How to Transform Press Releases

Beth Monaghan  Photo courtesy: kck photography
Beth Monaghan
Photo courtesy: kck photography

“I rarely use press releases.” When we asked an NPR producer about how he uses press releases that was his response. The press release is a lost art. In many situations, it has become a communications tool that reporters regularly, often willfully, ignore. Yet PR people diligently continue writing and issuing them. I studied public relations at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, a journalism school, and focused heavily on the tenets of journalism. Newhouse taught that a press release should be designed as a news story worthy of publication in a newspaper.

This might sound humorous as you consider the hundreds of press releases you’ve seen and written that begin with, “ABC Corporation, the leading provider of best in breed ecommerce solutions...”

Yet today’s news cycles make the reality of verbatim pick-up a real possibility—that is, if the release is written well. Time-constrained bloggers often take pieces of news releases and use them as part of their stories.

While this may be questionable journalism, it means the chances for PR pros’ messages to remain intact are higher.

I would argue that it also means we need to rethink the press release.

Headlines often are slapped onto a press release with little thought. Before you write a headline, stop and ask—what is the most interesting thing about this release? I don’t mean the most interesting fact in the release. Consider that fact within the context of the market. Draw out why it matters to readers, which is not necessarily why it’s important to the company issuing the release.

A reporter at The New York Times said, “The more direct, the better” when it comes to press releases. The worst press releases, she said, are those that stretch to make their collections of facts into a story.

Another bad practice is to try to link your message to current events when there really isn’t a connection. For example, “In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, corporate event planners look for celebrations that are charitable, yet festive.”

The debut of a product, the opening of an office or the hiring of a key executive are not interesting in and of themselves.

To make them compelling, the release must illuminate why the company is making the move, what need it fills and who will benefit in ways that matter.

The inverted pyramid still applies. Decide what sets your announcement apart and include it in the headline and put it high in the press release.

While you are writing headlines, remember that less is more. Keep your headline tight. Twitter has made us more comfortable writing in 140 characters or fewer, and headlines should be easy to tweet. To optimize your release for search engines, keep your headline to fewer than 66 characters.

GRABBY LEAD

Nothing makes me want to push the delete button more than a story that begins, “ InkHouse Media + Marketing today announced that it has hired a new vice president.” Take a lesson from the great novelists: Make the opening interesting.

If Louisa May Alcott had started “Little Women,” with “This book chronicles the lives of four sisters,” instead of, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” would you have read further?

Try leading with the “why” instead of the “what.” Perhaps you are announcing a new vice president who will support a growing practice that is changing your industry. That practice’s aims are much more interesting than a personnel announcement.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

No serious reporter will use copy that sounds like marketing collateral. With the exception of quotes, copy for a press release should be factual. This does not mean it can’t be interesting too.

In fact, it must be interesting. Avoid color commentary until you get to the quotes. Creative Writing workshops call this showing instead of telling.

As we said above, show why the announcement matters. Use third-party data and support to back up facts. Colorful words alone do more to detract from the news than add to it. In practice, this means that you should avoid adverbs, those tempting words that often end with “ly.”

STRAIGHT TALK

If there is cause to issue a press release, the reader assumes your spokesperson is excited. When you begin an executive’s quote with the phrase, “We’re excited to...” you’ve lost an opportunity to say something meaningful. The quote is the one place for your spokesperson to talk about what he or she thinks, so focus it on the meaning of the news, not how he or she feels.

A great quote also emulates the spokesperson’s speech pattern. Get to know your spokespeople and help them get quoted more frequently by making their quotes authentic and interesting.

Remember, too, that the spokesperson’s quote always is a good place for a little controversy.

This does not mean he or she should disparage the competition, but a perspective that is contrary to others in your industry is a great way to spark interest. This also makes their quotes a lot more quotable.

Sidebar: The ABCs of Press Releases (Per NPR)

NPR’s Steve Inskeep and Richard Harris reported on the winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for “Morning Edition.” James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof shared this year’s prize for their discoveries surrounding the “machinery regulating vesicle traffic.” This is not the language of the average third grader or the average NPR listener.

Yet, Inskeep and Harris made this accessible to the average listener by providing real-world analogies and plain language descriptions of the discoveries. They have massive implications, but without an easy-to-understand explanation of their impact, no one would know, save the Nobel Prize Committee.

So how did they describe these discoveries? They went back to the basics of a good press release:

What: Inskeep said that the three scientists had, “figured out how cells package up material like hormones and how they deliver those materials to other cells. This is one of the most basic functions for living cells, and diseases can result when the machinery goes awry....”

How: Inskeep provided this: “This is how cells communicate with each other. The cells transmit substances to one another. This is the phone line. This is the FedEx system.”

Why: Harris made it very clear. “...this is very, very basic stuff that you need to understand if you’re going to cure diseases like diabetes or some neurological diseases or immune system dysfunctions.”

I am certain the scientific community would balk at this simplified explanation. It is, however, instructive for communications professionals. At its heart, a successful press release must tell a compelling story. A company that has a transformational breakthrough deserves media attention. Yet a company that cannot translate the breakthrough into accessible language will never be heard beyond its own community. —B.M

(Beth Monaghan is principal at InkHouse. The article is an excerpt for PR News’ Writer’s Guidebook. For a copy, please go to prnewsonline.com/prpress/.)

CONTACT:

Beth Monaghan; follow her on Twitter, @bamonaghan

This article originally appeared in the January 12, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.