In baseball, it’s said that you know an umpire is top-notch when you never notice his presence. If he’s doing his job, he won’t call attention to himself in any way. It’s much the same for the writer of a press release. When the recipient of a release focuses only on its content -- and not on its creation -- the writer has succeeded. With that in mind, here's The 10 Commandments of Press Releases:
1. Thou Shalt Be Professional. No goofy fonts, rainbow paper or silly gimmicks. Even lighthearted press releases represent a communication between one professional and another.
2. Thou Shalt Not Be Promotional. If you can’t get enough objective distance from your company to write a press release that’s not filled with hype and puffery, hire someone to write it for you.
3. Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. Even the driest subject matter allows for some sparks of creativity. Journalists like knowing that there’s a human being communicating with them, not some corporate robot.
4. Thou Shalt Be Brief. Learn to cut out extraneous words. Keep your sentences short. Include only the points necessary to sell the story. The well-crafted one page press release is a thing of beauty.
5. Thou Shalt Know Thy Recipient. A features or lifestyle editor is a very different creature from a city desk editor. If you’re promoting the opening of a new winery, the food and wine editor may be interested in all the details about what kind of aging process and wine press you’re using. The city desk editor just wants to know when the grand opening is and what’s going to happen there.
6. Thou Shalt Use The Proper Tense. When writing a hard news release -- a contract signing, a stock split, a major announcement, etc.) use the past tense (Acme Industries has changed its name to AcmeCo, the company announced today...) When writing a soft news release -- a trend story, a personal profile, etc. -- use the present tense (Jane Smith is one of the best marathon runners over 40. She’s also blind. Thanks to new technology from AcmeCo, Jane is able to...).
7. Thou Shalt Think Visually. A press release is more than words -- it’s a visual document that will first be assessed by how it looks.
I’m referring to more than font size or letterhead. I’m talking about the actual layout of the words. Whether received by mail, fax or e-mail, a journalist -- often unconsciously -- will make decisions about whether to read the release based on how the release is laid out. Big blocks of text and long paragraphs are daunting and uninviting. Short paragraphs and sentences make for a much more visually inviting look.
When writing a non-hard news release, I often use a simple formula -- the lead paragraph should be one or two sentences at most. The next paragraph should be very, very short.
8. Thou Shalt Tell A Story. How to arrange the facts of a hard news release is pretty much cut and dried. The old "who, what, when, where and how" lead and "inverted pyramid" concepts still hold. (Rather than engage you in a course in basic newswriting, I’ll direct you to a really good discussion of what the inverted pyramid is.
So let’s focus on a soft news release. The trend story, the feel- good company story, the "gee-whiz, I didn’t know anyone was doing that!" release. The difference between these releases and the hard news release is simply a mirror of the difference between a feature story in, say, the entertainment section of your newspaper and the breaking news report on page one. The hard news story is about cold, hard facts (A mudslide closed portions of Interstate 70 last night, causing massive delays). A feature article about the guy who spends all day looking at seismograph readouts trying to predict where the next mudslide will occur will be very different. It’s likely to be in present tense, it won’t load all the facts upfront and it will be designed to draw the reader deep into the text. It is, in short, all about storytelling.