Press releases: what, why, when, how, where and who?

Public relations remains firmly wedded to the press release as a fundamental form of content and workflow. They’re used and abused to communicate with journalists and other stakeholders.

The first press release was sent in 1906 by Ivy Lee on behalf of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lee wrote a statement about the event in order to ensure that journalists had accurate information. It was published verbatim by The New York Times.

What’s the purpose of a press release?

More than ten years ago media and tech writer Tom Foremski wrote a polemic against the press release called Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die! He lamented the abuse of this general purpose document that has been mangled as a means of community engagement with a variety of marketing audiences or publics.

“Press releases are nearly useless. They contain pat-on-the-back phrases and meaningless quotes. Often they will contain quotes from C-level executives praising their customer focus,” said Foremski.

“[They are] created by committees, edited by lawyers, and then sent out at great expense through [wire services] to reach the digital and physical trash bins of tens of thousands of journalists.”

Despite the fragmentation of media, a shift to more personalised forms of communication, and the ability to create audio, text and video content, organisations remain fixated by a medium that is more than 100 years old.

Today progressive agencies and in-house teams push hard against the frequent call for a press release, making the case for alternative formats. The UK government’s executive communication director Alex Aiken has railed against sending out stuff for the sake of it, calling on press officers to become content producers.

“You should not start with three pages of A4, but a tweet, an infographic or a video. If you are writing more than 200 words on any subject, you’re probably in the wrong place,” said Aiken.

The reason press releases continue to be used despite a multitude of alternative formats is that they are well understood by organisations. It’s a common format, created through a process of iteration and approval, for communication with external publics. Everyone knows how they work. In many financial markets around the world, statements about public companies must be made on a wire service. The press release is a legal form of communication.

The fact is that most press releases aren’t written for the press. They’re not even written for bloggers or influencers. Most press releases are typically a general purpose document as Aiken suggests, mangled and posted in a corporate website as a political pacifier to a multitude of audiences. Organisational politics can be heavily involved.

A lot of corporate communication and marketing teams still take comfort from the thought that distributing a press release on a wire service will ensure that a story gets pushed out to a multitude of websites. However Google tweaked its algorithm to limit impact on the search engine optimisation (SEO).

Wire vendors don’t publish data about press release volumes but anecdotal evidence suggest that more press releases than ever are being pushed out onto the web. Our professions are filling the internet with lousy content that no one will read. What’s more, familiarity has bred contempt from journalists who regularly criticise this form of communication as spam.

Reinventing the press release

Formenski proposed deconstructing the press release into a series of tagged elements such as quotes and financial information and links.

“Provide a brief description of what the announcement is, but leave the spin to the journalists. The journalists are going to go with their own spin on the story anyway, so why bother? Keep it straightforward rather than spintastic,” said Formenski.

Smart vendors have spotted the opportunity to add a modern twist to the traditional press release format, giving rise to the social media press, and social media newsroom. They might have a new name but they look and smell very much like a press release with the addition of images, video and links.

Indeed the press release is often reverse engineered into social forms of media. Headlines, summaries and quotes are cut up for tweets and websites.

Inevitably no matter how hard you lobby for more suitable forms of communication you will be expected to draft a press releases throughout your career.

Start by questioning the news value of your press release. Is there anything new? Is it unexpected? Is it of interest to anyone? Apply the six tenets of news reporting from Rudyard Kipling’s Keep Six Honest Serving Men: what, why, when, how, where and who.

As we’ve discovered it may be that your press release isn’t intended for the media but instead is being produced for political means to satisfy stakeholders other than the media. It’s an important issue that at least means you can realise your objective.

The recipe for a press release

Press release follow a structured format. Aside from the limited innovation of the social media release the format has remained consistent since that first press release about the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Date

The publication or issue date for the press release.

Contact information

Include the name, phone number and email of an individual  available to provide further information. Ensure that they are available when the press release is issued.

Headline

This is your opportunity to grab the attention of a journalist. It should be concise and descriptive. Use the Advance Marketing Institute’s headline analyser tool to test its potential performance.

Subhead

The sub heading should summarise the story in 10 to 20 words. It’s unlikely that a journalist will read past the headline and subhead unless your content is of interest.

Story

Break down the story into paragraphs using Kipling as your guide. No paragraph should be longer than three sentences and each sentence eight to 12 words. You should be able to cut paragraphs from the bottom of a well written press release without it losing meaning.

Quotes

This is an opportunity for comment from someone involved in the story. It should add context and opinion and not information. That should come higher up in your draft. Avoid clichés and corporate jargon.

Links

Add links to images, video and further information from the internet.

Boilerplate

This is a standard description of your organisation. It provides quick reference information for anyone wanting to write up the story.

Press releases should be written as simply as possible. There are a variety of tools to help check your use of grammar and language. Both the Hemingway Editor and Readable.io check the reading level of a text document and make recommendations for improvement.

Approval process

Press releases are often assigned the status of a legal documents within organisations. In the case of financial information and appointments this is fit and proper. In almost every other situation a lesser status is appropriate.

The formality arises from the fact that press releases are viewed as an official communication from an organisation and therefore the approval process can be extensive.

As a minimum each area of an organisation and line of command involved in the news event is likely to have a point of view. Legal and third parties can easily mean that half a dozen individuals are involved in an approval process.

There are two challenges: firstly ensuring that the press release remains true to its original purpose; and secondly ensure that approvals happen in a timely manner so that the press release remains relevant.

Tools

  1. Headline Analyzer – tests the potential performance of a headline
  2. Hemingway Editor – analyses reading level of a document and suggests improvements
  3. Readable.io – analyses reading level of a document and suggests improvement

Summary: How to write a press release

Fit for purpose

Test whether a press release is appropriate to your communication goals. A short blog post, Facebook update or tweet may be more effective.

Formal format

A press release is a structured document. Follow the recipe for drafting: date, contact information, headline, subheading, body, quotes and boilerplate.

Words matter

Apply brevity and avoid bullshit. Use tools such as the Hemingway app. Ensure that the integrity of the document survives the approval process and it occurs in a timely manner.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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