I recently met with the staff of a small nonprofit who told me they were interested in generating press coverage for their organization. When I asked them what the goal of this publicity campaign would be, the executive director responded, “no particular goal, just general publicity.”
As someone who writes press and marketing materials for small businesses, I’m always surprised to encounter clients who think PR is an end in itself. It’s not. It is simply a tool, and like any tool—say, a hammer or a chainsaw—it’s only useful if you know what you are trying to accomplish with it. Wielding it indiscriminately is ineffective at best and disastrous at worst.
So before writing any press or marketing materials, it’s essential that you know what your business objective is. For instance, in the case of the nonprofit, the objective might have been to increase donations, or to reach out to needy clients, or to inspire more people to volunteer, or to attract well-connected new board members. While there may be some overlap, each of these goals would involve targeting different media outlets with stories told in different ways.
As a simple rule of thumb, there are five questions you need to ask yourself—and answer—before you fire up your laptop: why, what, who, where and when.
Why are you writing it? I start with this one because it’s the most important and affects all the others. You may think the answer is obvious: to get more business. But that’s certainly not the only reason for writing a press release. In addition to attracting customers, small businesses can use publicity to lure investors, qualified job seekers or marketing partners and sponsors. Or, if they have a unique product or business model, they can use it simply to plant a flag in the ground and say, “we were here first.” But even if it is customers you’re after, you need to know why you are writing this particular press release at this time. Are you announcing a new service? Hoping to tie an existing product into a seasonal occasion or trend? Breaking into a new market or territory?
What are you writing? Is a press release really the best means to deliver what you want to say? Or would a brief e-mail pitch or a media alert be more effective? If you don’t have breaking news to share, a feature, a bylined column or an op-ed might be a better way to go. When you just want to provide journalists with background on yourself or your company, a bio or corporate profile is in order. Each of these documents has its own unique conventions, format and purpose.
Who are you writing for? On one level, all press materials are written for journalists—the reporters, editors, producers and bloggers who serve as gatekeepers for their respective media outlets. But press releases today often appear verbatim on sites across the Internet, so it’s likely many non-journalists will read your release exactly as you write it. The question then becomes, which of these readers do you care about and how can you best engage them with your writing?
Where do you want it to appear? If the goal of your release is to raise your organization’s (or your own) profile within your industry, you will probably want it to run in one or more trade or business publications. On the other hand, if you’re looking to inform consumers about a product or service, you’ll need to aim for mainstream and specialty media outlets and blogs. Trade and consumer publications require different approaches to writing.
When will it run? Are you announcing a future event? A recent business deal or achievement? A current sales promotion? The timing of the release in relation to the news it is announcing will affect the type of document you create as well as the wording.
You wouldn’t set out on a business trip without knowing where you were going and what you hoped to accomplish. Don’t start writing a press release before you’ve answered the five Ws. If you do, you’re likely to get lost before you get where you want to go.
This is the first in a five-part series. Next installment: How to write a killer opening paragraph that hooks readers and gets them to keep reading.
Andrew Hindes is president of The In-House Writer, a Los Angeles-based PR and marketing copywriting firm that specializes in creating press materials for companies of all sizes in a broad range of industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter @inhousewriter.