Behold the Power of the Lowly Press Release

Brian Taylor

April 24, 2009

Why write about press releases, the most basic of communication tools in the public-relations office? We can rattle them off in our sleep. And therein lies the problem: Too many of our releases read like they were written in our sleep.

We often take press releases for granted. Our approach to writing and distributing them is too casual in some cases and too self-serving in others. Because of their frequency and their low position on the communications chain, we often make the mistake of failing to keep the end user — the reporter or editor — foremost in mind.

It's not a fatal mistake. After all, the primary job of the press release is to quickly describe an event or news on the campus. In most instances, both the journalist's and the college's needs are met: Reporters get the raw materials for a story, even if it is only a calendar listing, and the college gets free publicity. The press release is ephemeral. So what if it's not as meticulously prepared as brochure copy? Where's the harm?

Yet something else is going on here. Consciously or not, reporters make inferences from a press release about the writer and the institution it represents. Over time, a string of releases that are sloppy or show poor news judgment reflect badly upon the college. A press release is a publication, a tangible representation of your institution, especially for the journalist sitting in an office miles away. Many of those reporters (and especially editors) have rarely, if ever, set foot on your campus. By default, the press release becomes a substitute for the real thing it describes, through its masthead, appearance, clarity, and grammar. In those few seconds in which you have their attention, you tell journalists much more about you and your college than the text of the release conveys.

Make it media-ready. Ideally, your press release should be of a high-enough quality to be reprinted or spoken verbatim, if necessary. (And from our perspective, isn't that the best-case scenario?) For that reason, we should approach every release not as a mundane obligation but as if we were a reporter on the receiving end. Why create unnecessary work? Why ask them to rewrite? It's in your best interest to write the story as clearly and accurately as you can. Reporters will appreciate not having to take time from their busy schedules to put your sprawling text into usable form.

If you respect the journalist on the receiving end of your communications, don't just send out press releases willy-nilly because it makes you feel like you are doing your job, or it gets someone off your back. Is the topic of the release really news? If not, it's better not to send it, because it needlessly and annoyingly clogs the desk or e-mail in box of the journalist. Send too much fluff and the next time, when you really do have news, your release will be met with a jaundiced eye.

The next consideration is where to send the release. Too often press releases are sent indiscriminately to broad lists of local, regional, and national reporters and editors. It's more work for you, but you should set up a number of discrete contact lists appropriate for each audience, and distribute your releases accordingly. There's no advantage to sending a release about a poetry reading to a science editor, or a routine calendar listing to The New York Times. You're just wasting time and energy, and undermining your credibility in the process.

In evaluating whether to send out a release, this should be your standard: Don't waste people's time. That means dispensing with some of the extras we often cram into our releases to "sell" our college or because "that's the way it's always been done." An example: You don't need to put "For immediate release" at the top of it. That's obvious and assumed. Unless there is a news embargo, get rid of this archaic construction.

Your name, contact number, and the date can go at the top of the release. But you don't need to shout it — the size should not compete with either the headline (16 or 18 point) or copy (12 point) to follow. Ten-point text for basic contact information is easily readable without drawing undue attention to itself.

Write a headline for the release, and make it good from the journalist's point of view. It needs to be readable at a glance and contain only the essential information. Make it bold or give it a splash of color — the bottom line: Don't make journalists work to find details they need to know quickly.

The headline rules for press releases differ slightly from those for articles in alumni magazines or other publications. If the release is for an event, include the date in the headline, so the reader knows how timely it is. Also include the college's name so that, if the text becomes separated from the letterhead, the reader is not at sea.

Finally, name names. A generic headline like "Professor Wins Grant" is not likely to spark an editor's interest. If the item is newsworthy enough to write a release about, give credit to the subject in the headline so the reader doesn't have to hunt for it.

Now on to the text. There are two basic kinds of press releases: news and feature. The former should rarely exceed a page (the announcement of a new president, for example, would be an exception). The feature-style release can be as long as two or three pages; it is intended either for small media outlets that might reprint it, in part or in its entirety, or to suggest an angle to journalists at larger organizations in the hope that they will decide to write their own story. If your writing is good, they may borrow liberally from it.

Begin with a dateline; that orients the journalists who are either new to their jobs or unfamiliar with your campus. It should be short and sweet: city (all caps) and state (abbreviation), followed by an em dash — don't include dates here or other information.

You would think, given our profession, that writing the lead paragraph of a release would be a simple task. We've had the rules drummed into us since we were in our public-relations infancy: who, what, when, where, and why. I am always astonished, therefore, at the number of press releases that put self-serving gibberish ahead of the facts, that fail to begin with a declarative sentence, or that leave out essential details.

You are not writing the release for the head of the faculty senate, the basketball coach, or the alumni director. It is for the news media and, by extension, the reading public. Put yourself in their shoes. We are all busy, so cut to the chase — tell me in the opening sentence what is important and newsworthy. But don't cram everything into that one sentence. It may be easier that way, but take the time to break the information into digestible parts, in a clear progression from most important to least.

A couple of things about including dates and times: You don't need to include "2009" when listing your event. People usually know what year it is.

On the other hand, I recommend including the day of the week as well as the date, as in "Friday, April 24." Most of us tend to think in both ways — we need the date to lock into our calendars, but the day of the week is equally important, since we may have standing commitments on some evenings or know that some weeknights are better than others for getting out to events.

Adjectives and attribution. A common symptom of the ill-prepared press release is the overuse of adjectives or leading editorial statements that are not attributed to a source. Be judicious on this front. Writing that your science program is "highly regarded" or "one of the best in the Northeast" may please your dean, but irritate reporters. Says who?, they will ask. If you can't quantify the assertion, at least ascribe it to someone at the college or, if possible, to an outside authority. Otherwise, the statement lacks substance. And if it does, get rid of it.

Speaking of quotes, it's common practice to include a statement from the president, especially in releases about institutional achievements or projects. That's fine, even if we don't necessarily expect news organizations to include it in their reports. The quote is intended to give credit where credit is due. You will increase the likelihood of its being used if the quote amplifies the text around it, rather than merely restates the obvious.

In the same vein, a standard closing paragraph describing the institution is not likely to be used by reporters, but still should be included in every release. It is your "elevator statement," a consistent way to communicate the basic facts about your college in all of your external communications. Journalists can reference and excerpt from it if necessary without having to look up the information elsewhere.

Sometimes it behooves you to include a similar paragraph about an outside person or organization featured in the release. If you are announcing a partnership with a local health-care agency, for example, tell journalists a little something about it. Don't assume that the reader already knows, or that it's not your job to promote the other agency. If you are playing host to a Nobel laureate, add a decent bio. But again, be judicious — you don't need to include the star scholar's unfamiliar awards or endless quotes from admirers.

The rules about appearance and length have relaxed some for e-releases, which are more and more the standard. But the release still should be attractive and easy to read, through the use of spot color, for example, the inclusion of graphics or artwork, and a pleasing font.

The subject field of the e-release requires a second headline, shorter than the one used in the release itself, designed to give the reader just enough information to want to open the e-mail message, and feel secure in doing so. Include your college's name. You don't want your release to be dismissed as potential spam. But avoid a subject line that stretches across the page. Think of it as the haiku of headline writing.

The bottom line in writing a good press release is: Don't be deceived by its casualness or frequency. Its initial audience of journalists is relatively small, but critical to its success.

Russell Powell is a public-relations officer at Elms College, in Chicopee, Mass.