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The workhorse of public relations is the press release. Written in the form of a conventional news story, a press release alerts the media to an organization’s news and presents it in that organization’s point of view. Newspaper editors and reporters use facts, quotes, and other information contained in releases to flesh out their stories.
Given the importance of the press release and the process of creating and disseminating a good one, we’ve dedicated an entire chapter to the topic. We begin by recounting the origins and history of press releases. We then discuss how to create, format, and distribute releases. We conclude by examining some important parts of the release process, including media alerts, press conferences, press briefings, and selecting and training appropriate spokespeople.
Origin of the Press Release
The first organizations to utilize the press release were the nation’s large railroads. The first press release was issued by Ivy Lee, a founding father of PR. At the time, Lee’s firm, Parker and Lee, was the public relations agency for the Pennsylvania Railroad. After one of their trains jumped the tracks resulting in a wreck in Atlantic City in 1906, Lee did something new. He drafted a statement – the first press release – that openly disclosed information to journalists before they could hear different accounts from other sources. His goal was to avoid inaccurate rumors. The New York Times actually ran the story verbatim, without any revisions, and is shown below in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The New York Times story that reprinted Ivy Lee’s 1906 Pennsylvania train wreck story.
After their initial use by the railroads, press releases rapidly became the norm in all corporations and large organizations. Early in the 20th century, for example, Ohio Bell Telephone discovered that if it handed out “canned” news in this form, newspaper reporters would stop attending hearings on telephone rates to acquire the information in person. This strategy minimized uncomfortable press inquiries concerning rates and related matters. The origins of the press release can seem cynical attempts to control the news. The modern press release, however, is more often used to attract the media’s attention – to consider writing articles, to attend press briefings and to request interviews with an organization’s spokespeople.
Today, organizations large and small, from every industry and the public sector, write and issue press releases, sometimes called news releases. Though the format of a press release has changed somewhat from the one Lee wrote, the aim remains the same – to get coverage. The content still must provide news reporters with the basic information they need to write their stories.
Writing the Press Release
How can you be reasonably certain that your press releases will contain the requisite information in an appropriate format? The answer is that there is a standard structure for press releases. Your organization will still need to create news and find an interesting angle, but using the standard format assures you have everything the media will need. In this section we examine the basic elements of the standard release structure.
Identifier – When creating a release, you should place the words “PRESS RELEASE,” in all caps, bolded, at the top of the first page. Though this might seem obvious, how is an editor or reporter to know what the document you or your agency sent them is? Significantly, organizations also release a standard PR document called a media alert to invite or alert media representatives to an upcoming event, such as a press conference. A media altert contains many of the same elements as a press release, so people can confuse the two. The “PRESS RELEASE” label clearly distinguishes your news from a media alert. (We discuss media alerts below.)
Timing – Press releases typically state “For Immediate Release” at the top left, bolded. This statement informs editors that the story is publicly available – on the wire or via your website – and that they can report it. If your story will be released at a future date, then the press release should say “For Release on [fill in your date].” Organizations use this approach when they give releases to the media in advance of the public release date – a common practice that we will discuss later in this chapter. If you want to make the point more strongly, you can substitute “Embargoed Until [fill in your date].” Even if you do label a release as embargoed, it is best to have a conversation beforehand with the journalists to ensure they understand and will honor the embargo.
Contact Information – The contact information informs the reporters and editors who supplied the story and whom they should contact if they have questions. This information should be right justified and placed above your headline, with the word “Contact” in bold situated directly above it. Include the contact’s name, company, phone number, and email address. If you use an agency, the contact may be someone from the agency. In some cases, press releases include both the agency and issuing company’s press contact information. Generally, the company contact should not be your spokesperson. Rather, you should list either the PR manager or the marketing person responsible for the announcement because you may not want the press to contact the spokesperson before he or she has been properly prepared.
Headline – Just as in a newspaper or magazine, the release should contain a headline that grabs the editors’ attention and spurs them to continue reading. Moreover, because the release will live on long after story appears on your website, the headline should also draw in the average reader. Headlines are typically printed in bold type, sometimes in a larger font than the rest of the release.
Subhead – The subhead gives you a chance to flesh out your angle and further hook the reader. It may offer additional details, substantiate a claim, or underscore an achievement. Subheads should be printed in a smaller font than the headline, and they are sometimes italicized to distinguish them from the headline.
Dateline – In the United States, the dateline should include the city, state, and date of the press release, followed by either two dashes or an em dash For example, a release would start “San Francisco, CA, October 31,2013 –“. If an announcement is made at an industry event, it is common practice to include the city and state where the event is taking place. Outside of the United States, common practice is to use city and country, and sometimes simply the city if it is well known.
The Lead– The first paragraph is known as the lead paragraph, or simply the lead. In the United States it is sometimes spelled “lede,” supposedly to distinguish it from the heavy metal lead type used by typesetters, though there is much debate about the reason for this spelling. The lead should capture the entire story, as if the rest of the press release were not there. It essentially serves two key purposes. First, it draws the editor, reporter, or reader further into the story. Second, in the case of what is known as a news lead, it provides journalists with the 5 W’s and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. Journalists are trained to include this information in the leads to their news stories, so you will be giving them exactly what they need. The press release is, after all, packaged news and a tool you use to inform editors and reporters. A feature lead is written in a similar style to the lead of a feature article in a magazine or newspaper, and it may set the scene or tug on emotions. It serves to draw the editor in, but it does not need to contain the hard news elements of the news lead.
Here are two fashion industry examples pulled from PR Newswire, one a news lead, and one a feature lead:
BURLINGTON, Vt., Nov. 15, 2012 /PRNewswire/ — Burton Snowboards and Mountain Dew today announce the arrival of the new 2013 Green Mountain Project outerwear collection, which utilizes sustainable fabric made from recycled plastic bottles, now available in stores worldwide.
In the lead, Burton Snowboards and Mountain Dew (who) are announcing that their new product 2013 Green Mountain Project outerwear (what) is today (when) available in stores worldwide (where), and that the line is made from sustainable fabric (why).
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif., Nov. 27, 2012 /PRNewswire/ — At 24, many young women are just starting to figure out where they’re going in life. But 24-year-old Evelyn Fox has never been one to follow the crowd. Instead, the trendsetter is helming her own successful high-end fashion company, Crystal Heels™ (http://crystalheels.com) — and it all started with a pair of Louboutins, a couple thousand Swarovski crystals, and a heady mix of creativity and passion.
This lead is written in the style of a feature article and is very different from the news lead above. There is no hard news, but it does draw you into Evelyn Fox’s story.
The Body – The body is the continuation of the story. After you have provided the details for hard news or set the stage with a feature lead, you should continue with additional details or explanations. The body should also contain quotes from an executive at your organization, a partner if you are announcing a joint venture or project, a customer, and/or an industry expert. It can also include headings if they make the press release easier to read. A common section in product announcement press releases is the “Pricing and Availability” heading, followed by details of when a product will actually ship, where it can be bought, and how much it costs.
Boilerplate –The boilerplate is a description of your company or organization that is designed to be used over and over without change. It supplies the editor with additional information about the newsmaker. The boilerplate should be preceded by the words “About [your company name],” and it should be limited to a single paragraph of no more than roughly 100 words. The boilerplate should also include the URL for your organization’s website.
Ending – To indicate the end of the release, type “END” or “###,” centered below the boilerplate.
Photos, Images, Videos, B-Roll –Because the press release is meant to be a packaged news story, don’t forget to include all of the elements that a magazine, website, newspaper, or television reporter might need to complete the story. These elements include photographs of the new executive whose appointment you just announced, images or technical diagrams of the new product you just announced, and videos that illustrate how the product works. You can even consider a B-Roll – supplemental or alternate footage intercut with the main shot in a televised interview or news segment. B-Roll can be anything pertinent to your organization, such as footage of your manufacturing assembly line, your automobiles on the test track, consumers using your smart phone or computer, your bond trading floor, or any number of other examples. The easiest way to supply these elements is to provide a URL to a Web page containing all of the relevant materials.
Social Media Links – If you want readers of your online press release — on your website, for example — to share it with others and generally promote it, you can include links in the release that let them do so. A number of social media companies provide tools that enable you to embed these capabilities directly into your press release.
Although a press release should include all of these elements, it should never exceed 500 words. Like a news story, the release should place most of the news up top, supported by the details in the paragraphs following the headline and lead. It should be composed in a basic font, double spaced with wide margins and page numbers. Using company letterhead is a nice touch, but it is not required.
In terms of style, pick a news style guide, such as the Associated Press Stylebook, the, or The New York Times Manual of Style. Use plainspoken language. Most importantly, avoid hyperbole and puffery, because they may detract from the legitimacy of your news.
It is possible that you will obtain coverage if you don’t use this structure, but your odds are greater if you present your news in a format that is familiar to editors and reporters. In addition, adopting the preferred format will make your organization appear more professional and worthy of attention.
Distributing the Press Release
Most organizations want to get their press release “on the wire.” The term dates from the mid-1800s, when news agencies would transmit their stories via teletype over the telegraph wires. The term stuck. Even today, when news is transmitted in all kinds of ways, the term “newswire” is still used to refer to well-known news services like the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and others. Likewise, a press release news service is commonly referred to as a “press release newswire.” The grandfather of all press release newswires is PR Newswire, which distributes thousands of press releases each year.
The value of using a press release newswire is that journalists subscribe to them. Reporters can subscribe to certain companies, topics, or regions. In addition, newswires like PR Newswire also distribute your press releases to Google News, Yahoo! News, and other news websites, making them immediately available to customers who are searching for them.
Sending your release directly to reporters and editors is a proven and recommended tactic. In addition, many reporters subscribe directly to news feeds using the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) protocol. They may subscribe via your website if they follow your industry, or via a news aggregator that groups news by topic, thereby functioning as a sort of press release news service. Many companies also post their press releases – or a modified version – to their company blog, hoping to attract a slightly different set of writer – the blogger – to pick up their story and write about it. Finally, with the advent of Twitter, some editors and reporters “follow” a company’s “handle,” or identifier, and will be alerted via a tweet from that identifier. We will examine Twitter in greater detail in the chapter on social media.
Dealing with the Media
Although adopting an accepted format will improve your chances of securing news coverage, you also need to implement a productive media strategy. One approach is simply to issue your press release and hope some editor finds it and assigns a reporter to write about it. As you might imagine, we do not recommend this strategy. The best method for obtaining coverage is to identify the individuals who write about your industry, your market, and your customers, and send the press release directly to them.
You can perform this task yourself by looking through newspapers, magazines, and trade publications. Find the reporters who have written stories about your industry, market, or customers. You can also find the names and contact information of the editors in the masthead of a print publication or on the website of an online publication. If your company is not new, chances are you have interacted with the media before. In such cases you can search online for articles about your company.
If you are working with a PR agency, they will help you build a list of editors and reporters to target. Agencies have the advantage of having worked with the media over the years, so they know the types of stories editors will be interested in. As we discussed in the last chapter, they also have relationships with editors and reporters. This familiarity helps the email with your press release stand out from the others in their inbox, no doubt helped by the follow-up phone calls the agency places to ensure someone is paying attention. None of this assures coverage, of course, but it gives you a much better chance of being noticed.
You or your PR agency should set up a number live or phone meetings, known as press briefings, before your release date. Press briefings give the media a chance to ask questions and gain details about your news. Send the reporters or editors press release anywhere from a day or two to a week in advance, depending on how “hot” the news is. Make sure the journalists know that the press release is “embargoed,” meaning they agree not to release your news before the listed release date. Embargoes are gentlemen’s agreements but rarely broken. Today, most briefings take place over the phone, primarily because many reporters now work from home.
To build a relationship with the media, your agency may set up a press tour, though these are becoming less common as reporters increasingly work from home. Your spokesperson, internal PR person, and agency representative will travel to one or more cities to brief the editors and reporters in person. This can be a good strategy, especially if you can convince your CEO or another high-level executive to act as the spokesperson. Reporters often appreciate the effort.
Timing is important. If there are key analysts that the media will turn to, they should be briefed first, before the media. This way, analysts are familiar with your news and prepared to comment. Likewise, if there are customers or partners the press will want to speak with, they should be prepared in advance. Your PR manager or agency should schedule all of this for you, with customers briefed first, then industry analysts, and finally the media. Writers for publications or programs that come out weekly, with earlier submission deadlines, should be briefed earlier to accommodate their schedule.
A press conference is a staged public relations event in which an organization or individual presents information to members of the mass media. Along with the press release, public relations professionals use press conferences to draw media attention to a potential story. Press conferences are typically used for political campaigns, sporting events, emergencies, and promotional purposes, such as the launch of a new product. There is no hard-and-fast rule to determine which stories merit a press conference and which ones where a simple press release will suffice.. Nevertheless, there are some obvious criteria, including access to spokespeople – especially celebrities — reaction to a recent or current event, and the ability to visit or experience a setting, such as a new factory or a space launch.
Promotional press conferences offer several advantages, such as the ability to reach all media outlets at the same time while controlling the message. A press conference also can build excitement or anticipation about an event. A setting that offers great visuals – for example, a celebrity in a local setting, the stadium where a game just concluded, a dramatic vista that looks good on television, up-close access to a new product – will greatly enhance a press conference.
Logistics and organization are essential to staging an effective press conference. The media should be informed in advance, and a media advisory with details of the press conference should be sent out. The location should offer easy access for the media and easy parking for broadcast trucks if they are expected. The flow of the press conference should be scripted, with prepared statements from key spokespeople, followed by questions from the assembled media. Additional background information, in the form of press kits (discussed below), should be available at the event and then afterward online.
Earlier in this chapter we distinguished between press releases and media alerts. A media alert informs the media of an upcoming event, activity, or press conference In contrast to a press release, which provides information about your event as well as background information on news items, a media alert includes only basic information – who, what, where and when – and leaves out the why and other details to draw the media to the event.
When writing a media alert use the following guidelines to make it easy for the media to understand what you are contacting them about. Many of these guidelines are similar to the press release format.
- Use company letterhead, or include your organization’s logo at the top.
- Always include a contact name, phone number and email address so the media can follow up with questions.
- Keep it brief, ideally to a single page.
- Conclude it with three #’s (###). This indicates the end of the document.
- At the top of document: Write MEDIA ALERT in a large font.
- Headline: Keep the headline short, but include location, time, and date.
Media alerts include the what, who, when, where of an event.
- What: What kind of event is this, and what is its purpose?
- Who: Will any notable figures (fire chief, local officials, celebrities) be present?
- When: Specify the date and time of your event.
- Where: Make certain to include the exact location of your event. Provide nearby cross-streets and a phone number.
If you want to provide additional information to the media, then a standard strategy is to build a press kit. A press kit is simply background information about a person or organization. In the case of a company, press kits typically contain a fact sheet about the organization, product literature, biographies and photos of executives, a few previous press releases, and sample news stories. They are especially useful when your company or organization is new or is introducing itself to a new editor. Traditionally, press kits were printed and placed in a folder. In today’s digital age, however, they increasingly are available online.
Selecting and Training Spokespeople
Another important element in creating an effective media strategy is choosing an effective spokesperson. In most cases, the selection is obvious. He or she is the expert on the topic, or the company CEO. These are the individuals the press typically wants to communicate with. However, you can use other criteria to select a spokesperson. Many companies, for example, decide that certain stories, while newsworthy, are too low level for senior executives, so they delegate someone else in the organization. Also, if you are dealing with the media in a foreign country, then you might select a regional representative who is familiar with the languages and culture. Finally, some executives are simply not good with the media. For example, CEOs who get testy or argumentative can generate negative publicity for their organization and create headaches for their PR team.
Regardless of whom you select as your spokesperson, media training will always make him or her more effective. Even if someone is articulate, a terrific public speaker, and charismatic presence, mastering the nuances of communicating with the media in the context of an interview is very important. Most good PR agencies provide crash courses in interacting successfully with the media. In addition, there are many firms that specialize in media training. In general, a good spokesperson should be skilled in the following areas:
- Staying on message – The job of a good spokesperson is to get the story out there, not to make friends with the reporter. Make certain to iterate the main points. And then reiterate them.
- Not getting trapped or goaded – Most reporters did not just fall off the turnip truck. They are savvy, and will employ several techniques to obtain a juicy quote or a nugget of information. A good spokesperson will not get goaded into saying things he or she shouldn’t. Beware the seemingly dumb reporter who keeps asking the same question over and over again. They may be “dumb like a fox” and asking the same question over and over to get a rise out of you or to get you to answer the question a certain way.
- Not answering a question that was not asked –In trying to be helpful, you answer a question that you think the reporter might ask but has not. This can get you into trouble. At this point you are off message, off road, and the reporter will likely raise all kinds of new questions you are not prepared for.
- Learning to “bridge” – This is a PR technique for getting back to – bridging to – your message. Bring things back around to your way of thinking. Bridging is an especially useful technique when you are asked a negative or leading question on the air.
- Knowing when to go off the record or not to comment – Sometimes you want to give information that you don’t want to be attributed to you or your organization. Everything you say in a briefing is on the record. You can ask the reporter if you can go off the record or “on background.” This should be done carefully and only on occasion.
- Wrapping up – Ask the reporters if you have provided them with the information they needed. They will appreciate your asking. If they say no, try to get them what they need.
The PR team should also prepare a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document that provides answers to common queries concerning the news item. The FAQ ensures that the entire organization understands the news and is “on message” when speaking with customers, partners, and other influencers.
Case Study – Holding a Press Conference at a Needy Landmark
There are times when a setting can make the press conference. There are also times when the setting is the press conference. This was the case for Bletchley Park, located in the town of Milton Keynes, England. Bletchley Park was the home of the codebreakers who helped decrypt the German codes during WWII, an accomplishment that contributed significantly to the Allied victory.
The plight of Bletchley Park came to my attention while I was serving as the head of marketing for PGP Corporation, a major producer of encryption software. Despite the historical importance of the site, it had fallen into disrepair, and it lacked the funds to make critical repairs. Emphatic requests to the British government for funds, bordering on outrage, went ignored, as did an open letter to the government from leading academics in the United Kingdom. Bletchley Park and the work performed there were an ancestor of sorts to the security software my company developed and sold. Thus, there was a strong historical interest among our technical customers and the analysts who covered our industry.
PGP decided to help a good cause and burnish our brand at the same time. Along with IBM, we kicked off a fundraising drive to raise money for the repairs at Bletchley Park. PGP and IBM each contributed $50,000 to the cause, and we set up a website that enabled concerned individuals to contribute directly. We announced the fundraising drive at a press conference staged on the historic grounds of Bletchley Park. The reporters could see for themselves the buildings where the codebreakers had worked – the “huts” – and the ancient – but first – computers that the codebreakers used for the job. They could also see for themselves the extensive repairs needed to restore the site.
The day-long event was a major success, with more than 40 people in attendance – including journalists, prominent members of the academic community and members of industry. The attendees heard speeches from representatives from PGP Corporation, IBM, and the Bletchley Park Trust.
In the week following the press launch, the campaign received more than 100 pieces of coverage – broadcast, national, corporate IT press, and blogs – including major British media BBC Online, TV and radio, ITV, Five, The Times of London, and The Independent. It became the most widely read news via social media in PGP’s history, and it was frequently mentioned by analysts and customers in the U.K. Best of all, it generated a major fundraising momentum, and Bletchley Park finally got the funds it needed.
- Writing Effective News Releases: How To Get Free Publicity For Yourself, Your Business, Or Your Organization, Catherine V. McIntyre, Piccadilly Books, 2008
 Bates, Don, “Mini-Me” History Public Relations from the Dawn of Civilization, Institute for Public Relations, 2006 http://www.instituteforpr.org/topics/pr-history/