How to Write a Killer Press Release
I was 14 years old in 1987 when I wrote my first press release. My family owned a computer, because my dad was a forward-looking man, but we certainly didn’t have email or the World Wide Web. I typed the press release in WordStar (points if you know what I’m talking about) and printed it out on a dot matrix printer. I tore the perforated feed strips from the sides, folded the single sheet of paper carefully, inserted it into an envelope addressed to the local news, and affixed it with an actual 22-cent stamp.
Who Remembers? Photo Credit Surv1v4l1st via Wikimedia Commons
My dad, though he was at that time a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force with a master’s degree in international relations, had begun his young life with the ambition to enter the business world. He held a bachelor’s in business management from Pepperdine University (where he barely scraped by with a C average, I reminded him with no small amount of teenage glee), and he knew the proper format and approach for writing an effective press release.
To our delight, the Plattsmouth Journal ran my story about our school’s performance of Brigadoon in their next edition. Twenty-eight years later, I’m still writing press releases. Despite greatly exaggerated reports of its death, the press release has seen a renaissance in the digital era, becoming an even more powerful tool than ever before.
While in 28 years I’ve added a bit of knowledge to the fundamentals my dad taught me, the basics remain the same. So if you find this article useful, thank my dad. Then share it with your networks, of course.
Step One: Choose a Newsworthy Topic
One of the biggest challenges for many organizations lies in knowing what to write about. Some make the mistake of preparing marketing pieces and calling them press releases, while others miss out on truly newsworthy opportunities because they don’t have a process in place to capture and disseminate them.
For a press release to be effective, it must be relevant and of interest to your intended audience. This means that, as for all forms of content, you must start by understanding your audience. Potential audiences you may pitch your release to include:
- National media such as Forbes, Inc., or the Washington Journal
- Local media such as the daily paper, radio and TV stations, or a regional business magazine
- Trade media such as news feeds and magazines targeting your or your buyer’s industry
- Industry influencers, such as bloggers and speakers
- Online media (this is a broad category, obviously, and should be targeted according to your business needs)
- Your company’s current and potential partners
- Your company’s current and potential buyers
- Your company’s board or investors
Don’t underestimate the value of those last three audiences. While targeting them may not earn the kind of ego-stroking notice that coverage by a national news site can, press releases for these audiences can yield major ROI.
Once you’ve decided on a target audience, you can begin to identify topics of interest to them. A partial list of possibilities:
- New Hires. Local media in particular will usually have a section for this type of news. If you can find a human-interest angle, the trade publications may pick it up as well. If the new hire is an executive, your partners and buyers will want to know about it.
- Employee Promotions. These are particularly worth writing about when they involve changes in management and leadership. The same audiences that appreciate new employee news will often pick these stories up.
- Anniversaries. Employee anniversaries can make great human-interest stories for trade publications, while company anniversaries are of interest to local, regional, and trade media. Multiples of five make especially compelling news.
- New partnerships. When your organization joins forces with another, this may especially be a matter of interest to trade publications, buyers, partners, and investors.
- Acquisitions. Even a small acquisition is a reason to celebrate! Everyone will want to know about this, and it’s appropriate news for every single audience in the list above.
- New product or service lines. Be careful with this one, as it can come off as self-promotional, which is a huge no-no in writing a press release. If you’re simply adding another flavor of ice cream, it’s probably not newsworthy. However, if you’re announcing a significant shift or expansion of business, then your buyers, partners, trade media, and local media are likely to want to know.
- Awards. Every time your company wins an award, let the world know with a press release targeting local and regional media, trade publications, buyers, partners, and relevant online media.
- Special events. Does your company host public events? Community activities? Are you sponsoring a charity run or a toy drive? Take advantage of the cross-promotional opportunities by sending a release to local and trade publications, and letting your buyers and partners know in advance.
- Broken records. Have you achieved record-breaking sales this month? Quality control tests outstripped previous records? High customer service numbers? Depending on the record, it may interest shareholders, trade media, partners, and online media.
- Financials. For publicly traded companies, earnings, performance against projections, and other financial indicators are a matter of public interest. In the event of particularly good news, be sure to disseminate through as many channels as are appropriate.
Use this list as a starting point, and build on it based on your audience’s interests and the unique characteristics of your company and industry. Just be careful not to get over-zealous and stray into the territory of self-congratulation. If there is one place that hyperbolic self-congratulation does not belong, it’s in the press release.
Step Two: Familiarize Yourself with Proper Formatting
Before you start collecting information and putting the story together, it’s important to understand the format that you’ll be fitting the story into. While press releases have evolved since 1987, the same one-page format with headline, date, location, body, and media contact still applies. Here’s your structure:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Lede paragraph. This consists of one to two sentences, packing all the most critical information into a dense package. If a reader reads only this paragraph, they should come away understanding the essence of your news.
Subsequent paragraphs. Here you can include relevant quotes, substantiating data, and further information that contributes to the story.
About the Company (optional)
Brief company blurb.
It is usually fine to add company branding (for instance, using company letterhead), and relevant links. However, despite some SEO advice to the contrary, don’t add links just for the sake of having internal links. You will only annoy your audience and diminish the credibility of your press release. Add them only if they contribute to the reader’s experience and provide useful additional context.
In some cases it’s fine for a press release to run as long as two pages, but in most cases one page is ideal. Most readers won’t make it to the second page anyway, so you may as well tighten it up, get the critical data in early, and close it up.
Note too, that in the digital age, some press releases may contain interactive elements, images, charts, and other forms of media. There is nothing wrong with these things as long as they serve the specific audience and purpose of the press release. In most cases, images and other elements are best included separately in a media kit (see step seven).
Step Three: Collect The Data
More than most forms of marketing content, the press release is deeply rooted in a long tradition of providing no-nonsense factual information. For this reason, it’s important to start your press release with all of the data in front of you.
A good place to start is an interview with one of the principals involved in the news that you’re sharing. Be sure to ask for exact dates, numbers, dollar amounts, percentages, and the correct spelling of names and places. The more specific your questions, the tighter your press release will be.
Supplement the interview with research—look up any companies or individuals who are mentioned, and collect relevant data such as awards, credentials, and background. Check spellings and other details to ensure you’ve received it correctly from your initial interview.
Finally, schedule interviews with any other key people involved in the news you’re announcing. Be sure to take careful notes and capture relevant quotes word for word. Check that you have each individual’s correct job title and relevance to the news.
Step Four: Choose Your Angle and Tighten Your Focus
Now that you’ve got the facts in front of you, you may notice a problem: There’s no way it’s all going to fit into a single page.
If you haven’t already done it, now is the time to settle on a tight angle for your press release. If you’ve been interviewing company principals, they may have already given you your angle. Otherwise, you’re going to have to find it yourself.
The place to start is with your audience. If you’re writing for multiple audiences, start with one, and then tweak the release for the others. For instance, in a press release we wrote for a transportation client regarding a recent acquisition, we prepared three versions:
- One for trade magazines, focused on the business benefit of the acquisition
- One for local media, focused on the local historical importance of the acquisition
- One for a local hospitality magazine, focused on the impact the acquisition would have on the local hospitality industry
The release was picked up by at least one outlet in each of the categories we targeted. In some cases, these were prominent, feature-length articles. Choosing the right angle is critical to achieving similar results for your clients.
Step Five: Write A First Draft
We’re five steps in and finally, finally you get to start creating. You’ve got your notes assembled, you know your topic and you’ve got a good angle. Now you just have to condense it all down to a single, tightly crafted, relevant page of content. No problem, right?
Despite the 28 intervening years, the structure of a press release has not changed much since my dad taught me the magic of the inverse pyramid. The inverse pyramid arose out of a time when stories were measured in column inches. A miscalculation, or a late-breaking story, meant that a story might have to be cut off at the end.
To minimize the impact of truncation, journalists were trained to place the most critical information at the top of the article—the who, what, when, where, and why it matters. That’s the “base” of the inverse pyramid.
Image Source: Wikipedia
The second paragraph contains the next-most-important information, and so on, so that even if the bottom were cut off, readers would already have the most essential elements of the story.
While articles are rarely cut off for lack of space in this digital age, the principle still stands for another reason—readers. We may have nearly limitless space in which to publish our writings, but readers do not have limitless attention spans.
Editors and journalists appreciate publicists who take the time to understand how their business works and deliver stories in a structure that makes sense for them. While the inverse pyramid rule is not as strict as it once was, it’s still a good place to start when crafting your press release.
Your headline should contain a clear, direct description of what is contained inside the press release. In many cases, press releases will be emailed, and the headline will form the subject line. Note that your job here is not to create a click-bait title—a press release headline should be simple and direct.
Examples of good headlines:
Rose Chauffeured Transportation Acquires Local Charter Bus Company, MYBus
SP Express Welcomes Hans Heinsen to Board of Directors
Notice that these contain specific names and events in simple language. This is not due to a failure of creativity on the part of the author, but a deliberate and careful journalistic crafting to meet the needs of the medium and the intended audience.
Unless you have a very specific reason to depart from a journalistic style, your audience will appreciate getting the critical facts up front, and will be far more likely to read further than if you provide a “tantalizing” headline like those that often work on social media.
Despite the temper tantrum my spellchecker is currently throwing, I have not misspelled “lead.” The word “lede” is journalism jargon for… well, for the lead. The lede is the part of the story that gives the critical information readers need to determine whether they’re interested enough to read on.
Your first paragraph will generally be no more than two to three sentences long, and should provide the who, what, where, when, and why it matters. Accomplishing this in two clear, simple, direct sentences is no easy feat. Simultaneously drawing the reader in? Well, that takes a lot of practice.
However, it’s well worth learning to do it if you’ll be writing a lot of press releases. Remember that the lede does not have to appeal to everyone—only to your target audience. Journalists are often looking for good stories, so it may not be as difficult as you think. The crucial thing is to give them enough information to sink their teeth into.
An example of a successful lede:
SP Express, a leading national provider of logistics and order fulfillment services, is pleased to announce a new partnership with APC Postal Logistics. The partnership allows SP Express to offer e-commerce merchants cost-effective shipping options for reaching over 230 international markets around the world from distribution facilities on both coasts. Many consumers in these countries purchase U.S. goods online and merchants seek competitive delivery options for reaching them.
The first sentence simply states the newsworthy event—a new partnership. The second sentence provides specific details on the reason for the partnership. The final sentence provides context demonstrating why the partnership matters.
Note that this press release was intended primarily for potential partners and investors, so its angle is different than if it had been targeting traditional media.
Second and Following Paragraphs
The second and following paragraphs should expand on the essential points made in the lede. These paragraphs often answer the “how” behind the who, what, and where. For instance, in the press release from the example above, the following paragraphs explore how the partnership provides cost-effective options, where exactly the distribution facilities “on both coasts” are located, and why this particular partnership is good for the company and customers.
It’s a good idea to include at least one, and often two, key quotes from key individuals at the heart of the news. These quotes should directly support the points made elsewhere in the press release.
At the bottom of the press release, it’s a good idea to include a brief section about the organization, as a reference for the reporter.
Below that, include contact details for someone responsible for responding to media inquiries. It’s critical that this person be readily available and able to provide critical information, to arrange media interviews with principals, and to deliver images and other supporting materials on request. Journalists work on tight deadlines, and nothing irritates them more than not getting a call back on a story you pitched to them.
Along with media contact details, you may also wish to provide a note on additional materials available, such as a media kit or image library.
A Note On Quotations
In general, quotations used in press releases should be short, relevant, and precisely word-for-word. However, there is a little bit of leeway on this final point.
If you are quoting someone at the company for whom the press release is being prepared, then it is acceptable to tweak quotes with permission. It is also fine to edit quotes for clarity and flow—for instance, removing repetition, eliminating words like “very,” and replacing a pronoun with its antecedent (“Mr. Cormer” in place of “he”, e.g.).
However, any time you change a quote, it is important to run the final version by the person quoted to ensure they feel they’ve been represented correctly. Again, this is a “just the facts” form, and it’s critical to get those facts right.
Step Six: Edit, Edit, Edit, and Don’t Forget to Edit
With the exception of a Twitter post, almost no other medium calls for writing as tightly crafted as a press release does. And unlike a Twitter post, it’s not acceptable to abbrev evry othr wd 4 space.
When you’ve gotten your press release more-or-less into the shape you want it, you may find you’ve got much more than a single page. Even if you’re already within the page limit, it’s time for editing. Ruthlessly remove:
- Every instance of “very,” “really,” “greatly,” and other hyperbolic adverbs.
- Repetition. If you think you need two similar words because they both convey a slightly different meaning, then you probably need a different word that conveys both meanings at once. A thesaurus is your friend in this instance.
- Passive voice. “The position was taken by Mr. Renshaw” is both longer and less compelling than “Mr. Renshaw took the position.”
- Gimmicks. For the love of your company, your job, and your reputation. A press release is not the place for shenanigans.
- Hyperbole. A promotional email, an ad, a commercial—these are all places you may get away with talking as though your company is God’s gift to the green earth. A press release is not such a place.
- Irrelevant information. In all the data, quotes, and information you sorted through to get your draft written up, it’s easy to let a few interesting but irrelevant tidbits slip in. Take them back out again.
- Gerunds. A gerund is a verb that takes more than its fair share of space on the page. “Is advocating,” “was running,” and “were considering” are examples. If you’ve got a verb ending in “ing” it may be a gerund. Replace them with the simpler present tense of the same verb: “Advocates,” “runs,” “considers.”
Speaking of present tense: With some exceptions, your press release should be written in it. The exceptions are when referring, within the document, to historical events that occurred before the news in question, or events that will happen after the press release is distributed. The core of the story should remain present tense. In the news world, nobody cares what anybody did yesterday. It’s all about today.
When you’re done editing everything as tightly as you can, go through and edit again. Look for areas where you can replace several words with a few. Especially look for places where you can use a more precise word in place of a general one. When you’re done, you’ll have a much better piece.
Step Seven: Add a Media Kit (Optional)
Journalists are often hungry for good stories, but they’re also pressed for time. Anything you can do to make their job easier will increase your odds of getting coverage. If you’ll be pitching the media with your press release, it’s a good idea to assemble complementary materials in advance and make them available on request. Contents of a media kit may include:
- A collection of relevant photos
- A longer description of the company
- A bio for each of the company’s principals
- Background information on any other companies or individuals relevant to the story
- Charts, graphs, and data to back up the story
- Multi-media elements such as infographics, video links, and audio interviews
A media kit can live on your website, and even link publicly from your site’s news section, or it can live in the cloud and be delivered privately on request.
Writing a killer press release is not something that happens overnight (unless you’ve had 28 years of practice, in which case… nope, still doesn’t happen overnight). But with the right preparation, planning, and process, you can put this powerful tool to work for your organization.
For more help in writing your next press release, download our annotated samples with editable template by submitting the form below.
Fen Druadìn Head (formerly Heather Head) is an author, as well as the founder of Scopcity. When she is not writing, running the business, or chasing down bad guys on Twitter, she enjoys hiking, snuggling with her husband and three boys, and avoiding the kitchen.