Press releases are still a key part of the corporate communications arsenal.
Whether organisations send them to the media, stick them on their website, break them up into social media posts or use them to ensure a consistent message across the business, the press release is still very much alive and well.
Updated for 2020 with new material, here is my step-by-step guide to writing an effective press release.
What is a press release?
While organisations use press releases to promote their goods and services, they’re not adverts.
Journalists are quick to spot organisations who dress something up as news in order to get free advertising.
Press releases are short, factual news stories sent or given to the media to encourage editors/journalists/broadcasters to feature the story in their publications/programmes.
They can also be published on the originator’s website (often on the news and/or media page) and adapted for company magazines, newsletters, ezines, emailers, etc.
Step-by-step guide to writing a press release
Follow this 10-step process to write an effective press release:
- Ensure you have a newsworthy story
- Target the right media sector
- Answer the 6 W questions
- Use the inverted pyramid to structure the press release
- Write a newsworthy headline
- Write in the third person
- Summarise story in opening paragraph
- Put the story into context
- Stick to one story per press release
- Write a compelling quote
1: Ensure you have a newsworthy story
You need to have something new and important to say.
If your client simply wants to promote a product or service because it’s not selling well, you can’t just write about its benefits as you would in an ad or brochure.
You need to find a newsworthy angle – which you can find using the acronym TRUTH.
T – Is the story TOPICAL or TIMELY?
Has it just happened or is it about to happen? Recent means today and tomorrow but never yesterday. Look out for hooks to breaking/running news stories.
What is your organisation’s unique point of view on this subject?
Do you have something else you can offer to add greater perspective?
How does it relate to what’s happening in the future?
R – Is the story RELEVANT to the readers, viewers and listeners?
The more people it affects, the more newsworthy a story is. It needs to relevant, important and interesting to the publication’s or programme’s target audience.
Who does your story affect?
How does it impact on their lives?
What benefits does it bring?
U – What is UNUSUAL or UNIQUE about this story?
A good story is one that people haven’t seen or heard before.
What is the unusual aspect of this story?
What is the normal situation?
How does this situation differ?
T – Is there any TROUBLE or TRAGEDY that would add TENSION?
Like it or not, bad news sells newspapers. (Or gets more clicks and views.)
Journalists love stories with trouble, tension and tragedy at its heart.
But if you’re responsible for an organisation’s or individual’s reputation, you won’t want to be sending out press releases on their troubles. Bearing in mind the media’s thirst for trouble, you should aim to frame your story as how your product, service, person or organisation is helping reduce or overcome trouble.
How does your story challenge a conventional view?
Could it help people triumph over tragedy?
What problem are you helping to reduce or alleviate?
H – Where is the HUMAN interest?
News is created by people for people. Try to put people not products or services at the heart of your story. Getting a celebrity involved helps attract media interest, especially if a photo call is offered.
Who is involved?
Has they done something heroic or extraordinary?
Why are they interested/associated with your organisation?
Be cynical about your story. If you were an editor, would you want to run it?
For example, supposing a printer manufacturer wanted to promote a model of home printer. It’s not new and it’s pretty similar to lots of other models on the market. You could make it newsworthy by saying the company has sold a record number of units or that new research has shown it to reduce the cost of home printing by 33%. (The facts would need to be true, of course!)
2: Target the right media sector
Like every other piece of effective copy, a press release should be written with a target audience in mind.
However, with press releases, you don’t write directly for that target audience. You write them for the editor/journalist/broadcaster and you tailor them to the readership/viewers/listeners of that publication/programme.
The bulk of each tailored press release might be relatively similar, but you’d write a different headline, opening paragraph and possibly quote for each media group.
For example, if you were writing about a new pasta sauce, you might talk about the profit potential for ‘The Grocer’, the provenance of the natural ingredients for ‘Men’s Health’ and the flavour and convenience for ‘My Family’. You could also do a regional variation for weekly papers quoting a local fitness instructor or cooking enthusiast.
3: Answer the six W questions
Every press release should answer the six W questions – who, what, where, when, why and how.
Let’s use a car dealership sponsoring a book festival as an example.
WHO is doing/has done something?
WHO is affected/involved?
People interested in books, literature, writing, the arts, etc.
WHAT are they doing/have they done?
Sponsoring Maidstone book festival and giving visitors a chance to win a new BMW 3 Series
WHERE are they doing/did they do it?
The town hall in Maidstone
WHEN will they/did they do it?
3 to 6 September
WHY are they doing it?
Supporting the arts, a local bookshop, local writers and book lovers
HOW will it be/was it done? How will it affect people?
Maidstone cars will partly fund the event (cover cost of speakers, venue hire, refreshments, etc.), place a BMW 3 Series on show outside and offer every visitor free entry into a prize draw to win the car
4: Use the inverted pyramid to structure the press release
Armed with answers to the W questions, you now structure your press release using the classic inverted pyramid template. This enables you to present the most important information first.
You use this template partly because the media don’t have time to plough through why the world needs a new widget or how it was developed (they simply want to know whether or not your new widget is of interest to their audience) and partly because the template makes it easy to cut the story to fit the space available. No need to edit. Simply cut from the bottom paragraph upwards.
Short, clear headline tells media what the story is about
First para sums up the entire story in one or two sentences
Second para puts story in context – why it’s important
Third para presents details – who’s involved, how it came about, etc.
Fourth para includes a relevant quote to add information, credibility and/or opinion
Fifth para shows where people can find more details, buy product, get involved, etc.
5: Write a newsworthy headline
As is often the case in copywriting, the headline is crucial. Press release headlines not only tell the reader what the story is about, they are your sales pitch to the media.
The media use headlines to determine whether a story is even worth reading.
If it doesn’t grab their attention, they’ll probably delete or bin the press release without even reading it. But grabbing the media’s attention isn’t the same as grabbing the audience’s attention.
Don’t try to be cryptic or clever.
The media don’t have time (a busy news desk receives hundreds of press releases per day) to work out what you mean.
And even if they do love your clever headline, they can’t/won’t use it. They want to write their own. Let the media write their own headline and keep your creative ideas for your own publications and platforms.
Ideally, you want your headline to say, ‘somebody does something worthwhile’, ‘somebody helps overcome major problem’ or ‘major problem solved by someone’.
Examples of good press release headlines
Maidstone Cars supports local arts scene
Maidstone Cars gives festival visitors chance to win BMW 3 Series
Maidstone Cars helps keep book festival running
Marks & Spencer introduces eco-friendly bags
Wycombe District Council tackles excessive landfill with 200% increase in recycling
Children’s hospices saved from threat of closure with generous donation from Scottish Widows
New HP printers reduced million tonnes waste of toner cartridges
6: Write in the third person
As you’re not writing to your target audience directly, you need to write your press release in the third person. So “ABC Ltd has signed a £5M deal with XYZ Ltd” not “We’ve signed a deal with…”
Also, you’re not writing the story that might appear in the paper. You’re writing it from your client’s/organisation’s point of view.
For example, if you were writing a press release from Tesco apologising to residents for the upheaval caused by the building of a new store, you wouldn’t write “Residents are up in arms over Tesco building works” – that’s what the paper might print. You write “Tesco is taking residents’ concerns seriously and holding a public meeting on…”
7: Summarise story in opening paragraph
The opening paragraph should complement the headline by giving a fuller explanation of what the story is about.
The skill is to get all the key information in without saying too much too soon. A good opening paragraph should be able to stand alone. Think of it almost like a radio news bulletin.
For example, if the headline is “Chemistry student develops world’s first 2,000 hour battery”, the opening paragraph might go on to say “A 19 year old student from the University of Nottingham has succeeded where mobile phone manufacturers have failed by creating a smartphone battery with at least 2,000 hours usage between charges”.
8: Put the story into context
If you think of the first paragraph as ‘who is doing what’ or ‘what’s happened/happening now’, the second and third paragraphs go on to give you more detail and explain the ‘why and how’ behind the ‘who and what’.
For the ‘first 2,000 hours battery story’, you might go on to mention that while mobile phone technology has moved at an alarming pace, the batteries that power them have stayed the same for decades, frustrating users and manufacturers.
Your third paragraph could then give some detail on how the student developed the new battery, when we might expect to see it in use, how much it might cost, what effect it will have on mobile technology, etc.
9: Stick to one story per press release
If your press release has gone onto a second A4 page, you’ve probably got two or more stories. (Or you’ve padded it out with irrelevant, self-congratulatory quotes from ‘important’ people you’ve been told to include.)
Discipline yourself to recognise when one story ends and another one begins. And don’t weave a weaker story into your strong one. You’ll simply dilute the good one.
If you must add extra information, put it in ‘notes to editors’ at the end of the release. Or write a second press release.
10: Write a compelling quote
The quote is the one part of the press release the media can’t change. So don’t waste them with platitudes and repetition.
Too many quotes are there simply to acknowledge the presence of a CEO, partner, sponsor, client, etc. There’s nothing wrong with having endorsements, just make sure they say something worthwhile.
“We are delighted” is the most overused phrase in PR. Not only does it state the bleeding obvious, it adds nothing to the story. Quotes need to do one or more of the following:
Provide useful information/details not included elsewhere in the release
Explain why a particular product/service/partnership is of benefit to people
Give credibility to an unknown product/service/partnership
Express an opinion (ideally different or controversial) on an important issue
Not sound as if they’ve been written by the PR department/consultancy
For example, this quote says nothing worthwhile. It’s self-congratulatory and cliched. “We’re delighted to have the contract with Lloyds Bank and look forwarding to working with them to further improve online security”. Whereas, this one is informative and original. “Over the past 12 months, UK banks have lost over one billion pounds in online fraud. Our encrypted security systems use around 2,000 different algorithms to detect and delete fraudulent transactions before the funds are withdrawn from bank accounts.”
And there you have it. The perfect press release in 10 (relatively easy) steps.