How to Write a Press Release People Will Read

Jul 06, 2011 Beth Monaghan

What is the purpose of a press release? When I studied PR at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School, we learned that a good press release should be able to slip from a PR person’s computer to the desk of an editor of a U.S. daily newspaper and into print…without major changes. The goal was to write like reporters so that they could easily publish company news.

In that same class, I learned editor’s marks and studied the AP Styleguide like my GPA depending on it. It did – I lost a full letter grade for each error in my press releases. Luckily, InkHouse has Steve Vittorioso to keep us up to date (see his recent posts on the new AP Styleguide and common errors).

As a hungry account coordinator just out of school, I was disappointed when I quickly discovered that newspapers never published press releases. The press releases we labored over were consigned to currency between PR professionals and journalists – the mechanism for sharing news. Newspapers and other publications almost never published content from our press releases, until recently.

Social media, RSS feeds, and blogging have given the press release new purpose. It is still very much a currency between PR professionals and the media, but in many ways, it has reclaimed its intended place as primary content. As bloggers and reporters race to pump out news stories, we are seeing our press release content printed verbatim. It might not be word for word, but a paragraph here and a sentence there straight from a release, mixed in with some color commentary is fairly standard.

That is good news for companies. Their content is read more widely and they get to control much of the message.

However, this also means that we must change the way we write press releases. In that same college class, I learned to write press releases at a third grade reading level – the lowest common denominator. We were writing for the average American. While it isn’t an accurate portrayal of the average technology or business reader, there are some important lessons for crafting press releases.

Brevity draws readers.

Creativity keeps them.

Plain language helps them remember your message.

Whether you’re using a short-form, bulleted press release, or the traditional model, a few new (and old) rules apply. These will help you avoid the cynicism of reporters who’ve grown fatigued by the daily fire hose of press releases in their in-boxes. It will also help reach your audiences directly with your message in a way that they will remember.

  1. Use plain language. Sure, you might be in the midst of a paradigm shift that will bring next-generation technologies to the market that will revolutionize your customer’s business by fundamentally reshaping the value chain. Just tell us what it does and why it matters. The five W’s still matter: who, what, why, when and where. In one or two sentences. Oracle does this very well, which is tough for many technology companies (see this example from its acquisition last month of Pillar Data Systems.)
  2. Don’t say you’re excited or thrilled. If the news is worthy of a press release, your excitement is implied. Quotes are one element of press releases that are more likely to be published than others, so don’t waste those words. Focus on why the announcement is important to your industry, not how you feel.
  3. Avoid leading with “ABC Company is a leading provider of ____.” The first sentence is your opportunity to grab your audience’s attention, not lull them to sleep with your accolades. You’ll have an opportunity to fill in your credentials after you get someone to read the first paragraph. Facebook’s recent announcement that Reed Hastings has joined its board of directors is a good example of putting the news up front and the details further down. 
  4. Make Your Headline a Headline. Earlier this year Groupon announced its financing round with this headline: “Groupon Raises, Like, a Billion Dollars.” Many media outlets picked it up word-for-word, including Fortune, TechCrunch and Forbes. Headlines are meant to draw attention, so make sure yours does. You can check out more headline tips in my post on Why Ozzy Osbourne and Amnesty International Work Together.
  5. Keep it brief. First, blogging was the new newspaper article. Then Tumblr was the new WordPress. Now 140 characters is the new everything. Brevity is the sole of clicks (and wit, of course). The odds of a reporter or your customer reading past the first few paragraphs of your release are low. Instead of packing in every single detail about your new offering, focus on the highlights and link through to more details. Not surprisingly given its focus on simplicity, Apple’s press releases are always short.
Topics: Press Releases, Public Relations, Writing
Beth Monaghan

Since the early days working around her kitchen table, Beth has grown Inkhouse into one of the top independent PR agencies in the country. She’s been named a Top Woman in PR by PR News, a Top 25 Innovator by PRovoke, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth designed Inkhouse’s signature Storytelling Workshop to mirror the literary hero’s journey and to unearth the emotional connections that bind an audience to a brand or idea. She also uses narratives to build Inkhouse’s culture, most recently through two books of employee essays, “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?”

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