How to Write a Winning Press Release

Written by Alistair Clay 5th June 2017

The Press Release Is Dead? Wrong.

It’s been pretty fashionable of late to claim that the press release is dead.

No one wants them, from bloggers to journalists. The humble release sits there in an overfull inbox all unloved gathering dust, never to see the light of day.

That claim should come with a serious health warning. Startups and entrepreneurs who believe it will be making a fatal mistake.

Sure, dreadful, spammy, sales-esque, story-less, advertorial, hyperbole-ridden press releases are utter sh*t. But newsflash folks – they always were, and they always will be, there’s nothing new there.

As a former journalist I could have papered the walls of my London flat several times over with examples of some of the most appalling writing ever to grace the page, none of which contained even the sniff of a story.

There are plenty of people out there who do the profession of PR a total disservice because they wouldn’t know a story if it bit them on the behind.

But to think that the press release is now dead because of misuse in the past is to make a terrible error.

Perhaps it’s the term itself, ‘press release’ that confuses the issue here, perhaps its own brand is so toxic that we’ve actually forgotten what it should be and what its true purpose is.

A beautifully crafted, well-written press release should be a killer news story, it should be copy that a journalist or a blogger reads, leaps up from behind their laptop and shouts ‘hell yes, now that’s a story!’.

And that’s all a press release should be – a brilliant story, and nothing else. Sure your brand may get a mention out of it, but unless it is a story first then it’s not a press release, it’s sales rubbish and any hope of it resulting in media coverage is wishful thinking.

Everyone bangs on about content, content, content, but to a journalist, this is nothing new, they have always and forever dealt in ‘content’ – it’s called a story.

How can telling your story in a clear, compelling, newsworthy fashion be dead? Surely that’s utterly timeless and what we’re all trying to achieve? Don’t blame the machine, blame the operator.

A journalist, blogger, influencer or anyone else interested in your business wants to hear your story. Call it a press release, a media release, blogger outreach, a gentle nudge. Call it whatever you like but the fact remains that the skills required to create a newsworthy press release will force you to cut to the chase and get to the heart of your story – and that’s a real skill and one that will NEVER go out of fashion.

So how do you go about creating an attention-grabbing press release?

Think you’ve got a whole page of prose to tell your story? Think again – you’ve got just 30 words, maximum.

Sure you may have a full A4 page to fill with your razor sharp, news-focused press release, but if you can’t get that all important first paragraph right you will likely fail to win over a journalist or a blogger.

The discipline and skill required to create a tightly-worded intro will do more than just give you a good press release – it will totally transform the way you think about, and approach PR, for your business.

In fact, it can even change how you think about your entire business because it forces you to focus on your key messages, your target audience and how you want to be thought of.

Much is made in the startup world of the ‘uber pitch’ – the intro paragraph is the UP on steroids.

Thinking about the core components of your story and what will REALLY leap out and connect with your audience will force you to ditch the waffle, the business jargon, and much of the foggy thinking that goes with it.

A tight 30-word intro should be all you need to make a journalist sit up and go ‘wow, now that’s a story!’.

Sure they’ll need other facts and figures but if the top line doesn’t grab them then nothing will.

Focus on what’s new, what’s a first, what’s innovative, what’s remarkable about your business, about the people behind it and the customers you have an impact on. Somewhere amongst the guts of your business will be newsworthy stories.

And it’s not about hyperbole, far from it. The trick is to present the FACTS of your story in the strongest way possible. That might be harder than you think.

We can be a bashful lot and often we shy away from getting to the heart of the matter and saying in clear, concise language that THIS IS A STORY.

Having this beautifully sculptured intro paragraph will also be the heart of your email pitch to a journalist, it’ll be pretty much the first thing you say to them on the phone if you’re calling it in – and for the journalist, it will be how they present the story to their editor.

The reporter will love you for this. You’ve just given her a brilliant story and it’s so very news ready that she can pitch it to her boss without having to blink.

This bit isn’t rocket science. Give a journalist what they need, i.e. a brilliant story, and you will get the media coverage you deserve.

So, how do you create that newsworthy 30-word intro par?
Top 4 tips:

1. Say your story out loud as if you were telling it to a pal down the pub. More than likely you’ll get to the juice much quicker than if you sat down and started writing. Write what you just said – this is the story.

2. Treat words like a precious commodity. Be zen-like in your writing. If even a single word doesn’t take the story on then ditch it. NEVER repeat the same word in the same sentence, in fact, avoid it in consecutive sentences. Expand your vocabulary and use different words to describe the same thing.

3. Think about the thing that most stands out about your story. Is it a first, is it a launch, what is new, what is remarkable – what is newsworthy?! Get that down first, remember the journalist will not read beyond this first par if it doesn’t contain that all-important story.

4. So why am I such a smart arse who thinks he can write a brilliant 30-word intro? Because I’ve done it literally THOUSANDS of times. And that’s the real secret, the real magic ingredient…practice. Do it over and over and over and over again and you will succeed.

So you’ve got your awesome intro – now what do you say on the rest of the page?

Detail, facts and quotes.

To help you we have created a template that shows you EXACTLY how to write a high-quality press release.
So now you’ve got your awesome press release and you’re ready to pitch to your favourite target journalist. Exciting times!

STOP!!! *sound of screeching rubber on road*

Your brilliant startup business has major funders and local government backers who need to approve your release before it can go to the press.

‘But surely they won’t mind if we run with this story that makes them look great?’, you say. Well actually, they might. They will more than likely have their own messages and brand guidelines that they need to adhere to, and it would be a little impolite if the first thing they knew about the story is seeing it on the 10 o’clock news.

So, (takes a deep breath) this means you have to start the process of stakeholder sign off.

Yes, I’m sorry, but you have to subject your beautifully crafted press release to the scrutiny of people who may not share your passion for the media or your PR nous. Problem.

This is a VERY serious moment in the life of a wonderful story, and all too often many are snuffed out at this stage.

I call it news death by committee.

The circle you have to square is giving your lovely stakeholders enough say and oversight of your press release without stripping out everything that made it newsworthy in the first place.

I have seen this happen SO many times and before you know it you have a press release everyone loves, apart that is, from the journalist – the one person who REALLY needs to love it.

So how do you navigate this tricky political process?

1. Only allow for three reviews of the release from all parties and make this clear from the start.

2. Thanks to ‘track changes’ everyone now thinks they are an editor so some input you will politely have to push back on, but with good reason – tell them, don’t ignore them.

3. Stick to a strict versioning system of your press release so everyone knows which version they are working from. Call each release NAME.release.v1 then v2 etc. There’s nothing worse than getting people’s comments only to mix up old and new versions.

4. This process can be like a wild stallion and it needs to be clear that it is YOU in control right from the start. Ask for input but make it clear that you are leading the PR strategy and know what will work best with the media. You will try to accommodate people’s opinions but the story must come first. Of course, if there are factual inaccuracies then they must be corrected, but the tone and presentation of the story is down to you. You da BOSS!

So there you have it, the complete guide to creating a truly newsworthy press release that will give you best chance of securing the media coverage you and your business deserves.

And the next time someone tells you the press release is dead, politely disagree. It’s the thought processes behind it that determine whether or not it’s actually going to communicate your story – and if you get it right then it’s done its job.

I look forward to reading your story!

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