What is a press release?
The bare bones answer to this is: A press release is a brief written summary or update, alerting the local media about your group’s news and activities. However, we’ve found that press releases are much more exciting than that!
Press releases are similar to news articles in that they inform the public, but they’re usually prepared by people like you who are working in specialized fields, like community development or public health. You probably know by now that it can be difficult to tell the community what you’re doing, and what you’re about. A press release is one way for you to reach out and tell the community (for example) “Hey, we’re the Howardsville Healthcare Workers for Healthy Hispanic Children; and we’re trying to develop a scholarship fund to help low income Hispanic children go to college.”
Like a news story, press releases are:
- created either to preview an upcoming event or to inform the public about something that has already occurred
- written in a clear, concise manner that easily and quickly conveys its message to the reader
- written with the most current and pertinent information in the first two paragraphs
- subject to editing for content and space or time requirements, depending on the media
Unlike a news story, press releases are not:
- always a high priority for media producers to cover
- written by professional journalists
In the following section we’ll give you some helpful tips for preparing your press release to help get your story out to the community.
Why do you need a press release?
Your press release will help your group in a number of ways. It can:
- Announce an event, schedule, study, campaign, workshop, or election of new leaders
- Tell people why you think this development is news
- Show your perspective on the development
- Increase the visibility of your leaders (if quoted in the release)
- Remind people of what your group does and how active in the community you are
- Allow you to highlight or summarize a report
Before you start thinking a press release is going to solve all your publicity woes, now is a good time to note that by itself, a press release isn’t going to get you a lot of media attention. The average reporter or editor gets more press releases than he or she could possibly use. Your press release should be just one part of your media campaign.
When should you prepare a press release?
You and your group should consider press releases only when you have news that you want the public to share, for example:
- News of upcoming public events
- Reports of recent public events
- Reports of organizational changes that may be of interest to the general public (i.e. a merger of two organizations; launching of a new teen chapter)
- Reports of awards, prizes, grants or publications connected with your cause
- Reports of hiring or promotions of staff members, particularly top managers
- Announcements of recruiting drives for volunteers
- Announcement of the start-up of your next season of classes, training sessions, services, etc.
If you have no hard news, you and your group could create some. For example, if a national organization announces facts that are relevant to your cause, you could make a good story by asking local experts for their reactions.
How do you prepare a press release?
So what do you need to write your press release? To start, you’ll need a computer on which to type your story and send it to the media. Almost all newspapers, as well as TV and radio stations – even the smallest ones – prefer to receive material electronically. That makes it easy for them to edit, and also means that they don’t have to do anything to set it up to go into print or be read on the air. (If you’re submitting to a website, you have no choice but to do it electronically.)
Next, you need to have a story to tell your community. The story should focus on what your group is currently doing or on a future event, not something you did last month.
There are some exceptions here. If you were at a conference and received an award, for instance, you’ll want to let the community know about it after you get back.
Here are some general guidelines for preparing press releases:
Make them read like news article – Study news articles in your local paper. News articles will have the five Ws and the H in their beginning paragraph. This is called the lead. These basic elements are:
- What happened
- Who did it
- Why it happened
- Where it happened
- When it happened
- How it happened
Maplewood area banks loaned less than $1 to people in the primarily minority neighborhoods of Maplewood for every $5 they loaned to people in wealthier neighborhoods [what], according to a study released yesterday [when] at a press conference [how] held in front of a downtown bank [where] by the Maplewood Community Reinvestment Coalition [ßwho].
The coalition called this lending pattern lamentable, saying it is why many of Maplewood minority and low-income neighborhoods have a much lower rate of home ownership [why].
Emphasize what makes your release important – What in your release is going to grab people’s attention? Why is it important to the community? Why should they care? Emphasize one or two of the basic elements above. For instance, if the mayor is going to speak on the issue at your event, it would be a good idea to emphasize the “who”. If your event is the first charity fund raiser at the new recreation center, the “where” would be emphasized.
Be as provocative as you can – Most media, especially in large cities, get tons of releases every week, so you want to make yours stand out. Find an eye-opening aspect to your release, or at least make sure your points are strongly emphasized. For example, perhaps pro-life and pro choice activist groups are working together on teen pregnancy prevention, or real estate groups and housing activists are working together on a housing initiative. In both these cases, the organizations involved might use their unusual situations to create press releases the media would snap up.
Make the headline and lead as clear as possible – They need to hook the reader quickly or the release will be skimmed over and forgotten.
Here’s how strong and clear leads can help you and weak leads can break you.
Strong: “Work Group for Community Development Reform releases study critical of housing and community development program.”
Weak: “Study says $4 billion community development program is failing.”
Strong: “Eastside Middle School teachers protest violence in the schools following release of shocking report.”
Weak: “Report released on school violence.”
The strong leads are more specific, refer to actions rather than events, and imply or describe a conflict. All of these elements are attention-grabbers. The more of them (and others – celebrity names, human interest) you can include in a headline, the more likely people are to read your release.
Make your release look professional – Credibility is very important in an editor’s decision as to read or pass over your release. Letterhead and formatting should look professional, and no typos!
The release should also have short, easily readable sentences and paragraphs, as news articles do.
Consider sending other materials with your release – If you already have contact with a reporter or editor, you may want to send a short cover letter reminding him or her of your previous conversation. Maybe you know this reporter has a personal interest in your issue. The key is to try and personalize the release so it gets the editor’s attention.
For small newspapers, pictures are often a plus as well, especially if they include local people.
Format and technical guidelines for your press release
Here are some common formatting and technical guidelines we’ve gathered from experts in the field. There are a number of possible formats, but these are some of the more widely accepted.
1. A dateline – like in many newspaper articles (for instance “Washington, D.C., Oct 15”).
2. To double space or not to double space – it’s probably not necessary as most editing these days is done on computer, as long as your release is easy to read. Short paragraphs with a space between each and slightly wider than normal margins are helpful.
3. Your release should be relatively short – two or three pages, max. Keeping the release to one page does not necessarily improve readability, which is what you’re aiming for. Subheads are also useful to grab the reader’s attention.
While brevity doesn’t necessarily improve readability, it may nonetheless improve your chances of getting your release published, depending on the space needs of the paper in question. Many papers have limitations on the number of pages they can print, and therefore anything they publish has to be short enough to fit into their format. Others try to fill as much space as possible, and thus will be happy to publish longer pieces. It helps to know the constraints of the media outlets you’re approaching. (The same restrictions – or lack of them – might apply to broadcast media.)
4. Attachments – a summary of the key points can help the reporter write an article, if the paper decides that would be more appropriate than a press release for the story you have to tell.
5. Several full quotes should also be included – try to make the quotes sound like they were spoken, not written. For example, “The critical finding of the report is that many banks…” is not as effective as “This report shows that our banks are ignoring the needs of…”
6. Avoid using jargon or acronyms (such as “Section 8 subsidies,” CDC, GAO) – this can be difficult: as you grow accustomed to them you may not even realize you’re using them. Instead, spell out the names of any organizations that normally go by acronyms, for example, “NAACP” is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. You can certainly refer to them by the acronym later on in the story, but the first reference should always be by name.
7. Use active verbs rather than passive verbs to keep the reader interested in your story – Active verbs are words that show that someone or something takes an action, such as, “State delegates from the National Organization of Women marched on Capitol Hill today demanding better health care for single mothers.” In this sentence, marched is an active verb showing movement. Passive verbs show that someone or something is being acted upon: “Capitol Hill was besieged by unicyclists on Saturday.”
8. If you have to include numbers or statistics in your article, spell out numbers and percentages less than ten. Numbers or percentages above ten can be written as numerals.
9. When you quote someone you interviewed for your release, put the attribution – the name of the person you’re quoting – at the end of the quote.
Example: Putting the name after the quote
“We’ve been especially pleased with the help and involvement of our parent-teacher organizations in collecting signatures for the petition,” Joyce Temple, director of Minneapolis Families against Violence, said.
10. Double-check your sources – the people who gave you information you used in the release — for accurate quotes, correct professional titles, and correctly spelled names.
11. Edit and re-edit your press release before you send it out to reporters.
12. Computers and people are imperfect, so it’s a good idea to follow up any distribution of a press release with a phone call to your contact to ensure your release hasn’t been lost or forgotten.
See the Examples area for a sample press release.
How do you get your press release out to the media?
The following are methods you may want to try to get your group covered by the media.
Extensive mailing lists are the key to good media coverage. You may be able to get a media guide from your local public relations association which will list all media and appropriate reporters in the area. Organizations you work with may also be able to provide you with contacts.
Here are some important tips for mailing lists:
- Read newspapers and follow the radio and television news to decide who the most logical contacts would be for your release. Also, call the media, explain who you are and what your group is about, to find out who should get your releases.
- Develop personal contacts with sympathetic reporters (e.g. a journalist who specializes in women’s movement news if your organization deals with women’s issues) They will appreciate being kept posted, and may get you coverage even if they personally cannot cover your release. (See Chapter 34, Media Advocacy, for more on establishing personal relationships with folks from the media.)
- Never send a release to more than one person at the same newspaper
The Associated Press and United Press International wire services both put out complete listings of upcoming events to all their television, radio and print media subscribers. You can telephone your release in without mailing a release, if necessary. You can do this as late as 12 hours before the event.
As with many things in life, timing is crucial when sending your press release. Three to five days in advance is usually the right amount of time to ensure the editors can put someone on your story. Mailing a release too early is just as bad as mailing it too late – it will be put aside and forgotten. At least if your story is last minute, you may be able to telephone it in. Deadlines do vary depending on the type of media, so be sure and check with them in advance.
Because people aren’t perfect, telephone everyone to whom you sent releases to increase your chances of getting covered. Call your personal contacts and reporters you have worked with in the past in advance so they have more time to be free to cover you. When you follow up with the reporter, be sure to include any last minute news that was not added in your release.
Information provided by
Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu
Aspen Reference Group. (1997). Community health education and promotion: A guide to program design and evaluation. (C. Schust, ed.) Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, Inc.
Breitrose, P. (1993) Writing and sending press releases. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University School of Medicine, Health Promotion Resource Center
Center for Community Change. (1996). How to tell and sell your story, Washington, D.C.
League of Women Voters of the United States. (?). Getting into print, Washington, D.C.
The Grantsmanship Center.(1979). Guide to public relations for nonprofit organizations and public agencies, Los Angeles, CA: Martinez, B.F.
Media Alliance Community Media Project. (1987). Media how to notebook. San Francisco, CA: Julia Rosenbaum.
Wallack, L. (1993). Media advocacy and public health. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications