Why Your Press Releases Don’t Work (And How to Fix Them)

Everyone knows press releases are a stone tool, right? Well, yes and no. The way most organizations treat them does indeed make them blunt objects. But releases can still have tremendous value, if you can adjust how you think about them and change how you write them.

Here’s how it works now: the organization has stuff it wants to say and some staffer is asked to type it up. He or she does so, trying to squeeze in every point they were given and trying not to write something that will get them into trouble. This gets handed to one or more managers. They too are trying not to get into trouble, and so they start to anticipate what the executives will want to see. The release gets tweaked, again and again up the chain.

The result is often a wooden document written by committee, with almost no chance of influencing anything or anyone.

Throughout that process, nobody stopped to consider a crucial question: how will the release be used by the reporter, blogger or aggregator who receives it? The answer is different for each. And perhaps your release should be, too. Write releases with your media list in mind and you’ll have more success.

Releases for News Organizations

Let’s start with mainstream outlets. The truth is that releases rarely germinate news stories at places like The New York Times. Reporters and editors have a natural skepticism about having the news fed to them via release, because it feels lazy. They have also read a lot of bad releases.

What reporters will do with a release is use it to augment a story they are already working on, whether that story is still in the reporter’s head, being reported this week or being written today. Pulling from 20 years of journalism experience and thousands of releases, here’s what most reporters want:

  • Relevance. If it does not relate to something being written soon, the release will get ignored.
  • Good Quotes. This is one thing that every release can provide, yet few of them do.
  • New Facts. Releases can provide quick bits of new information that a reporter can pull into a story. These are statistics, polling data and the like. Just make sure that all of the information is there and can be used without the need for a phone call. For example, polling data that doesn’t include a margin of error requires the reporter to make a call, and they are less likely to use it.
  • A Factual Archive. Releases are a great source for looking up dates, the spelling of people’s names, their titles and similar information that reporters need all the time. If you are consistent with your release strategy, you are building that archive.

Generally speaking, local news outfits function on the same principles as the bigs. But there’s one important addition: if you are targeting local media, make sure you have a concrete local angle. If you are writing a general-interest release, this may take some research. But it can mean the difference between generating a story and getting ignored. Find a local angle and put it in the lead.

Releases for Bloggers and Independent Media

While mainstream news reporters may be skeptical of releases, many others are not. The world is now hungry for content. Many bloggers out there do not have a journalism background. Indeed, many are not practicing journalism at all. They are doing something else—and that’s often no less valuable.

If you are writing releases for the National Association of Hand Drills, a well-read tool blogger may be more valuable to you than The Washington Post. If you are releasing to an audience that is heavy with independent media, it makes sense to write releases that are designed to meet their needs.

Generally speaking, independents are more likely to write a story based on a news release and less likely to do interviews. That means they are more likely to use the information contained in a release, and you should give them more of this information. In short, you have some license. Here’s what to include:

  • A Fuller Picture. Releases for bloggers can and should tell a fuller story, with as much supporting information as needed to write a complete piece. You can offer an interview opportunity, but the writer should be able to craft a post based on your release with no interview required.
  • Solid Numbers. Give them relevant statistics with all the supporting information to make the numbers usable. This can include some background data, such as industry stats, if they are relevant.
  • Multiple Quotes. You can and should include multiple quotes that illuminate different pieces of your story. Make them good quotes, not the usual press release drek, and they are far more likely to get used.
  • Meaningful Links. Relevant links are vital, but don’t overdo it.
  • Compelling Images. Put some thought into this. Most sites need imagery and it is often a hassle to obtain it. You can eliminate that hassle by providing images they can grab. Consider horizontal and vertical; phones, tablets and laptops; and social media needs. Make them great images and you’ve added a selling point to your story. Everyone likes great visuals.

Releases for Aggregators

There are many types of aggregators, but for our purposes here we are are talking about those who produce newsletters and briefings. While many newsletter editors include only site content, many others include unique information. There are hundreds of them and their needs are different.

Aggregators are trying to produce timely and informative dispatches. They often have extremely tight deadlines in the very early morning. You can help them do their job, and increase the chances that your news release will get picked up. Here are some ideas:

  • Write for Publication. Aggregators need to grab and go. Write your release so the first paragraph can be cut, pasted, tweaked and published. Include the entire story in that paragraph. Practice the same approach throughout, so that the first three grafs can be pulled into a longer item.
  • Keep it Tight. Newsletters don’t have a lot of space. Usually, you’ll get a sentence or two. Write accordingly.
  • Use Good Quotes. A strong, interesting, funny or illuminating quote from a really good source can make an item by itself. It can also make a small item longer.
  • Make it Sexy. Newsletter editors don’t have time, so punch the news or information that you have. If it’s dry, it dies.

Consider Your List, First

Too many otherwise smart organizations are still thinking about releases they way they did in the print era. They still, “put out a release.” A smarter strategy is to think about “putting out reseases.” Plural.

Generating multiple press releases that target different audiences on your media list is a far more sophisticated approach. You might write one for mainstream outlets, one for independent media and one for newsletters. If you are targeting local media, perhaps you write one for each media market with the local angle adjusted accordingly.

Sure, it’s easier to do one release. It’s also lazy, when you consider the opportunities brought about by expanding that release for multiple uses. It is, after all, the same information. You are simply packaging it differently for different media outlets.

Audience needs are at the core of all good content. Releases are no different.

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