How To

Press Releases 101

One of the core tenets of public relations has always been the press release. Initially, PR teams used the release to share company news, promote events, and announce change. That’s still the case, but like other key elements of any industry, its purpose has evolved.

“Gone are the days when press releases were just for the media,” says Meredith Cochie, a former journalist who has taught Journalism and Public Relations at a number of universities in Florida. “Today, organizations are doing so much more to announce company news.”

Cochie, currently a course director in Full Sail University’s Public Relations master’s degree program, also spent time working with the University of Florida’s Food and Agricultural Sciences department promoting their research on global scale. As someone who used to receive dozens of press releases on a daily basis, she’s an expert on knowing exactly what the media wants to see from a PR professional.

With the digital revolution of the past two decades, information has shifted from the paper to the screen, changing the way public relations professionals release information. Press releases aren’t just for the press anymore; they’re for everyone. To catch the eye of the multitasking media and the media-saturated reader, a press release must stand out. Below, Cochie offers a few tips for writing a press release with staying power.

Tell a shareable story.

With an increased audience (journalists, bloggers, consumers), a press release cannot just be an information-dump. “Storytelling grabs attention and gains power,” says Cochie. “If you just release information, you’re leaving it up to everyone else to tell the story. If you can shape a release into a compelling story and softly integrate your call-to-action in there, you’re going to be much more successful in spreading information than if you just simply released the facts.” Employ literary techniques to start with a lead that draws the reader in – such as a real-life example or personal story – and then share the necessary information.

Go beyond words.

“Multimedia has completely changed the game,” says Cochie, who teaches the Writing for Interactive Media course in Full Sail’s Public Relations and New Media Journalism programs. “There’s a lot more you can do now with content and I think companies are playing into the hand of their audience by giving them more shareable content and more ways to interact and get involved.”

Consider including photos or a YouTube video when sending out a release, which gives the recipient more options for sharing content. “If I’m an editor and I get a complete package of content, I’m thinking, ‘Wow. This is a story, it has a narrative and a hook, and there’s a great video included. I can just plug this in,’” says Cochie.

That said, don’t overwhelm the reader with content. Ideally, a press release should be around 300-500 words, and if multimedia is included, keep the video to less then two-and-a-half minutes and limit photos to three-to-five really great images.

Give the reader a reason to connect.

The purpose of a press release remains the same: by releasing this information, PR professionals want the reader to connect with their brand. There should always be a pretty clear call-to-action, but it shouldn’t be hammered over the reader’s head. “At the end of the day, you’re hoping to move that audience enough to do something,” says Cochie. “Whether it’s as simple as just appreciating what you’re releasing or if it’s getting up and doing something, press releases should create movement, change, and awareness.”

Thinking again about the importance of storytelling, personal examples always perform well. For example, when promoting a fundraiser for a charity, lead with a story about the breast-cancer survivor who will be fundraising with her six daughters, and then share information about the actual fundraiser. “Basically, it’s: here’s why you should care, and here’s what you can do about it,” says Cochie.

Write the headline last.

It’s a practice that’s best employed in many types of writing: Why write the headline before knowing what the story is actually about? “Use the headline as a tool to pull your reader in,” says Cochie. “It should be informative and direct, but catchy and interesting. The goal of the headline is to get a reader to look at the first sentence. And the goal of the first sentence is to get the reader to look at the second sentence, and so on.”

“Press release” the press release.

Cochie, a former journalist, remembers heading over to the newsroom’s fax machine to gather the day’s press releases. Today, some journalists and bloggers have probably never even seen a fax machine. Press releases are typically distributed via e-email, but don’t just paste the release in the body and click send. Take the time to send a personal note – build a real relationship – and let the recipient know what they can expect in the release below.

“It’s almost like you’re press releasing the press release,” says Cochie. “I tell my students, ‘It’s your job to make it easy for these people to want to talk to you and publish your stuff. And you don’t do that by dumping a release in their inbox and expecting them to cover it.”

Full Sail University’s Public Relations Master’s program teaches the skills necessary for public relations professionals to thrive in the digital age, building a solid foundation in traditional PR methods, but also becoming adept at leveraging the new media and online tools key to success in the modern world. To learn more, click here.

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