In baseball, its said that you know an umpire is top-notch when you never notice his presence. If hes doing his job, he wont call attention to himself in any way. Its much the same for the writer of a press release. When the recipient of a release focuses only on its content — and not on its creation — the writer has succeeded. With that in mind, here’s The 10 Commandments of Press Releases:
1. Thou Shalt Be Professional. No goofy fonts, rainbow paper or silly gimmicks. Even lighthearted press releases represent a communication between one professional and another.
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Promotional. If you cant get enough objective distance from your company to write a press release thats not filled with hype and puffery, hire someone to write it for you.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. Even the driest subject matter allows for some sparks of creativity. Journalists like knowing that theres a human being communicating with them, not some corporate robot.
4. Thou Shalt Be Brief. Learn to cut out extraneous words. Keep your sentences short. Include only the points necessary to sell the story. The well-crafted one page press release is a thing of beauty.
5. Thou Shalt Know Thy Recipient. A features or lifestyle editor is a very different creature from a city desk editor. If youre promoting the opening of a new winery, the food and wine editor may be interested in all the details about what kind of aging process and wine press youre using. The city desk editor just wants to know when the grand opening is and whats going to happen there.
6. Thou Shalt Use The Proper Tense. When writing a hard news release — a contract signing, a stock split, a major announcement, etc.) use the past tense (Acme Industries has changed its name to AcmeCo, the company announced today…) When writing a soft news release — a trend story, a personal profile, etc. — use the present tense (Jane Smith is one of the best marathon runners over 40. Shes also blind. Thanks to new technology from AcmeCo, Jane is able to…).
7. Thou Shalt Think Visually. A press release is more than words — its a visual document that will first be assessed by how it looks.
Im referring to more than font size or letterhead. Im talking about the actual layout of the words. Whether received by mail, fax or e-mail, a journalist — often unconsciously — will make decisions about whether to read the release based on how the release is laid out. Big blocks of text and long paragraphs are daunting and uninviting. Short paragraphs and sentences make for a much more visually inviting look.
When writing a non-hard news release, I often use a simple formula — the lead paragraph should be one or two sentences at most. The next paragraph should be very, very short.
8. Thou Shalt Tell A Story. How to arrange the facts of a hard news release is pretty much cut and dried. The old “who, what, when, where and how” lead and “inverted pyramid” concepts still hold. (Rather than engage you in a course in basic newswriting, Ill direct you to a really good discussion of what the inverted pyramid is.
So lets focus on a soft news release. The trend story, the feel- good company story, the “gee-whiz, I didnt know anyone was doing that!” release. The difference between these releases and the hard news release is simply a mirror of the difference between a feature story in, say, the entertainment section of your newspaper and the breaking news report on page one. The hard news story is about cold, hard facts (A mudslide closed portions of Interstate 70 last night, causing massive delays). A feature article about the guy who spends all day looking at seismograph readouts trying to predict where the next mudslide will occur will be very different. Its likely to be in present tense, it wont load all the facts upfront and it will be designed to draw the reader deep into the text. It is, in short, all about storytelling.
Heres the formula I use for these kinds of releases. I call it the 3S approach — Situation/Surprise/Support.
The first paragraph sets up the situation. The second paragraph reveals the surprise. The third paragraph supports the claim made in the second paragraph.
One very typical 3S is discussing a common problem in the first paragraph (For centuries, people have accepted memory loss as an inevitable result of aging.) The “surprise” paragraph announces the solution to the problem (But one local man says hes ready to prove the medical establishment wrong.) The “support” paragraph then tells the story. (John Smith, an Anytown entrepreneur, says hes found the key to retaining a strong memory function far into old age. His “Memory Maker” software is based on ancient Chinese texts that were used more than 2000 years ago to…)
Another 3S — lets revisit our mudslide watching friend. How would you start his story using this method?
While John Smiths colleagues at the National Atmospheric Center are watching the skies for signs of lightning and tornadoes, his attention is focused elsewhere.
John Smith is listening to the mud.
As the Chief Mudslide Analyst at the NAC, Smith spends his days glued to a seismograph, eyes and ears peeled for the telltale signs on an impending slide.
Along with the 3S in action, I also followed the 7th Commandment. That really short second paragraph is a visual grabber, and will keep the journalist reading right into the meat of the release.
9. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness. This may seem an obvious point, but it always bears repeating.
Tell the truth.
Dont inflate, dont confabulate, dont exaggerate. Dont twist facts, dont make up numbers, dont make unsubstantiated claims. Any decent journalist will be able to see right through this. If youre lucky, youre release will just get tossed out. If youre unlucky, youll be exposed.
Its a chance not at all worth taking. Make sure every release you write is honest and on the level.
10. Thou Shalt Know Thy Limitations. Not everyone can write a press release. A good feature release, in particular, isnt an easy thing to craft. If you just dont feel like you have the chops to get the job done, hire a professional.
One last tip: right before you start writing your release, spend an hour or two reading your daily paper, paying special attention to stories similar in feel to yours. Immerse yourself in how the pros do it and youll be in the right frame of mind to tackle the job!