Press releases: writing, pitching & optimising

The press release is a very useful way for small businesses to punch above their weight and requires just a little time investment to do it yourself.

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13th October 2009 at 8:41 am

If you’ve never written a press release before then there’s nothing to worry about, it’s fairly straightforward. The key ingredients to a successful press release are a good story, well-written copy and targeted, enthusiastic pitching.

Style Counsel

Aim to draft between 400-500 words. This is ample for a press release. Use short, to-the-point sentences, as journalists do not have much time on their hands and often receive hundreds of emails a day. Best practice here is to think how you’d sell your news in five seconds, because that’s about as much as you’ve got to catch the journalist’s attention.

The basic structure of your release should be as below:

Title: Bold, in one line explain what your news is and what difference it will make to your target audience

Standfirst: In italics under the headline, another line elaborating on the title

First Paragraph: Here, describe what you do, what your news is and why it’s relevant for your target audience in just two sentences. What’s the top line benefit for your customers?

Second Paragraph: Elaborate on the news. For example, if you’re launching a new product or service, what are the main features and/or benefits for your target audience? What’s in it for them?

Third Paragraph: Include a quote from someone senior here, preferably not a marketing title, though. Journalists don’t like citing marketing titles as a general rule.

Fourth Paragraph: Use this final paragraph to justify your business case with some recent industry statistics or news piece demonstrating why people should be interested in your news. Also use this paragraph to direct readers to other resources, such as online product demonstrations. Finish the release with the word ‘Ends’ below the final para

Boilerplate: Under the press release text you need to tell people who you are. How would you describe your company in one paragraph? What’s you website? Include media relations contact numbers and email addresses here.

Then, when you’re happy with the text, you’re all set to pitch to press!

Life’s a Pitch

Pitching to press is not easy, but editors – especially on regional papers – are usually more willing to hear from people who have set up their own business than PR people pitching on their behalf.

You can do some online research into the main target press in your field, or you can use an online service such as FeaturesExec or Gorkana to build your target lists, but be warned, these can be expensive.

There are newswire distribution services which will send your release to the target media that you want to hit. These need not be expensive, either. Most countries will have a service offering press release distribution but look at their credentials. In the UK, for example, established players include RealWire and ResponseSource.

At the end of the day, however, there is no substitute for the personal touch – calling the journalist to let him or her know what you’re announcing and then emailing them the press release with a short paragraph pitch to remind them of the call.

Once you’ve contacted your main targets you can use free newswires to help improve your search engine optimisation (SEO). Check out the likes of i-Newswire and PR Zoom. Also, research the news sites in your industry as some of them allow you to upload your press releases to their site, if they pass editorial control.

Social Media News Releases (SMNRs) are the most recent development in the continuing evolution of the press release. Whereas most press releases will be sent via email as pure text, SMNRs make the traditional release come alive, with links to more interactive content, such as videos, podcasts or articles and product demonstrations.

This can be done by simple building in links where appropriate, but there are sites that help you distribute your SMNRs, such as PitchEngine. These also enable you to plug the news over social news networks such as Digg and Reddit.

Top Tips

DO:

  • Think of what your audience wants to hear, not what you want to say about your product
  • Remember that if there’s a third party mentioned or quoted, they must give their permission for you to cite them and approve the text
  • Research UK-generated press releases online to see how other companies word press releases
  • Identify 10-15 key press contacts and pitch them by phone before emailing
  • Use plain English. No one likes marketing puff
  • Use keywords – see our SEO guides for more on this
  • Send individually addressed emails to your key targets. “Hi Dave”, goes a lot further than “Good morning” to a blind copied address list
  • Make sure you call the right journalist! If you supply garden furniture, don’t call the sports desk
  • Call your main targets between 9am and noon. 12-2pm is a write-off due to lunch and by the afternoon journalists will most likely be writing to deadline. You can use the afternoon to put your press release on a number of free wires
  • Build a news page on your website and aim to get one release out each month

DON’T

  • Leave voicemails when calling journalists – they rarely check
  • Use hyperbole. If you’re not the leader in your field, then don’t say you are
  • Don’t capitalise your headlines, they’re hard to read and makes it LOOK LIKE YOU’RE SHOUTING!
  • Send an email to a journalist and follow up with a call asking whether they received it or not, they most likely read it and if they want to get back they will
  • Send the release out again a few days if you’re not happy with initial uptake. Journalists are not fools (believe it or not!) and it could damage your attempts to build relationships
  • Include large attachments. Although bandwidth is wider now, click-through links are far more preferable. If the journalist wants anything else they’ll be in touch
  • Don’t ask the journalist if coverage will appear – you should look for that yourself. If a journalist updated everyone they wrote about when and where their news would appear they’d have no time to write!
  • Use exclamation marks in press releases

Writing press releases is something I podcasted on recently. You can listen to that along with other best practice marketing podcasts at my website.

Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a freelance public relations and digital media consultant. Having spent a decade straddling both sides of the technology media fence – within independent tech PR agencies and also as a journalist for IT Week, Computing and latterly New Media Knowledge. Chris is also the founder and editor of Run Marketing, a DIY marketing site dedicated to small businesses. http://www.runmarketing.co.uk

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