How to write a news release that won't get deleted

Is the news release the rotary phone of the modern PR industry?

Is the news release the rotary phone of the modern PR industry?

Ah, the news release... 

The rotary phone of the modern PR industry. Still able to perform its intended function but, for all intents and purposes, a relic from another era. 

Is the news release really dead? Perhaps not. But it sure is looking a little long in the tooth.

There was a time when the news release was the only game in town. The pointy end of the PR stick. That shiny, linguistic lure, crafted with the best of intentions and cast into a sea of journalists. And...every now and then, it actually worked.

But, alas, as video did unto the radio star, so has social media unto the trusty old news release.  

Yet we continue to crank them out. Thousands of them every day. Don't believe me? Check out the big wire services' websites and scroll to your heart's content. The fact remains, however, that the vast majority of these news releases are dismissed unceremoniously by the very reporters they were intended to entice, the 'delete' key being stabbed with disdain (or worse, indifference) mere milliseconds after their eyes scan those first few words.  

It doesn't help that many of these news releases just plain suck. Headlines that are too vague, too long, confusing or just boring. Paragraphs filled with acronyms, jargon and empty, meaningless phrases like 'best of breed, leading provider' and 'innovative, solutions-based manufacturer'. And spokesperson quotes that sound as if they were pulled from the nether regions of a thesaurus.

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That doesn't mean there aren't some gems out there. Indeed, there are still some great news releases being written. But much like panning for gold, the ratio of mud to glittery stuff can be pretty disheartening.

Why should this matter to people who make their livings in media relations? Well, for a few reasons. First, it's eroding the value of the news release as a communications tool. The more of them that are of low quality, the less value journalists will attribute to them (and the less likely they might be to read them in the future). Second, it's a waste of money - yours or your client's. And third, it's a wasted opportunity. You might have had a really interesting story to tell. The problem was that the journalist couldn't get past the boring, long, vague, jargon-filled release and the news cycle passed you by.

If you've concluded that I hate news releases, that's not true. I've written hundreds of them over the years. I'm sure that more than a few of them fell into the 'delete-able' category. But over the past two decades, through trial and error and the advice of some great mentors, I've learned some valuable lessons about what works and what doesn't. A few weeks ago, I was asked by a banking client to draft a news release responding to a proposed rule change in the Canadian federal budget. I was thrilled when the quotes I had written for the CEO were picked up by three national newspapers a few hours later. For a client trying to establish leadership on the issue, it was a win. And to me, it was a reminder about some of the tips that can help separate a useful news release from one that gets deleted:

  • Make sure you have some actual news - This is kind of important. One trait that many deleted news releases share is that they shouldn't have been written in the first place. Some manager asks for a news release because that's the first tactic that comes to their mind. But as communicators, we have a role to play in determining if what they're looking to announce is actually newsworthy. Does it have one of the three drivers of news at its core (change, controversy or human interest)? If not, you're not doing anyone a favour by writing a news release based on non-news. Go back to that manager and ask what their objective is. You might be surprised by their response. Maybe there's another tactic that will help accomplish their objective (like a Facebook post or an internal newsletter story). If they persist in the request for a news release, gently pressure them about finding the actual news in the announcement and the benefit for your customers. 

  • Stay away from buzzwords and jargon - People dislike acronyms. They're alienating. They're the 'inside joke' of the communications world. Anything that makes the reporter have to do more work or which threatens to slow them down in understanding your news is a bad thing. Spell it out in full - at least on the first reference. And be on the lookout for industry jargon and empty corporate-speak. Here's a great article from 2009 on the top 10 words that should be banned from news releases
  • Keep it brief - As theologian Blaise Pascal once said, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." There are a number of compelling reasons to make your news release as short as possible. First, attention spans are shorter than ever. And most wire services charge by the word. There's no magic formula for length, but try to tell the story as quickly as possible.

  • Write a killer headline - Remember that famous scene from Jerry Maguire? "You had me at hello"? That's what you're trying to do with your headline. Headline writing is an art form. Even most reporters aren't great at writing headlines. That's why the editors write them. A great headline is short. It captures the reader's attention. And it accurately describes the news being communicated. And it does all this in about 10 words or less. Don't leave your headline as an afterthought. Expect to spend 10-15 minutes on this aspect alone. Need some inspiration? Check out The Economist. Their headlines are always great.

  • Make your executive quotes count - If a reporter is going to copy and paste any part of your release, it's going to be the quotes from the company spokesperson. There are a few ways to help increase the value of your executive quotes. Read them out loud rather than in your head. They need to sound like things a leader might actually say. Avoid overly corporate language and buzzwords or jargon. Focus on the benefit. How is this making lives better? Products more useful? The world a better place? And keep them brief. Two to four lines is okay. Ten lines is too long. Avoid exclamation points. Have an opinion or a point of view. And, oh yeah, make sure to get it approved. 
  • Focus on the motive - This kind of overlaps with a few other points but it's important enough to repeat. Your top priority should be talking about how this news matters to your target audience. In other words, what's the motive or reason for the announcement? Frame the release around the problem or issue that you're resolving or addressing. Talk specifically about how your product, service, etc. is helping to solve the problem. 

  • Include contact information for someone who's actually available - After you've put all this work into creating your news release, don't lose the race in the home stretch. Be sure to include contact information for someone (usually a PR or media relations function) who is available to field calls and line up interviews. If you miss the call or are late to respond, you may get passed over.

  • Speed matters - General George S. Patton once said, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week." This applies to news releases too. Except for the 'violently' part, of course. If you're responding to an issue, development or trend, you want to get your well-written news release out there before your competitors. Getting it written, approved and distributed quickly can be difficult but it can pay huge dividends.
  • Don't always follow up by phone - Imagine that every time you got an email, the same person called you 10 seconds later to make sure you got their email. Sound like fun? Well, that's what most reporters deal with all day. Trust me. They got your release. If it's interesting to them, they will call you. And if it was based on real news, was well-written, had some great quotes and a decent headline, you should have a fighting chance of avoiding that 'delete' key and getting some coverage for your story.

Hopefully you'll find some of these ideas helpful when crafting your next news release. If you have a tip, suggestion or pet peeve related to news releases, please leave a comment below.