out the key takeaway. Subjects can be complicated to begin with, especially when it comes to science and technology, so language that really cuts to the chase and explains the news is most helpful.
Samantha Murphy Kelly, Tech Reporter, Mashable

The ones targeted at people who cover different beats than I do. The ones sent to me 2, 3, 4 times, as if I’ll be more likely to respond; sending irrelevant material multiple times doesn’t make it any more relevant. Ones that take four paragraphs to get to the point (fat chance I’ll read that far). Ones that ask me to “please consider covering” this or that, simply because it happened.
Rick Newman, Columnist, Yahoo! Finance

They offer no context, no understanding of the receiver, and no story. They are literally the laziest thing a company can do.
John Biggs, East Coast Editor, Tech Crunch

I receive more than 500 emails a day. An astonishing number of them are pitching topics that neither I nor my staff has ever covered—sent by people who’ve either never read our publication, or never read our coverage, or noticed what bylines go with what stories. I edit Company Town, which covers the business side of the entertainment industry. We are not interested in stories about developments in dental hygiene.
Charles Fleming, Editor, Company Town, Los Angeles Times

When other journalists get them before me. When there’s no contact information for who to reach out to. When key information is left out or left vague.
Jason Gilbert, Senior Editor, Yahoo! Tech  

What could PR people do to make them better?

First, a couple of don’ts: Please don’t attach the information as a word doc or pdf (yes, people still do this), or merely hyperlink to a press release posted online. Don’t clear your throat in the subject line—get straight to the point—and don’t shout at me with all-caps. I do like it when people address me personally and both include succinct information (what is it? why is it timely and important?) and point to multimedia resources.
Jennifer Bogo, Executive Editor, Popular Science 

I always like to say, explain it to me in a sentence or two like you were telling your grandmother, before getting into the specifics. It’s always good to know “why” the news is important too—if it’s not my main area of coverage, I could overlook groundbreaking news and just not know it. At the same time, it’s good not to oversell it with words like “groundbreaking” when it’s really not.
Samantha Murphy Kelly, Tech Reporter, Mashable

Get to the point right away and let me know what it is in the subject line. Look up my last 20 stories (they’re all in one place, on my Yahoo Finance author page) to get a feel for what I cover, and send relevant info. Send them only once. If it’s a bald appeal for publicity without much substance, don’t bother because you do more harm to your reputation than it’s probably worth (unless of course the client is paying enough to justifying trashing your reputation).
Rick Newman, Columnist, Yahoo! Finance

Nothing.
John Biggs, East Coast Editor, Tech Crunch

The basics matter. Pitch me something that shows you know my publication and my area of coverage, and that you read it often enough to know that we ALREADY DID THIS STORY a week ago. And you can go ahead and surprise me by spelling my name correctly.
Charles Fleming, Editor, Company Town, Los Angeles Times

Press releases, unlike pitch emails, should be thorough. We’re looking for all of the information about this new product, study, or whatever that we can find, so that we can determine if it’s worth digging deeper. Links to websites with even more information are great, too. And you HAVE to have contact information at the end. And not just that, but you better be REPLYING to those contacts quickly, too. Don’t add an email address you never check, or a phone number for a line you never answer!
Jason Gilbert, Senior Editor, Yahoo! Tec

Have you ever found a good story via a press release?

I have. But more often, I find information that supports a story I’m already thinking about and I fold that lead into my other research.
Jennifer Bogo, Executive Editor, Popular Science

It’s definitely possible to find good stories in press releases, but because many people get the same announcement, there are limitations and writers don’t want to publish the same story as another outlet. By granting embargoes and doing pre-press release briefings, this will ensure the writer has enough time to put together an insightful piece and get the background information and quotes they need. That additional time is so appreciated.
Samantha Murphy Kelly, Tech Reporter, Mashable

Yes, but not usually the story that the PR rep is pitching. Reputable info sources I use frequently often send useful data via press releases, but when they do that I usually go out of my way NOT to write the story right out of the press release. Instead, since I know a lot of my journalistic colleagues are looking at exactly the same info (and some will cover it), I look for side angles or stories within the story. Every now and then I will even do a debunking story pointing out the lousy info somebody is trying to publicize, with gullible media buying it.
Rick Newman, Columnist, Yahoo! Finance

No.
John Biggs, East Coast Editor, Tech Crunch

I have absolutely found my way to good stories via a press release. But the savvy publicist must recognize that the story I want out of your pitch may not be exactly the story you’re pitching. The smart publicist will recognize that getting a client mentioned in a piece with a larger context may be just as good as getting a story about that client and nothing else—which might not have happened in the first place.
Charles Fleming, Editor, Company Town, Los Angeles Times

All the time! Especially from universities and smaller companies that don’t have the bandwidth to send out email blasts or hire a PR firm. Most journalists I know regularly check newswires for new announcements. So the good news: it’s possible to land a good story via press release, but it must be very well-written, targeted to the right reporter, sent with a specific story idea via the headline, and you may also have to get lucky. The bad news: press releases may not be the right format for most reporters and sometimes, as Rick Newman noted, you won’t get the article you envisioned.
Jason Gilbert, Senior Editor, Yahoo! Tech