Press Releases: Insights from the New York Times and NPR

Jul 24, 2013 Beth Monaghan

Last week, the press release took center stage on a PR Newswire Webinar that I joined to present some of our experiences with press releases that people actually read. Two of my favorite tips were these:

  • Keep headlines to 100 characters or fewer (they are more social and more optimized for SEO)
  • Don’t assume the news is over on launch day. According to Sarah Skerik at PR Newswire, today half of your views come in the first 4 days, but the other half don’t come until 4 months following the release (just five years ago you got the majority of your results in just 48 hours). See her post for more details.

We think about press releases all of the time here at InkHouse. We’ve addressed the assertion that you don’t need a release  (you still do in many cases), recommended a move away from what you do and toward your point of view, and reconsidered how to write press releases to make them more useful for the media.

Now we turn to the first and primary audience for press releases – members of the media. Kate Zernike (@kzernike) is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter at the New York Times and author of Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America. Kevin Sullivan (@kjohnsullivan) is a producer for NPR’s Here and Now. Both graciously answered our questions below.

Their responses reinforced some important basics: reporters like to know about news before it breaks, they expect to get just the facts (“news, stats, facts” according to Zernike), and they prefer brevity.

InkHouse: How do you use press releases?

Zernike: If it's news, obviously it's news and it's a story. This relates mostly to public or government stuff. In other cases, I will save press releases on a topic that interests me with the idea that I might establish a trend, or save names of experts who I can use to talk about a topic that interests me.

Sullivan: I rarely use press releases. If I do use them, I look for information from studies that I can quote. I also look for people associated with the story for possible interviews.

Do you find most to be written in a format that is useful?

Zernike: The more direct, the better. The worst are the ones that strain to be relevant to current events ("In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, corporate event planners look for celebrations that are charitable, yet festive." Etc., etc.).

InkHouse: Under what circumstances do you find press release to be a useful (or a waste)?

Zernike: If the topic is something that I no longer write about -- I still get press releases from stories I wrote for Styles in 2003, on issues I never cover. People sending press releases should be current on what people are writing about.

Sullivan: I find them useful if they have good statistics or information on people for possible interviews…. Often the nut of the story is missing from a press release. They would be more useful if the lead actually told you what the story was about. Often this vital piece of information is buried in the press release.

InkHouse: How would you characterize the language choice for most releases you read?

Zernike: Breathless.

Sullivan: Professional, but sometimes with cumbersome language.

InkHouse: If you had one or two pieces of advice for PR people when it came to press releases what would it be?

Zernike: Often times after I have written about an issue, someone will send a release pointing out THEIR expert on a field, assuming, it seems, that I will write the same story again. Try to spin it forward, to pitch a new development or angle.

Sullivan: I would suggest that you not only report the facts but explain how it’s relevant to people. I would also suggest making sure that there are interesting quotes from people and that those people are available for interviews.




Topics: InkHouse, Press Releases
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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