lesson #1: grab some attention!!

Probably the most useful thing for budding journalists and press release writers to get their heads around is that, unlike most creative writing, a news story has the most important information at the top and the least important information at the bottom.

Although there are some instances where something called a "drop intro" may help deliver a humorous, shocking or otherwise hard-hitting sucker punch to the unsuspecting reader in the second or third sentence, the first sentence (the "intro") will usually contain a succint and enticing account of everything important that is to follow.

It's very pleasing when a media outlet publishes your press release word-for-word, but never expect it! So please remember that the main purpose of the release is to grab the journalist's attention at the outset - to convince them that your news is more interesting to their readers, viewers or listeners than the news of your competitors. Your opportunity to do this will be lost if the intro doesn't do its job properly* (*n.b. we will talk about headlines later).

definition #1: the intro... a sentence that describes the reason for your story in an interesting and/or entertaining way

As a guide, aim for up to about 25 words in your intro and keep punctuation to a minimum.

lesson #2: the inverted pyramid

As we've already said, the most important things should be at the top of your story, with the rest reducing in importance as the story progresses. This is illustrated below with a basic inverted pyramid:

Publication2

Most Important

Less Important

Least Important

In terms of a newsroom scenario, with deadlines often very tight, one of the main reasons for this style of writing is so that sub-editors can theoretically draw a line at any point in the story, happy in the knowledge that anything below the line is less important than what is above it.

In fact, in the days of typewriters, news journalists on a deadline would often have to hand-deliver stories to the sub-editor a single paragraph at a time, until the available space on the page was filled - so the discipline of the inverted pyramid was an essential one to master.

The inverted pyramid diagram can perhaps be put in more context to help you structure your press release better:

Publication2

Intro &
who, what, why, when, where, how?

first quotes &
less important, yet
valuable, info

other quotes &
least important
info

As a PR person, if you can master, or at least try to mirror, the way that journalists like to read and write stories, you will stand a much better chance of getting your message heard.

You will gain their respect as a serious contributor.... and also make their jobs a lot easier.

bullet points?

You may nevertheless feel that using some clear bullet points in your release would also help to get your story across well. This is perfectly acceptable, and in most cases the journalist will be grateful for the added clarity.

lesson #3: the five (or six) "w"s

Who, what, where, when why (and how)?

These are the fundamental questions your press release needs to provide answers to in the intro and the following two or three paragraphs* at the top of your story (*n.b. in news writing, a 'paragraph' is normally a single sentence).

And remember, the above questions relate to the main subject of the story, that gem of news that you have highlighted in your intro. Don't be tempted to start launching yourself into dull corporate messages and company histories which probably add nothing to the "hook" of the story.

lesson #4: so what is "the story"?

"The story" is that killer angle which will be of most interest to the readers, listeners or viewers of the specific media you are targeting.

The story is also what the journalist believes is the most newsworthy angle in terms of his or her audience. Bearing in mind that audiences may expect different types of news from different types of media, it is of course feasible that your chosen "hook" may differ depending on the recipient. If so, a press release should be adapted accordingly.

Note: The story is not necessarily what the client wants the story to be; so a good PR person should be strong enough to make this clear on occasions. After all, that's what we're there for. And ask yourself honestly, why should anyone other than your client care about what you are about to publicise?

So look out for those really significant elements in the information you have. Find that one unique strand. Is it the biggest, the smallest, the first, the last, the oldest, the most popular? If you find it, that's probably the true subject of the news story... if you don't find it, you may need to question whether there's any point to the release at all!

definition #2: the story... that unique or significant piece of information that sets your news apart from the competition

lesson #5: using quotes

Always try to include good quotes in a press release. This will normally mean paraphrasing your client's words to create short, meaningful soundbites.

The first quotes should be the strongest quotes - and they should relate directly to the subject of the story (as described in the intro).

For example, if the story is about your client winning an award, the first quote should really be your client's reaction to winning that award - not the fact that the company has recently launched a new product line.

More tips on using quotes:

NEVER use quotes to tell the story: they are there to add colour to a story only.

TRY to mix direct quotes with indirect quotes if you have more than a couple of sentences of quotes: e.g.
Direct quote: Mr Jones said: "I fell off my chair when the winner was announced."
Indirect quote: Mr Jones said that he fell off his chair when the winner was announced.

AVOID the urge to find a host of different verbs to describe how Mr Jones might have "said" what he said. PR people often do this, presumably to avoid repetition. There are other ways of avoiding obvious repetition that are far less jarring for the journalist. So, if you need to add variation to quotes, instead of writing this:
Commented Mr Jones, "I fell off my chair when the winner was announced."
or this:
Mr Jones exclaimed: "I fell off my chair when the winner was announced."
try this:
"I fell off my chair when the winner was announced," said Mr Jones.

ALWAYS present quotes in the past tense. Mr Jones is not currently "saying" anything - he has already "said" it, otherwise it would not have been written down. So under no circumstances should you write:
Says Mr Jones: "I fell off my chair when the winner was announced."

definition #3: quotes... opinions and soundbites that add colour to the story - they are not a tool for telling the story

lesson #6: finishing touches

Refer back to the more detailed of the two inverted pyramids above to ensure that you have all the information in the right places. Then ask yourself whether there's anything else a journalist or other reader might like to know.

Are there any holes in the story? For example, if you've boasted that your client has achieved a 50 per cent increase in sales in the last 12 months, have you actually quantified that with real figures? If not, you are unlikely to persuade a journalist to regurgitate the claim without further investigation.

Does each element of the story become less important to your core news "hook" as the release progresses? For example, if you announce in the final paragraph that the aforementioned Mr Jones had actually won the same prestigious award for 10 years in a row, you may have missed a much stronger story line.

Have you alternated quotes with background information towards the end to improve variation and readability?

Well, we're almost there then...

but first, get your red pen out!

How many words have you written? If you've exceeded about 400 words (in most circumstances), you have probably written too much. Some journalists think you should be able to tell your story in 250 words - and some would rather you initially sent just 25 words so they can make their own mind up about your story's newsworthiness!

Next job: go back through the copy and remove all technical jargon (except when you know the reader understands and welcomes it). Also remove all ego-driven corporate back-slapping, unsubstantiated claims and any terms which might otherwise annoy or baffle an independent reader (e.g. "multi-agency partnership", "holistic approach", "state-of-the-art technology").

Note: There's so much we could say about the use of language, so we'll tackle that separately. For now, just try to make sure you always use plain English.

lesson #7: topping and tailing - part 1

Ok, the release is written - but there are a couple of final things to include before you send it off.

It is customary at the end of the story to write "End", or something equally appropriate. This will not be a deal breaker though if you don't include it.

It is usually helpful to provide some "notes to editors" (or what Americans refer to as a "boilerplate"). This is usually a brief description of your client, which can be pasted at the end of every press release. Keep it brief though!

You should also include relevant contact details should the journalist have additional questions. And don't hide behind your email address - make sure the journalist has your mobile number, and that he/she will be able to contact the people you quote in your release quickly if required.

You may also include any picture captions below the story for any images that might be accompanying your release.

lesson #8: six top tips for writing headlines (t&t part 2)

Perhaps it seems odd, but we've left what is ostensibly the first element of a press release to the very end. It is also probably the most important element of the press release - at least at the outset.

The headline is important for the very same reason outlined in lesson #1 above: It's your first, and possibly only chance to grab the attention of the reader. If the headline is enticing enough, then the intro may be read - and so on.

The headline will also appear as the subject description in your email - so make it a good one.

Headline tips:

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