press release media relations media training

What does a journalist look for in a press release?

I’m picking up a fair bit of work training people in public relations to write at the moment, so I thought it might be worth talking about press releases. I get a lot of them and some are fatally flawed – but rather than criticise (there are plenty of blogs that will offer critiques if you like) I thought I’d map out some stuff that really ought to be in them.

  • Targeting before you write and before you send the release out. I get that there are loads of journalists out there and that we move about. Freelances like me write for more than one publication, sometimes as a one-off. Genuinely, I get it. However, a while ago I was writing only about small business and information technology – and one company sent me a load of releases coming in on female sex aids for a while. Don’t get me wrong, like any mid-life crisis-stricken male I found them fascinating, but they didn’t get any coverage. Think about who you’re sending a release to and why. I’ve been known to ask PR people which of my outlets they thought a piece might suit; the good ones have an answer, the bad ones just shrug.
  • A good title is essential. By “good” I mean clear and to the point rather than clever-clever. The headline on this blog tells you what you’re going to get and a press release header needs to get me there just as quickly. An old colleague of mine used to edit a magazine targeted at women and every year she’d get the Easter releases, which would try so hard to avoid mentioning that they were about a chocolate promotion. Just tell us you’re promoting chocolate if that’s what you’re doing – we may well be interested!
  • Content really is king. I’ve had releases saying “my client has an opinion on…” – only this morning, as someone who doesn’t write about personal finance, I’ve had a release from someone whose client wants to comment on a personal finance issue. So there’s no relevance to me (see “targeting”) and really not much to say. Why waste the electricity sending it?
  • Structure is also vital. If I don’t “get” a story from the preview pane of my email program I’m probably not going to read any further – I get enough good content to fill my day. Sorry.
  • Exclusivity is probably not realistic when dealing with press releases but as someone outside the staff of the press for which I write I need some sort of hook on which I can pitch it. I once emailed the commissioning editor with whom I was working on the Daily Express to say I’d just been invited to a press event; the answer came back, “great, so have I!” Of course he didn’t want to commission me to go to something he was already planning to attend. Freelance journalists will need to demonstrate that they’re worth the extra budget. So, can you add something that will help us sell it in? Maybe we interviewed your client a year ago so have extra knowledge (and we might need reminding as we do a lot of interviews), maybe it would be a good follow-on from a piece we’ve written, maybe there’s another reason you think we should pay this some attention?

That’s a few thoughts for a kick-off but of course there’s a load more. I’d be pleased to come and run a session on writing for your agency or your PR department – drop me a note by clicking here for details.

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