Press release writing 101

As an author and small business owner, I understand how important it is for you to share information about your organization, new book, event, or business with local media outlets.

I also know many of you are pressed for time and, fairly or not, many of you were “volunteered” for your position as media contact spokesman.

I get asked weekly, if not daily, what you should do to ensure your information gets onto newspaper pages, websites and radio airwaves. So, I’ve compiled this handy dandy list.

Some of it may seem obvious but only because you don’t see what comes into my mailboxes—physical and digital—day after day.

• Uppercase and lowercase – Be sure to use uppercase and lowercase letters appropriately. Nothing makes editors want to throw a page in the garbage faster than seeing 350 words in all caps.
ALL CAPS IS DIFFICULT TO READ AND IT SCREAMS, “UNPROFESSIONAL!”

• E-mail it – Without a doubt, every form of media out there is well into the digital age … and we are all overworked and short-staffed. Having to retype a hand-written note is annoying, time-consuming and guaranteed to increase bourbon sales. We still take hard copies but not everyone is as nice as we are.

• Time/Date/Place – Get the good stuff out front. At the top of your press release should be the name of the event along with its time, date and location—in that order.
Proper news style demands an event be listed thusly: “Depressed squirrel support group meets at 9 a.m. on Tuesday Feb. 25 at the Squirrel Memorial Hospital, 123 Acorn St., Boyne City.”

• Plain text wins – There are a few industry standard word processing formats out there. Despite this, we receive press releases in PDF, Publisher and other formats that can be difficult to open and/or select text from.
Your best bet is to send press releases in both MS Word and plain text in the body of an e-mail. If you send a document ending in “.pfzxq9” I’ll be screaming “$#&@!”

• Formatting, formatting, formatting – Deleting extra spaces, marrying sentence lines and replacing funky characters that result from someone using a cutesy font or odd page size or narrow columns makes me want to cry. A sad editor is something we all want to avoid. So, skip the weird colors, crazy typography and silly clip-art and just share your message.

• Respect the deadline – Paying bills, taking the kids to school, making dinner, completing your work: we all have deadlines.
Get your news, photos and advertising to us by 5 p.m. on Friday and we can all remain friends.
Miss the deadline and prepare to hear my very loud and very sarcastic “Time machine” speech. (It’s a good one!)

• Space is limited – This ain’t the parable of the worker. Ye who show upeth last will not geteth the same treatment as he who arrived firsteth.
Not-so-shocking revelation? Space and time are both limited.
If respecting the deadline is good, getting your stuff to me ahead of deadline is super-duper-great. Early birds get worms and column inches and big editor hugs.

• Quotes need sources – Quotes are the frosting on the cake of a story. (Thanks, JM) Just be sure to identify who said them by name and full official title.

• Keep it brief – Crafting a press release is not the time to go all “Herman Melville” on us. Keep the information brief and to the point. If the topic deserves a full story, we’ll let you know.

• Include contact info – Sometimes we need more information or confirmation or a photo. Sometimes I’m just lonely. Regardless, you increase your chances of success by including your group’s media contact info.

• Spell-check is your friend – We all make mistakes. We make fewer mistakes when we all use spell-check. Sure, I read your press release and I run spell-check and, somehow, mistakes can still get through to the printed edition. Remember: Prufreedin mayks gud ritin!

• Realistic headline – You’re trying to get someone to attend your cancer group fundraiser or your kid’s cookie raffle or your support group for egg-less chickens … you’re not pitching a Hollywood potboiler.
Write a headline that clearly indicates what your info is about.
Note: headlines are merely suggestions. I must determine whether it is accurate and appropriate, then fit it in the available space … which is harder than it likely seems. I was once accused of “hating all Christians” because I refused to use the headline someone wanted. I don’t hate all Christians but I do loathe the ones who disrespect the process.

• Story pitches – If you think something would make a great story, we’d love to hear about it. I get cartoon hearts in my eyes when someone brings us a neat feature idea.
Your best bet for getting your concept produced is to consider a few things:
—Does it affect a lot of people?
—Is it of local interest?
—Will it inform/entertain readers?
—Is it timely?
—Is it unique?
—Does it more good than harm?

• Subject matters – I read every press release I get but there are people who won’t bother with generic subject lines. After all, if you’re not excited about your event, who will be?
Words of caution: be accurate in the description. Exaggerating or fibbing about the content will get you a one-way ticket to the pile with the Bigfoot hunters and alien autopsy survivors.

• We like goodies – Yes, we want you to keep your press releases to the point. But, feel free to include links to supplemental information, studies, other articles, photographs and videos concerning your information.

• Be relevant – I get a press release from an office supply company in Wisconsin every week. I’ll never print their info but they keep on a-sending it. In my rush to finish a newspaper (not the Gazette) many years ago, I stupidly included a press release about escalator safety.
It had no value to my readers.
It won’t happen again.

• Advertising is not news – We publish lots of non-profit and newsworthy items for free. That said, I could man a professional soccer league (east and west conferences) with the glut of unhappy business types who argue their product or sale is news. The time is now for all sad pandas to respect the moral, ethical and economical separation of news and advertising.

• Demands – I get hundreds and hundreds of requests for free placement of info every week. I accommodate as many as I can.
A handful of those communications come from people who expect me to drop everything I’m doing to give them a schedule of if/when/where it will appear. They need to know, they often say, because they don’t read my paper. I’m going to let you imagine what my response might be.

• Be nice – Most folks are pretty gracious and respectful when asking for free space. But, you wouldn’t believe how many cranks approach us with feelings of entitlement. Being the magnanimous fella that I am, I don’t tell these crum-bums we’re not a tax-funded entity or that my business partner and me work long hours for little pay or that we do a public good deserving support.
All I’m saying is: be nice to your local editor. A happy editor is generous editor.