How to Write the Perfect Press Release

newspapers on a staple
newspapers on a staple

According to The Guardian, “a well written press release is one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to gain publicity as well as high-quality leads.”

But as we all know, most journalists are continuously swamped with press releases, and it often takes time, effort and a bit of chasing to land press coverage for your business. With this in mind, we decided to take a deep dive into the world of PR and discover what you can do to get your press releases noticed and published by the right journalists.

Often aptly described as a tug of war, How to Write the Perfect Press Release is best learnt from the top journalists themselves – so we invited BizCommunity’s Editor-in-Chief, Leigh Andrews, as well as top journalists from Popular Science, Mashable and Yahoo! Tech, to share some tips, tools and advice on how to Win the War on PR.

They shared with us tips to make your press release shine, what definitely not to do to get your press release published, and how to find your ultimate journalist database.

Welcome to the World of PR

Having a role in the PR industry is one of the most overlooked and underestimated roles. In 2020, there are fewer journalists doing more of the work than ever. Your average journalist is also wearing the hat of proof-reader, fact-checker, photographer, image-generator, reporter, social media manager, video editor and basic graphic designer. An average day, according to Leigh Andrews, consists of a cup of strong coffee, scanning the news, and then diving into a flooded inbox to make sure they’re not missing any breaking news.

On a bad day, journalists are bombarded with emails from people demanding to be published, asking if they’ve received their last email which was actually addressed to the wrong journalist, reading through content that is far too promotional to be published, or completely missing the mark in terms of content that the publication will actually publish.

In addition to meeting newsletter deadlines, they’re often scrambling to get hold of someone to commission that breaking news story, if not dropping everything to put something together on the topic themselves. If you’re approachable as a PR officer and able to quickly put together comments from clients on a hot topic, you’ll fast become a favourite.

PR in 2020: Meet Your Potential Customer

Gone are the days where a customer would read the full front-page newspaper article and continue to fold it up, put it in their pocket and ask for your product. Instead, if we don’t make a concerted effort, we’re going to see only advertisements facing a crowd with an ever-decreasing concentration span, because brands are vying for attention everywhere we turn.

The reality in 2020 is that today’s ease of communication has a flip-side; it’s scary and overwhelming.

Your potential customer, who you wish would read your piece through, think it over and respond favourably, is switching their concentration between screens up to 27 times an hour and has, quite literally, thousands of messages and notifications pouring in from every app and on every device from friends, family, colleagues and brands. In addition to this, the recent incline in the spread of fake news means that audiences are more sceptical of brand messaging and news stories than ever before.

What is Wrong With Press Releases Today?

Here is what the experts had to say on the topic of what needs improving:

"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

"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  

Tips and Techniques for Winning the War on PR

BizCommunity’s Editor-In-Chief Leigh Andrews asked her colleagues what they would say if they could give advice everyone who’s pitched their press release to them. The tips and techniques fell into three main categories:

  1. Format: What you need to know before and during the process of putting the press release together
  2. Pitch: How to improve your aim when pitching to the media
  3. Follow up: Perfecting the dreaded follow-up

1. Format

  • Avoid using PDFs – they may look neat and tidy, but it makes copying and pasting text much more difficult. The most pleasing format is a clean Word Document. You can’t go wrong with pasting the content of the press release into the body of the email too – sometimes the attachment is faulty and its best to have all your bases covered.
  • Include contact details of the brand for the potential customer who will be reading the press release, and your own contact details in case the media want to contact you for more information.
  • When it comes to length, do some research into who you’re pitching and what they prefer when it comes to the length of press releases, as this may differ. Leigh advises that at BizCommunity, 500-word press releases and 1 000-word opinion pieces suits them best.
  • There is no need to squeeze the company’s name into every line of every paragraph. Leave out adjectives like “best,” “world’s leading” and “most advanced” if you don’t have the sources to back up those statements.
  • Provide the correct links to research and resources that you’ve used to get to any conclusion.
  • With regards to style, it again depends on where in the world and to whom you’re sending your press release. At BizCommunity, they use British English, not American, and their style guides are mostly based on Oxford and Guardian style guides. This is common practice in most English-speaking African countries, but do look it up before you send your press release out.
  • If you’re a “wordy wonder,” remember that media houses do edit for clarity and conciseness when it comes to earned editorial. If your client wants it published word-for-word, it might be better to have it published through BizCommunity’s paid-for media office.
  • To minimise many back-and-forth emails, check that you’ve included all the details necessary in the release and that you’ve actually attached what’s necessary. More specifically; names and addresses, dates and times, all pricing information, social media handles and the relevant hashtags.
  • Include at least one image, and include it as an attachment in your email. Don’t embed it in your Word Doc or, worse, in your PDF. Mail size isn’t an issue, so if you have a gallery of images or want to send a link to WeTransfer file, that’s fine to send through too. BizCommunity only uses company logos in editorial articles, though, unless the article is about the logo – like a change in design – otherwise the end result looks like advertising. You’ll also need to make sure the image you use is licensed for republishing or that you own the rights, and include the designer or photographer’s name and details.
  • The last step is one that is often missed: take one final read through and ensure you’ve included everything and taken out the [Confirm X] or similar placeholders. Do a spell-check for typos, get a colleague to read it to make sure it makes sense, and ensure you have the client’s approval before you hit send.

Top Tip: Embargos

Embargoed press releases are shared with the intention of only being published at a later, specified date. Although a great way to organise work in advance, embargoes are often referred to as the weapon of mass destruction – what a disaster if things go wrong.

If you’re sending an embargoed release, be sure to have the date and time of release clearly specified. Remember to take into account that if you’re sending news to a different country, different time zones apply and this can, too, have major ramifications if done incorrectly. Go wild with putting this information in big, bold, underlined and highlighted text.

2. Pitching to the Media

Once your press release has been written, checked, and double-checked, you’re ready to pitch it to the media. There are seven steps to success you need to be aware of. They may sound simple, but they’re often overlooked.

  • You need a professional-sounding email address. Even if you’re a freelancer or solo agent using Gmail as your host, make sure the first part of your email address is your name or company name – you have less chance of being automatically sent to spam, and it just sounds more professional.
  • A stand-out subject line is not, “BREAKING NEWS” in capitals, as journalists get hundreds of those, and it’s not “Press Release” either, as that doesn’t make anyone want to click. Use a stand-out feature in your story as it will grab attention as well as make it easier for the publisher to follow up with if you send multiple releases.
  • Individualise your greeting but don’t go crazy – find out what the name is of the person you’re emailing, use it, but don’t add details that are too personal and risk coming across as a stalker. If you don’t know the name a simple “Hello,” or “Good morning,” will do – “Dear Sir” will not work, especially as BizCommunity’s entire content team is female.
  • Start with a sentence on why this news is important, to avoid having your mail sent to the “evergreen inbox” for a slow news day.
  • Including a CTA is crucial: ask the receiver if they’re interested in publishing the news or if there’s any more information they need that is not included in the release.
  • Keep it short: this is the hundredth email your receiver is opening today.
  • Lastly, include your own details: name, company, email address and phone number.

"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 well-written, targeted to the right reporter and sent with a specific story idea via the headline." - Jason Gilbert, Senior Editor, Yahoo! Tech

Top Tip: Formalities

  • Don’t call to say you’re going to email and don’t email asking if you can send the release – this type of formality is outdated in face-paced 2018. Just send the release.
  • Don’t lay out the press release with embedded links and logos, text boxes and images. The editors will just have to remove and redo it all themselves anyway, which adds more time to the editing and uploading process.
  • The worst is to promise exclusivity when your well-meaning colleague has already pitched the same release to another editor or worse, a different publisher.

Another way to make your release stand out is to go beyond just rehashing your client’s words in black and white text, and add a video to it – this could be an original edit, a clip describing a product update or even a video of a TEDx talk. Video content is the stickiest and by far the quickest way to amplify your message on social media.

"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! Tech

3. Perfecting the Follow-Up

You should have the gist of it by now: don’t call as soon as you’ve hit send, if you haven’t received a response, one follow-up call or email at least 24 hours after you sent the original should be sufficient (Disclaimer: unless it really is urgent, timely, “breaking news”).

Be careful about calling after office-hours. These editors are likely juggling just as much trying to maintain that work-life balance as you are. Of course, emergencies can hit at any time. When this happens, highlight the exact part of the press release you need changed or emitted, and send through as soon as possible.

"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

Final Bits of Ammunition to Win the War

Trend specialist and owner of Flux Trends Dion Chang says the customer of 2020 is the definition of woke, which is defined by Urban Dictionary as “being aware; knowing what’s going on in the community, especially in terms of social injustice.” Customers today have less tolerance for mistakes and errors that are either not politically correct or downright discriminatory.

In an age where more people than ever have the opportunity to express their opinions, and social media has given users the platform to publish and share their thoughts, the saying “the customer is always right” has never rung more true.

So, when in doubt, ask Google, Alexa or Siri, check your facts as well as the connotations of the diction you’re using. Using a reputation consultant can help you take the steps needed to protect brand reputation in any release and prepare for whatever disaster may strike.

To recap:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of building solid media relationships: as scary it may sound, taking things offline, and asking for a quick chat over coffee could be the best way to do this.
  • Another way to keep journalists and editors happy, instead of infuriated, every time you reach out is to keep your press releases and demands simple and easy, and follow the steps outlined by them above.
  • 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.
  • Investing in a media intelligence tool like Meltwater’s Influencer Contact Manager can make your life much easier by providing you with an expansive, industry-wide journalist database, allowing you to reach out to and engage with relevant contacts at the click of a button. To find out more, get in touch with the Meltwater Team.