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How to write better press releases: an (exasperated) editor shares 20 tips

Tamsin Henderson PR, Uncategorised

girl writing a press release

Do you find writing press releases tricky?

Do you scratch your head like a preschooler with a case of the itchy-nits?

What if you had a journalist to guide you? To hold your hand through the writing process?

Well, I don’t have a virtual journalist to send down the internetz for you. Or a bottle of Vosene shampoo. But I do have this interview — with an editor of 20 years — that I guarantee will help you write better, more effective press releases. And, I have a handy tactic you can use to reverse engineer your email pitches.

Shall we start with the handy tactic?

Have you seen the Twitter account @smugjourno?

It’s where journalists share eye-achingly bad PR pitches.

It can make for deeply uncomfortable scrolling.

Because let’s be honest… We ALL flinch as we hover over that send button.

Is the story strong enough? Does my headline nail it? Was my pitch up to scratch?

Hands up, I’ve notched up a few #PRFails in my time.

I’ve sent flimsy Christmas-themed pitches… cue: instant delete.

I’ve penned overly corporate non-news** … oh the cringe.

And, I may or may not have sprayed and prayed… *ducks, waits for rotten vegetables*.

Thankfully, though, I’ve never addressed someone with “Holla dude.” Nor dispatched a press release entitled: “Milton Business Launches New Telephone Number.”

Others, however, have. And you can analyse these examples to avoid making the same mistakes.

(Because if there’s one thing you don’t want, it’s to spend ages writing your press release only to p*ss off your journalist).

So, look at bad pitches. Check out @smugjourno and the Bad Pitch blog.  Get to know what your target journalists are griping about. What are their pet hates, bugbears and no-nos?

And then craft your pitch, minus those feather-ruffling bloopers.

OK… time to flash a torch into the bat-filled ravine between what journalists really want in a press release, and what people are delivering.

Enter, my esteemed colleague: Mrs Anonymous Editor, a sparkling editor with 20 years’ experience in magazines and newspapers.

Four questions >>>>>>>>>> 20 absolutely stonking tips.

Ready to get started?

1) How many press releases pop into your inbox daily – and what percentage of ’em do you read?

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When I worked for local newspapers it was around 20 a day but as a freelance – working mainly on magazines now – it’s probably 5-10 a day. I try to read all of them, at least the first few lines, hence why the first few lines are so crucial!

Unfortunately, at least 90% will either be a) irrelevant to my specialisms, b) so boring I can’t bring myself to read beyond the first par or c) they’ve buried the story (usually at the end), in which case it will most likely be ignored.

2) What makes a badly written press release?

It still amazes me how many people still have no clue how to write a good, impactful and eye-catching press release.

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In fact, forwarding the latest gem of a bad press release has become a little bit of a ‘hobby’ for myself and my husband (also in the media). It’s the small pleasures that get your through the working day!

I break the worst culprits down into these 10 problem areas:

  1. A buried story. These are the press releases that don’t put the news angle in the first par (no, that would be too easy) or in the second par. Indeed, the news angle is nowhere to be found in the third or fourth par either but instead is buried so far down the release you’re likely to miss it on first reading and think this release has nothing interesting to say. Like most people I get around 100 emails a day and when I open my inbox in the morning I will see two, maybe three lines of each email. If they don’t say what they need to say to grab my attention immediately, they tend to be binned. It sounds harsh, and doesn’t of course apply to companies I’m interested in, or already have a relationship with (hence why a good relationship with journo is also key) – but I simply don’t have time to read the whole press release to find the news angle.
  2. Quirky but irrelevant news angles. These are the releases that try to skew a current national news story into their news angle, even though this story has absolutely no relevance to the company’s story. Worst still are those that make a PR spin out of a negative news story just because they can’t find a better peg.
  3. Absolutely no story. Sadly, these are more common than you might think and tend to come from pr and marketing firms that have committed to a media contract with a company and are living up to it by sending out a release – any release – once a month, even if there’s no story.
  4. Overly long. Reams and reams of pages or long, tedious sentences that could be condensed into two pars. Included in this are the verbose emails that often accompany the release, which talk for two paragraphs about the weather (and whether am I enjoying it too), or something really personal (my boyfriend left me…), without G.E.T.T.I.N.G T.O T.H.E P.O.I.N.T.
  5. Overly technical. Releases that are packed with jargon that only the company’s resident expert understands. He might know what ‘six hydrocoptic marzel vanes and an ambifacient lunar’ are but we don’t, so it needs to be put into layman’s terms.
  6. Spelling errors/typos. It makes your organisation look unprofessional and distracts from what could be a good story. It’s particularly bad when names are spelt wrongly.
  7. Out of date. These are releases that talk about stories from the distant past, or those that have missed the boat. So many agencies still don’t understand magazine lead-in times and continue to send releases out in June for a June edition. Most magazines are put together at least three months before the publication date e.g. features for the March issue will be written in November and December.
  8. Ego massaging. Press releases where a person, or persons, such as the chief executive have insisted on having their name in the intro, even though they have no connection to the story.
  9. Aggressive follow-ups. This is less about the writing and more about the approach. Chances are if I am interested in a story, I will contact you within 2/3 days – but obviously a quick follow-up email (i.e. reminder!) a few days later is good. When a press officer calls you daily to ask if you are covering the story and repeatedly asks ‘why aren’t you?’ this is closer to harassment.
  10. Poor contacts. This is when the contacts given are unavailable (no matter when you call), or the person named on the release has not been informed that they are a press contact and are as surprised as you when you call them.

3) So what are the key things that make a good press release? 

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  • A great headline – the main thrust of the story is in the subject line of the email or (because these are often overlooked too) at the start of the email.
  • Short and sweet – the releases are in the body of the email not as an attachment and are kept to one page where possible.
  • Good contact details – I know who to go to for info. I don’t have to search for the right person and there aren’t three people from three different departments named.
  • More info available – I am offered quick access to photos and interview subjects. I am much more likely to cover a story if I can do some of the interviews myself and there are eye-catching photos.
  • Social media links – again, great if I can explore the story via websites and Instagram etc, at greater length if necessary.

4) What are your top five tips for press materials?

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  1. Tell me in two lines why this is such a good story, what makes your product/event/venture different or interesting, and why it’s a fantastic story for this particular publication.
  2. Get your press release under the nose of the right person and do some research into who this is. Don’t just blanket email your release to every journalist under the sun, it’s a waste of time and most of them won’t read it. There’s no point in sending a press release about cooking to a motoring journalist, equally no point in sending a release to an editor. Editors generally don’t have time to read press releases, so find out who are the section editors, assistant eds, or features/news editor and send it to them.
  3. Keep your press release to one page, or maximum two. We don’t have time to read long releases as much as we’d like to.
  4. Always spell check – and get someone else to read what you have written to check for typos and errors.
  5. Keep the language simple and succinct: why use ‘advantageous’ when you can use ‘helpful’; ‘facilitate’ when you can use ‘aid; ‘commence’ when ‘begin’ will do!

Thank you, Mrs Anonymous Editor. It’s been eye-opening.

What are your #PRfails and #PRsuccesses? Drop me an email, I’d love to hear them!

 

 

 

** Many, many moons ago. Not these days. Honest gov.