Back in the day, as an eager trainee reporter before I began a career in PR, the newspaper where I worked would receive press releases from various PR companies that attempted to position their clients as newsworthy.
Some we rewrote, many were irrelevant, others we just laughed at then spiked. A few live long in the memory – a slogan about how ‘black was the new white for teeth’ is particularly enduring for all the wrong reasons.
Newsdesk would hand them out with scathing remarks and instructions to find the real story, often hidden towards the bottom of a gushing missive extolling the virtues of anything from housing developments to socks.
The press release was just the starting point – if it did contain something of interest, it was our job to dig it out and expand on it, oblivious to the fact that some poor account manager had spent hours painstakingly crafting, editing, checking then circulating the thing.
But that’s just how it was back in the 1990s. Sadly, the continuing decline of printed newspapers has seen staff numbers reduced, entire departments decimated and news teams cut to the bone. And just as the newspaper industry has evolved, so too has public relations.
We’re no longer the peddlars of fluffy, inconsequential stories with a naff slogan and a cringey picture – at least we’re not here at Faith, anyway. As anyone who has made the transition to a career in PR will know, a well-written press release is a godsend, particularly if it comes with a strong image (staff photographers are also something of a rarity).
A background in news means you know what an editor wants and what will capture the attention of a stressed, overworked newsdesk.
Much of this will be communicated in the covering email. The subject line is your friend – don’t just copy and paste the headline of your release, really use it to sell the idea. Make it relevant to that publication and as hard-hitting as you can.
Every story – and consequently every press release – needs a strong angle. Don’t leave the reader wondering what the point of it is, make it clear and reinforce this in the headline.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t live up to the dizzy heights of ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’, writing killer headlines is hugely underestimated skill that requires years of practice and a family-sized helping of cheese. It doesn’t have to be pun-tastic, just make it relevant, sum up the point of the press release and keep it short and snappy – both editors and readers will switch off if your headline is pedestrian and doesn’t make them want to find out more.
A good press release should be structured in much the same way as a news story and give the reader the same essential information. What is happening? When? How? Where? Who is involved?
Step away from the flowery adjectives – fantastic, amazing and incredible should only be used when something genuinely is; unique is unusual while miraculous, in all probability, really isn’t. Peppering a press release with over-the-top descriptions will make you come across as unauthentic and will irritate the life out of whoever picks it up.
Do, however, use some strong quotes to back up what you’re saying and provide clear examples where you can.
The beauty of a news background is that you’ve been in the same position as the journalist reading your press release, so you have a good understanding of what they want to know and why when you move to a career in PR. And don’t forget that ‘journo time’ is not the same as it is elsewhere; deadlines are deadlines and when one is looming, you may be needed to answer questions fast and accurately.