First things first, what is a press release and do you need one?
A press release is simply a document which outlines a story to a journalist – all the important details about something you’ve been up to or are about to be, in the hope they’ll publish it in print or online, or use it as the basis for a broadcast story.
It could be an event you are planning, an event that has taken place, a response to statistics that have been published, the findings of your own research – literally anything you might read, see or hear about in the news.
Press releases have long been the domain of people in PR as they carry out media relations on behalf of clients. The truth is, you don’t need someone to send a press release for you, anyone can write one. You just need to know how to put one together and who to send it to, to give yourself the best chance of it being used.
This post contains five tips, based on our experience both sending and receiving press releases over the last decade, to help you think about the format and content.
What are the challenges of sending a press release?
I think it’s important to mention that journalism has changed a lot in recent years; lots of publications have seen their teams shrink, and fewer reporters are expected to cover bigger areas or more topics – from the nationals through to regional papers.
Some have gone online-only, celebrated online-only magazines have opened and closed in a short time, and stories are increasingly written or produced by freelancers. Radio and TV stations have also felt the squeeze, with regional hubs closing in favour of staff working out of centralised offices and studios.
Jobs that were traditionally done in-house, like photography, have been subject to cuts, so there is even more pressure on journalists to do more work, usually with less resources.
What does all this mean for you and your press release? It means when you make contact with a reporter, when you ‘sell-in’ your story to them, you need to make it count. They don’t have time to work out what you’re really trying to say or if there is a hidden gem.
If you don’t present your story to the journalist in a way which makes it easy to use, chances are they will politely decline, or more likely just ignore you! Having said that, there are also opportunities – because journalists are time and resource-pressured, a well-presented story, that doesn’t require too much extra work on their part, is great for them.
With that in mind, onto our five top tips:
Presentation and content
There are, of course, different ways of presenting and sending a press release, but the golden rule is you want to make life as easy as you can for the person on the receiving end.
Most people follow an inverted pyramid format, with the most important, can’t-miss details, at the top, tapering down through supporting information. As well as it being logical that the best information comes first, stories are also more likely to be cut from the bottom up to fit into a space, and you don’t want the best bits to be lost.
Make sure you answer the W (and H) questions – what, when, where, why and how. This should mean you capture all the essential information, and answer any key questions the reader / audience might have.
Make sure you have read the publications you are targeting, so you can roughly follow the same format they use in stories.
It’s a good idea to write the press release into the body of the email, rather than attaching it, in case they are unable to open it, or they don’t have software that is compatible with what you used.
Make sure you use a legible font and size – this is not the place to show off your favourite fancy script, just keep it easy on the eye. Include a headline, though don’t agonise over it as the journalist isn’t usually responsible for the headline (though some local reporters put whole pages together!). Include a release date, or make it clear it is for immediate release (see embargo notes below), and space out the release with short paragraphs.
Make sure you include contact details and, if necessary, editor’s notes – this is guidance you want to give to the reporter that isn’t appropriate to include in the body of the release.
Do take the time to think about your email subject – it could be the headline or another way of summing up the story. Remember this is the first thing the journalist sees and could be the difference between them opening the story straight away or skimming past it.
What to do with pictures
If you can include pictures with your press release, you definitely should. Whether a story is for print or online, the reporter will almost certainly be looking for an accompanying picture. Even broadcast outlets put stories online, so if they haven’t filmed or done their own pictures for a story, they could want to use yours.
Our post on photography when you can’t stretch to a professional could help get your pictures strategy in order.
A word of warning; if you attach lots of pictures to an email, chances are you’re going to clog up a reporter’s already busy inbox, and it might not make it through at all.
A good idea is to attach one or two good-quality pictures to the email, with either a link to a programme like Dropbox or WeTransfer to access more (watch out for programmes where the link expires in case the reporter doesn’t download what they need in time), or a description of what else you have that you can provide.
Make sure you include captions (with full names, ages if you can, and titles of anyone in the pictures) and give meaningful file names – remember it’s all about making life easy for someone.
Who should I send it to?
People working in PR often subscribe to a database of press contacts so they can access their details when they need them, or they create and maintain their own working press list, for example in a simple spreadsheet. With some research online or on the phone, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the contacts you need.
Your first step is to identify the outlets you want to target. Hint, it should be the ones read, watched or listened to by your target customers / clients / supporters. Then you need to hone in on the individual reporters. Most publications have a staff page, or bylines on stories with email addresses, and you can also check on Twitter and LinkedIn, where lots of them will have profiles.
Some contacts are obvious – business stories for business reporters, education for education, but by putting a little time into researching your outlets, you might discover particular reporters have specialist interests that are reflected in the stories they cover.
If you do decide to start and keep a press list, remember it could soon be out of date – reporters tend to move around fairly frequently, or switch specialisms, and you don’t want to be emailing the wrong sorts of stories to reporters, or getting bounces from closed inboxes.
Although it can be more time-consuming, it’s better not to use a one-size-fits-all approach to press releases – if you have customers all over the UK and want to get into lots of different local papers, a press release which takes a national view is going to appear very bland and irrelevant to a specific local audience. Make sure you take the time to tailor it, otherwise it will probably just be ignored.
Remember, a lot of journalists are freelance – get to know who they do work for, the sorts of stories they cover, and they could be key for getting into various publications.
Exclusivity and embargos
You may decide to offer your story exclusively to one outlet – knowing they are the only one getting it may mean they are more interested and the story is given more prominence. It may also be a good tactic for developing a relationship with a particular reporter with whom you are keen to work more.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a hard news story – offering an exclusive interview with someone in your business or a charity supporter could be appealing to them, if the story behind the interview is interesting.
It’s possible to offer an exclusive to more than one outlet if they are non-competitors, for example some stories may go as exclusives to one tabloid and one broadsheet, with the papers knowing the same people probably won’t see the same story twice, and that they will be covered differently.
Or you could offer it to one print publication and one broadcast. If you give someone an exclusive, it could be on the proviso that it will be shared more widely after an agreed period of, for example, 24 hours. Whatever the arrangement, make sure it is clear to both sides.
If you want to give advance notice of something with a press release, but don’t want it to be made public until a certain date, make sure you use an embargo. This means including at the top of the release words like:
Under embargo until 1 April 2019 00:00
Do remember that while most reporters respect and stick to embargos, it’s not unknown for them to be broken.
What to do next with the release
Sending out a press release will hopefully lead to good coverage for your business or charity, or at least further contact with reporters, but don’t let the opportunity to squeeze more life out of it slip by.
Lots of people now have news sections on their own website, where you could also publish the press release (not necessarily straight away, depending on any exclusivity you have promised). You could adapt the release specifically for use on your site to be more SEO-friendly, with more headings, links to other pages on your site and externally, and keywords.
You can then link to the release on your webpage from social media, or in mailouts you send to subscribers. If you use a content planner (if you don’t, you should definitely read our two-part post on how great they are: Part 1, Part 2), it is easy to plot out the different ways that the release can be utilised.
Hopefully this has given you lots of ideas to think about sending out your own press releases. Of course, if it just isn’t your bag and you don’t want to have to worry about it, we’re more than happy to help. Just get in touch.
Check out our other blog posts on all things PR, marketing and communication, to help you get ahead in business.