How to structure a press release

Businesses and people publish press releases as a way of attracting attention in the media to themselves. They do it because they might be trying to stoke up interest in an issue or to cool it down.

They want people to hear and read about their achievements and successes. They also often want to mitigate their actions in the public’s mind. The press release is an effective vehicle by which to achieve this but there are certain stylistic rules to follow when crafting it.

There’s no rule that says a journalist must read your release or even treat it with respect.

To begin, a press release should be short, simple and to the point. It should be on your company letterhead. To highlight your message, there should be a headline stating the thrust of the release. Make sure it’s dated too.

The opening sentence, by its style, should tell journalists what the release is about: fact or opinion.

The second paragraph should elaborate on and reinforce the first and it should introduce any secondary messages.

Subsequent paragraphs must build on and deliver facts and opinion in descending order of importance. It may have an ending but this is not a school essay and you won’t be marked down for failing to come up with a pithy closing – that’s the journalist’s job. The only ending you must ensure is contact addresses for someone to deliver follow-up information should a journalist call.

This is the structure of the release. To sum it up in two lines, you’d say, “Here’s what I’m saying,” and, “Here’s what it means for you.” All the while you would place the information in a context that a journalist can identify.

This is only the structure. The content has its own rules so don’t worry too much yet about the words. Instead, decide on a structure and you’ll often find that content flows from your mind naturally to fill the structured gaps you’ve created.

You’re trying to interest a journalist who may be wading through dozens of daily releases. So we hit him or her up front with information. You’re trying to deliver instant gratification. You’re trying to make that reporter read your headline and first three paragraphs and say, “That’s interesting.”

Each morning’s news room mail brings dozens of envelopes stuffed with news of impending events, announcements, pleas and insults. The chief reporter (sometimes this position is called “assignments organiser”) and his or her staff will chug through this dead forest, probably reading only the first and second and, perhaps, if it’s a light news day, the third paragraph of each. If nothing interesting pops its head up in this reading, they bin the release. There is no second chance. The same happens with e-mails and faxes.

If you issue too many releases that end up this way, soon your very letterhead will produce an almost automatic clenching of the fist as reporters recognise who it’s from and crumple the paper. Here’s a minor rule you should observe: if you have nothing to say, don’t say it.

Remember too that journalists thrive on “angles”. Suppose you made office chairs and issued a press release stating your company had just received an order to supply a thousand office chairs to a customer. A journalist would immediately ask himself, “What’s the angle?” He’d ask this question because, before he could convince the chief reporter that this was a story worth investigating, he’d have to identify the story’s potential. An angle means slant, point of interest, context or direction. You need to help reporters discover an angle that makes your story worth developing.

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