Keeping Your Press Release Out of the Electronic Waste Basket

"If you find yourself thinking 'So what?' as you read the release, you can be certain the typical editor will feel the same way."

By David P. Kowal, APR

My favorite “Shoe” cartoon shows an editor reading a press release marked “For Immediate Release.” As instructed, the editor releases it immediately – right over the wastebasket.

The same fate befalls most press releases. Many media receive thousands of releases a month and can use only a handful. No one can ever guarantee that media will publish or broadcast the information in your press release, but much can be done to increase the chances that it will end up being used.

1. If it’s not news, don’t write it. You may think it’s incredibly exciting that your business is celebrating its fifth anniversary, or that you’ve added a new feature to your Web site. But does anyone else really care?

Always use the “So what?” test on a potential news release. Read your release while pretending you’re an editor who knows nothing about your company. If you find yourself thinking “So what?” as you read the release, you can be certain the typical editor will feel the same way. Not every press release has to contain news that will change the world, but if you send out a constant barrage of mind-numbing press releases, recognize that, over time, editors will become anaesthetized. They will begin to toss your releases whenever they see your logo; when you finally have legitimate news to report, it will go uncovered.

Exceptions to this rule are anything to do with celebrities, pets or titillating trials. For some reason, media can’t get enough of these stories.

2. Be timely. In many companies, obtaining approval for a press release can be like licensing a new drug. The release gets passed from one manager to another, and, at each step, it is ignored for a week or two. By the time the release goes out, it fails the “So what?” test.

3. Send it to the right media. Every company should have a working media list that is customized to suit each release. Since names and e-mail addresses change frequently, the list should be updated at least every six months. Make certain your release is appropriate for the media who will receive it. Trade media may, for example, be willing to publish industry related news that would not be of interest to your local newspaper.

4. Make the headline count. The headline, like a billboard, should be brief and to the point. It should summarize the topic of the press release, while enticing the editor to read the release. If the headline is confusing, no one will even bother reading the release.

5. Keep the lead short. Typically, the lead paragraph should be 25 words or less. Include the “five w’s” – who, what, when, where and why – and the “how” of your story.

6. Follow pyramid style. The paragraphs immediately following the lead should expand on the information in the lead. Give the most important information first and end with a summary paragraph describing your company.

7. Include lively quotes. Exorcise words like “quality,” “empower” and “paradigm” from your quotes. Instead, use analogies, statistics and other interesting information. One of our clients, for example, developed technology for a process that was described as being as difficult as “turning sausage back into a pig.”

8. Be comprehensive, but not too comprehensive. Most media will use only the information in your press release, so make it comprehensive. Ideally, though, you would like reporters to call for further information, so don’t make the press release all encompassing. If it’s too comprehensive, it will also be too long. Few releases are worth more than 500 words.

9. Follow up. Even if the above rules are followed, your press release is likely to become lost in the newsroom. Unless you’re sending out a personnel announcement or calendar item, it’s probably worth making follow up calls to key editors to make certain they have the release and are planning to use it. Make a pitch for coverage, but don’t be nasty or threatening. The editor doesn’t owe you anything. Do not, for example, threaten to pull your advertising unless your story is covered.

10. Don’t rely solely on publicity. Even if the above steps are taken, there is, of course, no guarantee that the media will run your story. Publicity can play an important role, but remember that it is just one tactic in the marketing process and should be part of a complete marketing strategy.

David P. Kowal, APR is President of Kowal Communications, Inc. of Northboro, Mass. He can be reached at kowal@kowal.com.