In defence of the press release

Posted by Kate Betts on 12th July 2018

People have been saying for years that the press release is dead; it is so last century. And any PR professional still issuing press releases is living in the past. It’s all online and on your phone now.

My response to that is – when journalists stop using the press releases we send we will stop sending them. Journalists copy and paste our press releases straight in to the paper or on to their website word for word. Broadcast journalists often phone us up and ask to interview the client.

I appreciate press releases don’t work with all the media. I know there are different ways of approaching different journalists and different media outlets - and the press release is not the only way – or in some cases even the right way. But it still seems an effective way of reaching the regional media, business press and trade press.

But the press release has to be written in a way that works. It has to grab the attention of the journalist, it has to shout loudly ‘pick me’ above all the others.

Newsdesks up and down the country receive hundreds, even thousands, of press releases a day. So what makes one stand out when others get binned?

First of all – it has to be something of interest to their readers/ listeners / viewers. Think about what journalists want and what they care about. They don’t care about you or your client’s business, product or service; they’re looking for a story. The first thing to think about with a press release is that the audience is the journalist, not your target market; you are using the journalist to get to that market. And the journalist just wants a story.

I spent 20 years working as a journalist and five years teaching journalism at a university, before going in to PR. The text books and academics will tell you all sorts of theories about what makes a story. The old fashioned hack in me will just say it is something that passes the ‘so what’ test. If you told a neighbour, would they say ‘so what’ – or would they want to know more? If your story/ press release passes the ‘so what’ test then you are halfway there.

Do remember though that the threshold for ‘so what’ depends on the audience. So ‘Widgets Weekly’ will love your story about the new design of the Eco Widget; 5Live or the Tewkesbury Advertiser might say ‘so what’? (If it creates new jobs you could pass the ‘so what’ test though.)

So once you have a story you need to present it in a way that attracts attention. That means the headline and first paragraph have got to make the journalist want to read on. There is a theory taught in journalism schools called the ‘inverted news pyramid’. I prefer to call it the ‘news iceberg’. No-one sees more than the tip of your story (the headline and first sentence) and they won’t read all that clever prose below the waterline which actually tells them the interesting bit. So don’t ‘build’ the story; instead get straight to the point. Once you have the journalist hooked, then you can tell them the whole story – the what/ where/ who / how/ why and when of the story.

Be careful of over-egging with marketing speak. Remember you are selling the story to a journalist, not your product/ service to potential customers. So strike out those superlatives, those over-the-top adjectives and those clichéd phrases. The very fact that the business/ health / fashion journalist is writing about you will sell to customers.

Please add quotes too. But please make people sound like people and not like some sort of bureaucratic automaton, with phrases like ‘multi-agency partnership working in a lateral field of nonsense’ sort of way. 

If you write a press release like a journalist would write a story there is a lot more chance it will get used. And press releases do still get used – even in these days of all sorts of clever channels for communication. After all a press release is just another communication tool, alongside all the other tools in the PR toolbox.

This article was first published on the CIPR's Influence website 

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