ADVERTISING & PROMOTION: How to write a press release (and get it published!)

How can your latest business move turn into a headline? Oftentimes, all it takes is a well-written and smartly-placed press release. The trick, of course, is writing it well and placing it smartly.

Press packets

Given the amount of mail that lands on an editor’s desk, there is a lot to be said for presentation. What is going to make your piece of mail get opened, let alone published?

Veronica Pasfield, a publicist and writer based in Boyne City, places her bet on the visual aspects of a press packet.

“The number one thing is that it has to look good. Your first reader is the editor or the reporter,” she noted. “Do not send a letter. Send a nice folder. That will get their attention quicker.”

As a former editor of Detroit- and San Francisco-area magazines, Pasfield speaks from experience. She recommends using stationary, envelopes, stickers and folders that are professional and eye-catching.

What’s your point?

Once you’ve beaten the pile of press releases and are actually in the hands of the editor or reporter, it’s time to seal the deal.

“An editor or reporter will usually make a judgment on whether to use a release within 10 seconds,” noted John Tune, senior account executive at CML Public Relations in Traverse City. “Make sure the headline and the first two paragraphs communicate the news you’re trying to get out to the public.”

What kinds of things do editors look for in those 10 seconds? First and foremost: Newsworthiness.

“The most important aspect of publishing a news release is its relevance,” noted Gregg Smith, a principal with The Intelligence Agency in Traverse City, with over 20 years of experience in publishing. “Basic newsworthiness determines whether the release will ever see light of day.”

The story angle is also imperative to the survival of a press release. An editor doesn’t want to work at making your story idea work. A well-developed angle makes it easier for them to use it.

“You can’t just say ‘Grand Opening,'” Pasfield said. “If your business is important enough, you can do that. But in northern Michigan, there are a lot of small, independently-owned businesses. What makes your business or program really unique has to be in the first two sentences of that press release.”

Writing a press release

Pasfield recommends going straight to the person in charge when it comes to getting the information for writing a press release–whether it’s being done in-house or being hired out.

“The first thing I do is go to the top person and ask them, ‘What were you thinking when you created this (program, product, business)?’ The next thing I ask is, ‘What are you hoping to get out of a press release?'”

These are the very basics that Tune also incorporates in the numerous press releases he develops for clients.

“Editors like releases that immediately answer the basic tenets of journalism (who, what, when, where, why and how),” he noted. “They also like releases that provide statistics and data. If a press release is being written about a company making a large acquisition, or landing a major new client, don’t be afraid to give the financials. Call it a $20 million deal, if that’s what it is, and an editor will be far more likely to use the release.”

Tune offers advice based on his 21 years of experience in the newspaper business, seven of which were as editor of the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Tune also noted that a well-developed press release should be:

* Concise–Editors receive countless releases every week and appreciate submissions that are brief and to the point.

* Well-written–Bad spelling and poor grammar will almost always result in the release being discarded. Press release writers should have a copy of the Associated Press style manual and learn how to abbreviate words and numbers, and the proper way to refer to formal names and titles.

* Factual–Claims must be substantiated. A company can’t say it’s the best or the cheapest unless it can demonstrate proof.

* Honest–Avoid gratuitous quotes from company officials. Unless the quotes have substance, most reporters and editors will not use them.

* Timely–The release should either be “fresh news” or incorporated with a recent or ongoing news event.

* Accessible–At the top of every press release, a contact person’s name should appear. That person must be available to answer questions from the media.

It’s also a good idea to include any good photo opportunities that are available. But be sure to generate photo ideas that are action-oriented. Would you, as a reader of the publication, rather see playground officials in a ribbon-cutting ceremony or a half-dozen kids swinging from monkey bars?

Finding your market

The key to finding the right market for your press release is to read, read, read. Find out what a publication puts on its pages and generate an angle for your story that will fit their focus.

“Research, experience and determination are the keys to finding and reaching targeted markets,” Tune noted. “Those who write and distribute press releases should have a thorough list of every newspaper, specialty publication, magazine, radio station and television station in the region. That list should also include the names, fax numbers and e-mail addresses of the editors and reporters who will be making the decisions on whether the release constitutes news.”

The Intelligence Agency uses a mix of sources to target a press release, from media lists and directories to Internet listings, databases and business newswires. “But,” Smith noted, “knowing professionals in the field is also helpful. Knowing how media works–experience–is very insightful.”

To improve your odds of publication, Pasfield recommends you call the publication you are targeting and ask who to send it to.

“Sending it directly to the editor isn’t the best idea. In fact, most times you shouldn’t,” she said. “Ask for the person who is covering your (topic).”

Tune agrees. “If you’re writing a release about a medical situation, you should know what reporters in your targeted market cover health issues. Also, most industries have trade publications that should be targeted. Find out from your clients what those publications are, and do further research on the Internet and by phone to ensure that you pinpoint the release to the right person.”

Once it’s in the mail…

Now what? Do you call to follow-up your press release? Or do you wait for the phone to ring? And if it does, then what?

“Follow-up phone calls to editors and reporters can be helpful, but be wary,” advised Tune. “Many members of the media find these calls to be annoying and aggravating because of the high volume of phone calls, press releases and e-mails they receive.”

Instead, Tune noted, use phone calls as a way to build relationships with reporters. “Read their stories and listen to their reports on a regular basis–even when the content doesn’t relate to your clients. It will help you relate better to them and demonstrate that you have a better understanding of their business.”

When the interview does come through, be ready. Smith develops fact sheets and an anticipated list of questions for his clients.

“There’s no substitute for due diligence and preparation,” he noted. But, if a question stumps you, Smith advised a straightforward approach. “Don’t beat around the bush. A simple, ‘We don’t know the answer to that, but we’ll check it out and get back to you,’ is always the right response.”

During the interview, Tune recommends using specific examples, anecdotal stories and facts and figures to make a story come to life.

“Contact people who answer follow-up calls by saying, ‘It’s all in the press release,’ are doing their organization a disservice and hurting their chance of receiving coverage,” he noted. “That answer implies that they’re hiding something, which immediately makes the media suspicious.” BN