Press Release 101: Writing and Formatting

Last week, I gave an overall explanation of press releases and their purposes. Part 2 breaks down the writing process and the different elements of a successful press release.

PressRelease_Writing

 Writing the press release

Here’s a breakdown of the components of a standard press release:

Header

The header of your press release needs to include the name of a contact person who is authorized to speak with the press and can answer a few follow-up questions from a reporter, or will at least know who to direct the report to. A phone number and email address are must-haves. 

Authorization

Start your press release by denoting when the newspaper or website is allowed to publish your submitted material. If your press release can be published at any time, start it off with “For Immediate Release.” Otherwise, let them know when the release can be published. Example: “Embargoed until Nov. 14” or “Embargoed until 3:30 p.m. Dec. 23.”

Headline

Keep it short, about 9-12 words. Nine times out of 10, the editor is going to change it anyway to suit their style, or for space constraints. That’s a sad fact of life, but always include a headline anyway.  By catchy without being cutesy. Don’t use clunky jargon in your headline (or in the rest of your copy for that matter). 

Examples:

Right: Springfield farm gives at risk youth another chance
Wrong: It’s not just ‘another day’ on the Farm for local at-risk youth who can benefit by some ‘hard work’!

Right: National Republican leaders to sound off on midterm elections
Wrong: ICYMI: RNC, NRSC, NRCC, RSLC Hold Press Conference on Midterm Election Results (Note: this is a real-life example from an organization that ought to have known better.)

Dateline

The dateline isn’t a date, it’s actually a location, and the only thing you’re allowed to write in all-caps. Include your state in the dateline if you’re in a smaller community.

Example:

BAR HARBOR, Maine

WASHINGTON, D.C.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass.

CHICAGO

OAKLAND, Calif.

NAPILI-HONOKOWAI, Hawaii

Lead

The lead is the first paragraph of your press release, and is usually only one or two sentences long. It includes who, what, when, where how, and why.

The lead can be challenging. You have to convey to the reader — and in your case an editor — why your press release matters to a wide audience in as few words as possible. It doesn’t need to be boring, but it does need to be succinct.

Example:

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Clearview Farms in Springfield is giving troubled youth a second chance while giving them some real-world skills. Starting Tuesday, local at-risk students will participate in an innovative program that aids the community and help teens develop a sense of pride in their work.

Body and Style

This is where you can add details and — importantly — quotes. Three or four paragraphs that fills in the gaps left in the lead, and you’re done. Keep it focused on the announcement.

Most news outlets use a specific writing style, the most popular one being Associated Press — or AP — style. AP style is the most prevalent style of writing in news organizations. Even satirical newspaper The Onion uses AP style. Here in Maine, The Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald both use AP style. Look to those sources as examples of AP style.

Unless you’re a professional PR firm, you’re not expected to know AP style by heart. But if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll go a long ways to sounding like a pro.

DON’T WRITE IN ALL CAPS! EDITORS FIND THIS REALLY ANNOYING. Remember that most of your press releases will be sent via email and copied/pasted into another document. All-caps creates extra work for the poor schlub that has to retype it. Most papers don’t use all-caps, even in headlines. Plus, it looks like you’re shouting. Don’t shout. It’s rude.

Also, no exclamation marks!!!!!! News stories rarely, if ever, use them.

Like the majority of your press release, your quotes need to be in the past tense. When using a direct quote, use “said,” as oppose to “noted,” “exclaimed,” “pointed out,” “according to,” etc. Punctuation is kept on the inside of the quotes. 

Example:

Right: “This program gives teens a sense of pride in their work which they may not get anywhere else,” said Maura Dwyer, Clearview board chairwoman. “Youth are benefiting in ways we’ve never seen before.”
Wrong: “This program gives teens a sense of pride in their work they might not get ANYWHERE else”, exclaims Maura Dwyer, Clearview board board of directors chairwoman. “Youth are benefiting in ways we’ve never seen before!”

Tag

This is where you can give a little history and background information.

Example:

Clearview Farm is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that has, since 1985, used agriculture as an educational tool for urban and inner-city youth. Located on a historic sugar beet ranch owned by the Kardashian family for 150 years, the 300 acre farm produces organic kale, rutabaga, asparagus, and other vegetables. A seasonal working maple sugar hut produces award winning syrup. Sales from Clearview products found at local farmers markets and grocers go to benefit the Human Fund. Go to www.clearviewisnotarealfarm.com for more information.

Folks who get it right

Take a look at these links for examples of a few press releases done right for inspiration, paying special attention to the body:

Apple has an entire page on their website dedicated to press releases.
Apple has an entire page on their website dedicated to press releases.

…One more thing:

Two eyes are better than one. If you’re a small business and issuing the press release yourself, make sure you get a second person to proof your press release for spelling and grammar before sending.

And next week, we’ll discuss how to use an image to bring it all together.