Struggling with press releases?


While the world has gone digital crazy, there's still some mileage left in pitching press stories to the traditional newspapers. This is useful for local papers and specialist trade media.

 So how do you do it?

While it sometimes looks like newspapers take any old rubbish, there’s usually some kind of strategy in place about the kind of stories that make the cut, and those that end up in the bin. So before you spend time crafting a press release, here’s what you need to think about.

1. What’s new?

Is your story about a new product, new service, a new flavour/colour/variation on your existing range? If the answer is no, then a press release is not your best option to get coverage (more on that next time).

2. Man bites dog?

Is there anything unusual, strange or unexpected about your news story? Novelty value plays well with journalists. Commonplace and ‘same old, same old’ won’t make the cut.

3. Why should anyone care?

Hint - no-one is interested in your new office or your new website. I know this sounds harsh, but just because something is important to you doesn't mean it's important to anyone else. A journalist once told me that getting stories about new website launches was as exciting as someone announcing that they’ve had a new phone extension put in. You need broad appeal. It's not a story just because you spent money on it.

4. Would this story be better with an ad?

Everyone wants editorial coverage, and no-one wants to pay for ads. Every editorial page needs to be balanced with some ads or the paper will fold. Publishers are savvy about press releases that are just blatant sales pitches. So if you want to publicise your ‘Summer Sale’, a press release about it probably won’t be covered. So think carefully - your story has to have genuine editorial merit to get in.

5. Make sure you read the publications you want to be in

Get a feel for the kind of stories they like, and analyse the stories that get the most prominent attention. Then see how your story would stack up. Also, journalists aren’t idiots, they can tell a mile off if the person sending the release has ever seen their publication or not. One day I'll tell you the very silly story about the PR executive who confused 'Big Farm Weekly' and 'Pig Farm Weekly' with disastrous results (no, it wasn't me).

6. One size doesn’t fit all

That old chestnut again. But it’s true. One press release sent to a massive list of journalists is ‘spray and pray’ PR and you’ll totally be wasting your time. You need different versions of your story to suit different types of media. For example, I’ve been working for a brand new food technology centre that helps small food producers get advice on food labelling, nutritional analysis, etc. When the centre officially opened, I wrote 3 versions of the story.

  • Version 1 - local media. The angle was how the new facility helps local businesses in the food industry.

  • Version 2 - business press. The angle was about the high number of independent artisan food producers in the North of England who are gaining momentum, and how they need specialist help to upscale their production. My client is able to support small food producers grow their businesses, etc.

  • Version 3 - specialist food media.The angle was the specialist testing facilities available to small companies that were previously only available to large multinational brands.

It sounds like a pain, but the difference it makes to the number of hits you get if you take the trouble to do this far outweighs the inconvenience.

7. You're not a headline writer for the Daily Mirror

The job of the press release is to stimulate interest in a journalist to want to write a story. It’s NOT your job to write fancy or cryptic headlines. This is an error I see all the time. People say to me: “If I write something clever or obscure, the journalist will be curious and want to know more…” NO THEY WON’T, they’ll just press delete and will move onto the next story in their inbox where it's clear what the story is about. The average journalist gets hundreds of press release sent to them every day. They want clarity, not confusion. Stick to facts. Be clear (and for **** sake stay clear of puns - you're not on the sports desk of the Sun).

8. Who, what, why, where, when and how

Most journalists are taught to write news stories based on this. So write your press releases this way. It’s easy, just make sure your story covers:
    •    Who is the story is about?
    •    What is the story is about?
    •    Why is this story is being told?
    •    Where is this story is happening?
    •    How is the story happening?

Get to the point, don’t waffle, and ensure your 5Ws&H are included in the first couple of paragraphs. This means that you DON’T start your press release with the history of the company - put that in at the end.

9.  The ideal length is around 400 words

Don’t panic about this - if it’s less and you’ve covered the key points that is fine. If it needs to be a bit longer, that’s ok too. But if you need a guide, try to keep it less than 400 words.

10. Use sub-headings and bullets to make it easier to read

Anything that makes things clear is a good idea, particularly if you need to communicate facts and figures or complex information. Big blocks of text give people indigestion.

11. Avoid ‘naturally delighted’ quotes

If you want to include a quote from someone in the business (or indeed from yourself), make it meaningful. Avoid what I call the ‘naturally delighted’ quotes: E.g., “We’re naturally delighted to be launching this blah blah blah.” It tells you nothing and is frankly a waste ink on the paper. Instead, try something meaningful like: “We developed this product following feedback from our customers…”. A good way to remember this is to make your quotes answer the "why' element of your story.

11. Sending your release out

Write an email and include a short outline of your story and where you think it might fit in the publication (you will know this because you'll have done your homework and will have read the publication you're pitching to, won’t you? - yes indeed Mrs H, Brownie's honour! Good, then you may proceed). Paste your press release underneath, most journalists can't be bothered to open attachments. Photos are a good idea but don’t send jumbo file sizes. They can clog up inboxes and sometimes won’t get through firewalls. I send a low res thumbnail with the email and give a link to where the high res pictures can be downloaded. I normally have the high res pictures either on a web page (that’s not visible from the navigation) or directly from my Dropbox.

12. Getting lists

This is the question I get asked the most - ‘Where do I get media lists from?” I’d love to be able to tell you that there’s some fabulous totally free listings of every publication and news outlet in the country, but there isn’t (that I know of anyway). So you have two choices.

  • Get Googling and create a list of the publications you want to target. It's a manual process and it will be very time consuming because every publication presents its contact details in different ways.

  • Buy a quality list. The cheapest I can find (that gives top quality data) is PRMAX which is around £300 for a 30-day subscription - and you can create as many lists as you want. This system and others like it, are what large professional PR agencies use. The data is usually of a very high and accurate standard and is updated every day. If you’ve got some friends who run small businesses, you could chum up and share the cost of this. There’s no limit to how many lists you can make, and you can download them as CSV files.

I do need to say, that the better the quality of your data, the better your targeting. Which, of course, means better coverage. You either get what you pay for or what you are prepared to graft for.

That’s it really - what are you waiting for? Get cracking!

Next time I’ll give you a run down of the other ways you can get editorial coverage that doesn’t rely on press releases.

jackie harris