Crafting the Perfect Press Release
By Jessica Demovsky
My husband and I met 30 years ago when we were both studying journalism at Ohio University; we’re both still in the writing business, so the many ways that the media has changed since we were at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism is frequently discussed at our house.
But a couple of things haven’t changed: One is a piece of writing advice that he received before he ever made it to Athens, Ohio. The other is the relevance of press releases. And the two are definitely related.
In 1989, Bill Leece told his creative writing students at Rolling Meadows (Ill.) High School to “write tight” – and there’s no better place to be succinct than in a press release.
Here’s a breakdown of the anatomy of an effective press release – and why being concise is the way to go.
Press Release, News Release, Media Advisory – What’s the Difference?
Generally speaking, the terms press release and news release (or media release, which is used less frequently) are interchangeable. By some definitions, a press release is considered a marketing tool about a product, company or event that might be of interest to only a select group, while a news release focuses on a newsworthy topic that would be of general interest to a wider audience such as a community or town.
There’s also an argument that news release is a more modern term, whereas press release is the more traditional name for a document that is designed to give useful information to the media. Whichever term you choose – and, truthfully, it probably doesn’t matter (that’s how interchangeable the terms are today) – that’s exactly what a release should do: convey information to the media so that they are interested enough to cover your topic.
Remember that a press release isn’t your opportunity to craft the story you want the media to carry – these almost never get picked up except by the smallest outlets, and then only on a really slow day. The most effective releases give the media the facts about the topic so that they can write their own story.
This is where the “write tight” advice comes in: Whenever possible, stick to the essential elements of your topic and keep your release to one page. Put the most important aspects of your topic at the beginning of the release, and save the least significant information for the end.
A press release should offer some significant details about the topic, and can also offer an interesting quote from a noteworthy source. When in doubt about how much to include in your press release, remember your audience and keep to the five journalistic Ws: Who, What, When, Where and Why.
Even briefer than a press release is a media advisory, which has a slightly different purpose: A media advisory communicates the facts about an event that you want the media to attend and write about such as a ribbon cutting or an open house.
A media advisory will simply list what the event is, where it’s being held, on what date and at what time; it should also offer a brief explanation about the purpose of the event. Stories with photos are more likely to make the cut, so suggesting photo opportunities (will there be a local celebrity or official there?) in a media advisory is always a good choice.
Tone is Everything
Keep your press releases crisp and to the point; the tone for a press release is a lot different than that of other communication pieces – in those, you’re attempting to convey a welcoming image of your organization to your readers, who are typically patients, customers or the general community.
A press release isn’t the place to make a sales pitch – and some media will be less likely to give your release serious consideration if they feel that you’re trying to talk them into writing about a topic or covering an event that, to them, really isn’t newsworthy.
For example, you might be excited about the new paint job and landscaping at one of your clinics, but unless your release can – briefly – make a case for why this is important to the community, it’s pretty unlikely that the media will give it any coverage.
When You Should Send a Press Release – And When Not To
Send a press release when you have something new, interesting or noteworthy happening at your organization! Employees, programs, awards, events – all of these can be great topics for press releases, especially if you can briefly demonstrate why this information is noteworthy.
Choose the topics for your releases carefully: You want your press releases to be substantive. Anything that seems too self-promotional won’t get any consideration – and if your releases regularly lack substance, the media will stop paying attention when they receive your releases.
For example, announcing a self-serving “award” that wasn’t really a competition, but something that your hospital was recognized for as part of a paid service, isn’t a great reason to send out a press release. You don’t want your hospital’s name to come across the news desk for frivolous “news” so often that no one even pays attention because they assume that you’re sending in another release about nothing.
Instead, ask yourself: Why am I sending this release? Is this something that the media is likely to pick up on? Answer honestly – if what you’re considering as news is purely self-promotional, choose to put the info on your website or in a newsletter.
Time It Right
For most topics, be timely: Send your release as close to the new hire’s start date or program’s launch date as possible. For an event, send your release three to five days before it happens; for post-event coverage, send your release immediately after the event. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best days to send out releases (after chaotic Mondays are over, but before chaotic weekends start), and mid-morning to mid-afternoon has the best open rate for emailed communication.
Looks Matter: Make Your Releases Professional
A professional looking release is likely to get more attention than an amateur-looking one. There are a plethora of press release and media advisory templates available on the internet that you can use as a guide; here are a couple of critical elements to keep in mind:
- Use 12-point type in an easy-to-read font (e.g., Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri)
- Associated Press (AP) style is the standard for the media, so make it the standard for your press releases, too
- Your press releases should be branded – your logo should appear at the top of your release (one of the top corners is preferable, often on the right side)
- You want contact information at the top of your press release – usually in the upper left. Typically, this is going to be a designated media contact – someone who can provide background or further specifics about the topic, or who can quickly put the media in touch with the correct person
- Have a boilerplate at the bottom of your release – this acts as background about your organization. Your boilerplate might include the year your organization was founded, significant history, recently received recognition, or even a brief rewording of your mission or vision, plus your URL. Boilerplates typically run three to four lines of text and often appear in a slightly smaller font (e.g., 10-point); you can use the same boilerplate on every release, but make sure that you review it for updates at least once a year.
- Use correct punctuation, and avoid exclamation points and all caps in your copy, which are seen as self-promoting tactics
- This should go without saying, but make sure you proofread your releases carefully – if you have to be your own proofreader, try reading your press release out loud before you send it – and always check your spelling
The Nitty-Gritty of a Professional Look
This might seem like overkill, but here’s a minute breakdown of what you’ll find in almost every press release:
- Always be clear: At the top of your release, it should say PRESS RELEASE (often this appears in all caps)
- Indicate when the information should be available: typically this appears as: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (again, in all caps)
- You can either put the date here (a lot of templates will show the date either right under “for immediate release,” or across from it) or you can add it to your dateline (see below)
- Provide a title that uses active voice and conveys the point of the release (sometimes it helps to title the release after you’ve written the body of it)
- Titles typically appear bolded and in title case (all the major words begin with a capital letter, unlike sentence case, where only the first word of the sentence and all proper nouns start with a capital letter)
- Add a dateline – If you didn’t include the date near “for immediate release,” you can add it right before the body of your release starts. But there’s more to a dateline than just the date: It usually includes the city (in all caps) and state (in its AP abbreviation – not postal code) where the topic is happening; for most healthcare organizations, that’s going to be at your hospital’s main location
- Even though the contact information appears at the top of the release, make sure you conclude your release by telling the media what you want them to do – if nothing else, contact you or visit your website
- The most common way to signal the end of your press release – but before your boilerplate – is to center three pound symbols (aka, the number sign or hashtag) immediately after the body of your release. This tells the media that this is the end of the information. Although your goal is to keep your press release to one page, sometimes that’s just not possible; to indicate that the body of the release runs to a second page, use -MORE- at the bottom of the first page – this tells the media they should be looking for another page or to keep scrolling.
Remember that the purpose of a news release is to give the media enough information – the who, what, when, where, and why – to decide to use that information for some type of coverage about your topic.
Maybe they’ll run a small news brief, just with the facts presented in your release. Maybe they’ll decide that they can make a good story out of it, which means writing something interesting for their readers. Maybe they’ll throw it in the garbage (don’t take it personally – it happens a lot).
You really don’t have a ton of control about what the media does with the information once it leaves your hands (which is another reason you want to make sure that it is factually accurate). Whether the media picks up on your release will have a lot to do with what else is going on that they may see as a bigger priority – again, this, for the most part, is out of your control.
If it’s a topic or event that you really feel passionately about, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and follow through personally. But don’t overdo that either – no matter how enthusiastic you are about your rural healthcare organization, remember that not everything about your organization is front-page news.
Press releases remain a great way to get information out about new locations, product launches and personnel announcements. Remember that you’re writing to the media, so talk their talk: Answer the journalistic Ws. Write tight. Look professional.
Do you want some hands-on assistance with crafting a press release for your healthcare organization? Our writing team can help – call Legato’s president Mike Milligan at 920-544-8102 ext. 101, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, to start the conversation.