It has been a mainstay of business communication for decades, but who wrote the first press release?
Historians give the credit to an American named Ivy Lee. In 1906, Lee’s marketing agency was working with the Pennsylvania Railroad as a client at the time of a deadly train accident. The Atlantic City, N.J. wreck killed more than 50 people.
Realizing that the tragic event would bring his client negative attention from the press, Lee wrote a statement about the accident from the railroad’s perspective and distributed it to reporters. The New York Times printed that first press release word for word. Although today’s media outlets rarely publish them verbatim today, press releases still serve as starting points for many of the articles today’s journalists write.
In this age of instant communication, a press release still can be an important tool for your small business. It allows you to tell your story in your words. Here are a few situations that could benefit from a press release:
- new or improved product or service
- response to a crisis
- new sales figures
- new industry data, statistics, tips, trends, perspectives of interest to the public
- release of a new book or piece of art
- annual meeting or trade show
- awards and honors
The main criterion for a press release is that it is newsworthy. The subject of the release should be of general interest and have a strong news angle. In other words, it needs to be something that people outside of your organization will care about.
For most small businesses, your news will be of more interest to local publications rather than regional or national or publications. The exceptions would be national publications or websites that are dedicated to your specific industry. However, there may be instances when your company makes national news.
When you send a press release to your local newspaper, local TV station, to an industry website, or to a professional organization’s newsletter, you position your company for news coverage. The press release may be edited and published, or you may get a request for more information or for an interview. This spotlight on your company can bring you new customers and new respect in the community.
How to Write a Press Release
Now that you know how a press release can help your business, let’s look at the steps to writing one.
- The Headline
Begin your press release with an attention-grabbing headline. It can make the difference between your recipient reading the release or hitting the delete button.
A strong headline is only one line in length and identifies your organization. Be clear and to the point.
The idea is to give enough information to capture your reader’s interest so that he or she will continue to read the article.
Type the headline in bold, but avoid exclamation points or all caps. You do not want to shout at your reader. If you have more pertinent information to include as part of your heading, you could include an italicized subhead.
- The Body
After the headline, a standard press release body contains a dateline, which includes the city and the date the release is issued. Then start the body of your release with a compelling and concise opening paragraph that answers the all-important five W’s — who, what, where, when and why.
Many editors will just read the first paragraph in order to decide if the release is of interest, so be sure to include the pertinent details of your event or situation. Keep the information factual.
Quotes from you (yes, you can quote yourself as a source) or key members of your team add credibility to the release. Editors like to use direct quotes in stories and often will pick them up verbatim.
- The Boilerplate
Make it easy for editors and writers to know who you are. Your last paragraph should include basic information about your company. It gives a brief history and description of who you are and what you do. Many boilerplates start with the phrase “About (company name).” Add a link to your company’s website and social media pages, so that reporters can easily find more information.
You can use this same paragraph in subsequent press releases.
- Contact Information
Include contact information for editors and reporters who want to set up an interview or who would like photos. If possible, offer more than one phone number and an email address to make things easy for the writer.
Use a Professional Tone
Although you are promoting your business, avoid using a gimmicky or preachy tone in your release. Write your release in the third person as if you are reporting the event. In other words, write, “Grace Connor, president and CEO, commented that…” rather than “I feel that…” and “This event marks the third time that the company has…” not “This is the third time we have…”
For consistency and professionalism, use Associated Press (AP) style for your press release. The AP sets style regulations that most news publications follow. You can access the current stylebook here, but here are some of the pertinent guidelines.
- Set your objective in the introductory paragraph.
- Cover the five W’s in your copy in order to give the editor all the information needed to write a full story.
- Check your spacing. For example, only use one space after punctuation and none before.
- Drop that Oxford comma. When you list items in a series, AP Style drops that last comma before the “and.”
- Use full names and titles when you introduce someone. After the introduction, simply use the person’s last name.
- Spell out numbers one through nine. Then use numerals for 10 and up. Abbreviate months with more than five letters and use numbers for dates.
Additionally, proofread and spell check your work, and double check names, dates, phone numbers and URLs for accuracy.
Keep It to One Page
A standard rule is to keep your press release to one page. Editors – and readers – simply do not want to read more than that. If the editor would like more information, he or she will contact you.
Did you know that many journalists use software programs to organize press releases by the subjects they cover? When you include key words and phrases for your industry, you can make sure your release gets to the right reporter.
Use keywords that relate to your news in terms of location or technology for traditional coverage, but also try to include any new industry buzzwords or popular Twitter hashtags to get a writer’s attention and to optimize your release in software searches.
How to Get the Release Into the Right Hands at the Right Time
Don’t let your press releases be shots in the dark. Editors and reporters get many news releases every day. How can you make yours stand out?
Often it just takes a quick phone call or website search to find out the right name and the correct email address for the editor or writer you want to reach. Specifically target journalists who cover your industry.
Build a list of strong media contacts and personalize your email with their names.
If you send your release as an email, you can have the release be the body of the message, but, since we live in a mobile world, it is a good idea to have it available on multiple platforms and technologies. Attach it as a word document, a PDF, and include a link to it on your website, for example.
Knowing when to send a press release is important too. Industry and trade publications often have editorial calendars. Write to the editors for one, so you can time your releases correctly, if possible. Many marketing experts believe an email sent between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. has the best chance of being read. Editors are finished with their morning duties and are back from lunch by this time. Yet they are not heading out the door for the day.
Another idea is to send your press release via the post office or by another mail carrier. When you send something in written format today, it makes it seem more important and valuable. Follow up with a phone call to the editor to see if they got your package.
Finally, use your press release to start a conversation with an editor. Request that he or she let you know how you can target your news more effectively for their publications. Show you read their work by mentioning articles they have written. If the publication has regular columns or sections, suggest an idea for a feature article about your company.
These tips show that that you know and appreciate something about the media outlet and aren’t just about selling your own agenda. Editors and writers are always looking for new article ideas. Give a personalized pitch a try.