Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
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. Editors and reporters use facts, quotes, and other information contained in releases to flesh out their stories. Blogs are great, but if you are really going to grow, you need to know how to write a good press release. – TM
There is a standard structure for press releases. Your company 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 alert 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.
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. 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 e-mail 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 the 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 five Ws 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 this news 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 feature 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 a hundred words. The boilerplate should also include the URL for your organization’s website. Twitter handles are becoming increasingly common in boilerplates.
Ending – To indicate the end of the release, type “END” or “###,” centered below the boilerplate.
Here’s a picture to give you a sense of where everything goes.
Standard press release format
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 smartphone 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 five hundred 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 or The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Use plainspoken language. Most importantly, avoid hyperbole and puffery, because they 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.
Startup Essentials is a series of excerpts from The Professional Marketer. I’ve pulled out what I think are the most essential skills a founder or a marketer at a startup would need.
 “Boiler plate” originally referred to the small metal plate that identified the builder of a steam boiler. The term was borrowed by the printing industry, where plates of text for widespread reproduction, such as advertisements or syndicated columns, were cast or stamped in steel (instead of the much softer and less durable lead alloys used otherwise) ready for the printing press and distributed to newspapers around the United States. They came to be known as “boilerplates.”